December 16, 2006
The Canberra Times

The hijacking of mateship, last refuge of blokey scoundrels

It’s ironic isn’t it? The two men traipsing around our sunburnt country this week, patting firefighters on the back and extolling the virtues of Australian mateship, are perhaps the least likely of all men to enjoy the company of real ”mates”.

In fact, is it possible that Kevin Rudd and John Howard have any Aussie mates – of the old mould? The kind of mates that meet for a beer, spend hours reliving sporting glories in an amber-sodden haze, before happily rolling home drunk. Do they help out their mates in a blue? Do they stand in and take the punch, or block the swing? Do they hug them in the trenches and prepare to die for them? Isn’t that what Aussie mates do?

Just as the romanticised mythology surrounding ”mateship” sounds like something out of a ”boys’ own annual”, the beloved central character, the ”mate” has evolved to take on mythical proportions. He can be tough, formidable, a rascal, a scoundrel and a sportsman all in one. He can be a dilettante and a dunce, a philanderer and a national hero. He can be Shane Warne. Or he can be a boy from the ‘burbs made good, who’s never far from the vernacular of his roots. He can be Eddie McGuire, or Mark Latham. Or he can be big, loud and obnoxious like Rex Hunt, or Dicko, or Iron Bar Tuckey, or little, loud and obnoxious like Alan Jones. They’re all mates aren’t they? Or he can be the Canberra cabbie who yelled at me yesterday about ”friggin’ feminists”. No doubt he’s someone’s mate too. That’s the problem with the concept of the Aussie ”mate” – it’s too forgiving.

I suspect both the Prime Minister and the bookish Opposition Leader are neither casual nor forgiving in their relationships. Men like them don’t have mates. Rather, they have friends, colleagues, acquaintances and allies. If you’re John you have George, or if you’re Alex you have Condi.

Sure, Howard once referred to Saddam Hussein as a mate, with the televised message ”mate, the game is up”. But there were no free shouts at the bar (except perhaps those provided by AWB) and no sports stories swapped.

Yet, despite his apparent personal lack of them, Howard nevertheless seems a little star-struck by the idea of Aussie mates, and that nebulous thing mates enjoy – mateship. He’s long drawn on the concept as a rallying cry for Australians. Back when he fought to have it included in the preamble to Australia’s constitution, Howard insisted mateship was ”unarguable, distinctively and dramatically and proudly Australian”. This week he plumped it up as a concept that is ”peculiarly” Australian. Put simply, he said, it means ”everyone pulling together”.

Under Howard’s watch, mateship has been shamelessly marketed as all that is good about the human spirit, as if Australia has a monopoly on true friendship, commitment and loyalty. If you believe the hype, you could be forgiven for thinking Australians are the only ones who will stand by a friend in need, dive into a danger zone to help out, put their personal safety second, or give a stranger a helping hand and the offer of comfort.

Of course Australians don’t have a monopoly on care and compassion, just as we don’t hold the exclusive rights to empathy and trust. But it seems the Government wants us to believe we do.

Now, to underscore our national point of difference, and claim mateship as our own, Howard is intent on testing would-be- Australians on the concept. How? We don’t know yet. And it would seem neither does he. But how curious and odd this must seem to an outsider looking in.

While we stumble around to define what it means and why it might be important, some public-service boffin is right now looking for a suitable multiple-choice question and answer that will turn the elusive concept of mateship into a rote- learned cliche. Then, what was once possibly a valid descriptor for the quintessential Australian male relationship born in the trenches of early last century – well before we globalised and became postmodern – will no doubt sink from popular usage, as embarrassing cliches should. Good riddance.

Mateship has nothing to do with at least half the Australian population. The concept, the imagery, the fable of it all completely excludes women. It has grown out of the stories of men, about men and for men. It comes from war stories, bush ballads and bar yarns. This is not to belittle the powerful force of mateship that once enveloped and supported Australian men sent into battle – and probably still does. But that special bond is theirs.

As for the rest of us, mateship really highlights an outmoded segregation of the sexes that is best left where it once wallowed in the Australia of old. Women don’t have mates – thankfully, if the earlier list is even half indicative of the traits of modern-day Aussie mates. Yet the friendships that bond women can be every bit as deep, as loving and as unconditional, as the bond that once made some digger take the bullet for his buddy.

In multicultural Australia, or out on the broader globalised world stage, those kinds of bonds between women are forged regardless of ethnicity or nationality. Gender will often draw women together to share that unique thing only women can share, just as men at times will be drawn exclusively to the company and comfort of men. And so be it.

But to proclaim mateship – with all its blokey and ”male only” overtones – as a national virtue, worthy of enshrining in a citizenship test, is embarrassingly old-fashioned, ageist and sexist.

It harks back to earlier years, with the kind of nostalgic tug we’ve come to expect from Australia’s greying sentimentalists.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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