The first mates to inhabit our antipodean Garden of Eden weren't the original sinners, Adam and Eve, but the same-sex pairing of Adam and Steve. Australians from all walks of life have obsessed over mateship ever since.
Perhaps in no other country could a blue-collar trade unionist have said that the nicest word in the English language is 'mateship'. My earliest political memories are of Bob Hawke, the Labor mate who landed in the Lodge. Yet despite early associations with utopian and socialist thinking, mateship doesn't only belong to the left. One of its greatest defenders in recent times was former prime minister John Howard.
The right had long made appeals to mateship, emphasising its roots in the pioneering times and Gallipoli, but none so fervently as the man known as Honest John. In speech after speech, Howard claimed mateship as one of the enduring values of what he variously called the Australian 'way' or national 'character', embodied in Australia's 'fair go' laconic egalitarianism.
Howard could plausibly tap into strands of our secular creed. The son of a small-petrol-station owner and Great War veteran from suburban Sydney, his state-school education and ordinariness was a rarity in a party traditionally known for its 'born to rule' leaders. Howard's love of cricket, plain language (his descriptions of 'barbecue stoppers'), dress (his gaudy tracksuits), and lifestyle preferences (he stayed at the same beach town for holidays every year) all gave the appearance of a politician in touch with ordinary experience.
Howard's invocation of Australian values belied a deeply partisan and mostly imported endeavour. The rhetoric of 'battlers and elites' was borrowed from the 'culture wars' playbook of the American Republican Party and the specious 'new class' theories of the right-wing intelligentsia. The irony of Howard-friendly commentators such as Andrew Bolt and The Australian's stable of writers — political and cultural elites of the highest rank — pushing this interpretation was not lost on many.
Howard had little interest in slowing the rate of economic liberalisation, including that impacting on the nation's workplaces. When Howard lamented that Australians had lost their sense of community and mateship, Martin Flanagan argued that, if there was such a loss, it was due to the decade-long ascendancy of neoliberal economic thought.
The historian Judith Brett was one of the first and most insistent voices from the left to understand Howard's strategy. His foes had been misled by his self-description as a social conservative, Brett argued, missing his takeover of Australian nationalism and its creed of mateship. In linking contemporary liberalism to 'a fair go' and 'practical mateship', Howard was able to generate a modest national story that spoke to rural Australia, as well as to the majority of the population living in its suburbs.
Howard's championing of mateship mirrored earlier political claims. Mateship appeared in times of national crisis where class divisions were dissolved for the greater good: “The great Australian capacity to work together in adversity — I call it mateship".
For Howard, mateship was most dramatically revealed in times of war. There was a personal element at play here. Both his father and his grandfather fought in World War I, and, as prime minister, Howard visited the sites of their wartime experiences. He singled out for praise the surgeon hero of Changi, 'Weary' Dunlop, who was 'profoundly Australian in the greatest of all Australian traditions of mateship'.
Elsewhere, he embraced the national myth of Gallipoli, “where our nation's spirit was born".
There was no room for working-class unionism in Howard's definition. The death of the last veteran of Gallipoli, Tasmanian Alec Campbell, became an occasion of national mourning, with Howard delivering a eulogy at the state funeral in which he presented Campbell's life as symbolising the 'richness of our nation's history'. Howard managed to gloss over the fact that, for most of his life, Alec Campbell had embodied the mateship of militant unionism and political radicalism.
Consciously or not, Howard was embarking on a revolutionary mission to change the meaning of mateship. The stress on practical mateship and volunteering seemed to decouple its meaning from state intervention in aid of a more egalitarian and equal society. Mateship also appeared to be a useful tool to promote Howard's preferred vision of national identity — one built around an undeniably big-C Conservative form of individualism, as then recently championed by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
If Howard's foes were wrong-footed by his apparent hijacking of the mateship legend, there were more surprises to come.
“We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship" — so declared the exposure draft of a new preamble to the Australian constitution that had been co-authored by Howard. The addition of this preamble was one of two proposals to be put to the Australian people at the 1999 republic referendum.
The referendum had been floated by Paul Keating and, in the lead-up to the 1996 election, Howard, a committed monarchist, had promised to give Australians a say on the issue. Not content to allow the republic to be the sole debating point on national identity, Howard had proposed this new preamble, speaking to the 'timeless' values of the population.
His version of those values was intentionally provocative. The preamble echoed his earlier attacks on black-armband history: 'Australians are free to be proud of their country and heritage, free to realise themselves as individuals, and free to pursue their hopes and ideals'. It continued with a snipe at political correctness and the tall-poppy syndrome: “Australia's democratic and federal system of government exists under law to preserve and protect all Australians in an equal dignity which may never be infringed by prejudice or fashion or ideology nor invoked against achievement".
Speaking at a media conference following the release of the proposed preamble, Howard stressed that mateship had a “hallowed place in the Australian lexicon", defining it as 'the spirit of helping people in adversity'.
The opposition towards his preamble was vitriolic. Academic and feminist Eva Cox colourfully remarked that mateship evoked the “smell of spew in the pubs, about mates going gang bang with some sheila. It's about not dobbing anyone else in. It's testosterone poisoning". Cox went on to warn: “I don't think most women think of themselves as mates … Instead of a preamble that unites Australians, it seems to be pitting off certain groups and excluding others".
The longstanding critic of mateship, poet Judith Wright, alleged that Howard was asserting a 'pre-feminist stance for all Australians', and urged women to “stamp on this".
Phil Cleary, a former footballer and maverick independent politician, dismissed mateship as “a hackneyed, cliched term taken from the Lawson era". Writer Thomas Keneally believed that the inclusion of the word suggested a government that thought it needed to protect 'good old-fashioned values against an onslaught by poofters, feminists and intellectuals'.
Others tried to defend the term and its traditions. The historian Geoffrey Blainey acknowledged that it had 'masculine overtones' but insisted that “it does not have to exclude women", claiming that ``I think it is far more a theme in Australia than in any other English-speaking land". Amid the hyperbole, Labor's deputy leader, Gareth Evans, insisted that mateship was an honourable, great, and quintessentially Australian word. Nevertheless, he believed that Australian women found it 'too blokey and, accordingly, just not the right kind of word for this sort of document'.
There was opposition from unexpected corners, too, such as Bruce Ruxton, president of the Victorian branch of the RSL. “It's corny with a capital C", announced the opinionated World War II veteran and monarchist. “What do they think they're doing putting mateship in the bloody preamble of a nation's constitution? Does this make everyone mates by law?"
Howard's one-time chief of staff, Gerard Henderson, accused the prime minster of arrogance. “He aspires to speak like Robert Menzies and write like Winston Churchill", Henderson remarked, yet “as a wordsmith and/or historian he is not much above fair/average quality”.
A republican, Henderson joined the ranks of the apostates by asserting that mateship was not uniquely Australian. “Mateship is not relevant any more than fatherhood, motherhood, Aussie Rules or sun worshipping", wrote The Australian newspaper's leading journalist, Paul Kelly, a republican of the minimalist school.
Even the poet who assisted Howard in drafting the preamble, Les Murray, baulked at the inclusion of mateship — it was “blokeish" and “not a real word".
“Frankly, I don't care what some of the critics say", Howard told influential talkback-radio host John Laws. “I feel very passionately that you've got to have that concept in it." He responded to the firestorm of criticism by digging his heels in. Interviewed on Channel Nine's breakfast television program, he lashed out at self-appointed critics; later that day, he dismissed them as “elites". In question time, Howard continued the counter-assault: he cared nothing for Canberra-based journalists who “presume to speak for the entirety of the Australian nation on these matters"; he was interested in the “comments of the men and women of Australia".
Yet, as Henderson pointed out in his criticism, the prime minister was to be disappointed: the men and women of Australia were strongly opposed to his preamble. Howard was unmoved. He continued to insist on mateship's inclusion in the preamble. “It is one word in all of this which is so unarguably, distinctively and dramatically and proudly Australian," he told a gathering of soldiers at Townsville. “I don't find that exclusively blokey and I don't believe any fair-minded Australian … would, either."
Howard reluctantly dropped the term from the preamble after the Australian Democrats refused to allow it to be passed by the Senate. Yet those critics cheering Howard's defeat may have misread his real motivation. Though Australians had rejected the inclusion of mateship in the constitution, Howard had succeeded in labelling his political opponents as enemies of the Australian way of life. More importantly, the republican debate had been badly sidetracked. A well-organised conservative No Case combined with schisms in the republican ranks to easily defeat the proposal to create a republic.
The controversy around the preamble did little to sour Howard's love affair with mateship. Yet Howard was, for the most part, swimming with the tide of national opinion. During his prime ministership, the Anzac Legend enjoyed increasing popularity; the Sydney 2000 Olympics brought a new wave of patriotic fervour, revealed in the exploits and attitude of bronzed swimmers, the most prodigious of Australia's gold-winning athletes; and, tragically, the terrorist attacks on Bali in October 2002 “reminded us of things that we knew and understood about our character as a people … that in crisis we are all mates together".
Mateship has many historical flaws and exclusions, but I'm not so sure that Howard's plan to enshrine it in a revised preamble to the Constitution was so off the mark, even if I would disagree with him over a precise definition of what the ideal means. Mateship speaks to many Australians in a way that our present political discourse fails to do. Over the course of more than 200 years of white-settler history, shearers and soldiers, brickies and bankers, poets and politicians, and even the odd feminist have all identified with the creed of mateship. As we approach the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli, it is important to reflect on where it has come from and how it has changed.
Mateship by Nick Dyrenfurth: Published by Scribe, January 2015.
This article is reproduced here by kind permission of Nick Dyrenfurth. It was first published in The Age, 3 January 2015.