Thursday, December 25, 2014

Mateship: A Very Australian History

Book review and author interview by Chris Saliba

Academic Nick Dyrenfurth tackles one of Australia's key national myths.

Surveys of Australians continue to say that ‘mateship’ is one of the country’s defining qualities. But what does it actually mean? In this provocative history academic Nick Dyrenfurth traces Australian mateship in all its permutations. Unsurprisingly, the mateship of the convicts (more an honour amongst thieves) is starkly different to that of former prime minister John Howard, who harnessed it politically.

Early mateship was a temporary economic partnership, where tramping workers pooled their resources. Writers and poets, notably Henry Lawson, developed a romantic idea of mateship during the 19th century. Both sides of politics, labor and conservative, would then adopt mateship as a propaganda tool. Socialism claimed mateship as central to its ethos, then conservatives took it back during the divisive First World War. By the 1950s and 60s, writers such as Donald Horne and Manning Clark cast a more critical eye on mateship, seeing it as sentimental, racist and sexist.

Nick Dyrenfurth finds Australian mateship to be more a compelling national narrative, created by fiction writers and politicians, than reality. He provides a thoughtful cultural reading of the literature and history around mateship, much of which will surely be contested. Essential reading for those interested in one of Australia’s key national myths.

Mateship: A Very Australian History, by Nick Dyrenfurth. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781925106350  RRP: $29.99

This review was first published in Books + Publishing magazine.  

Interview with Nick Dyrenfurth

Chris Saliba: As Australia’s unofficial secular religion, mateship makes for an unwieldy subject. In one part of your book it is even described a ‘supernatural form of friendship’. What
made you choose such a subject? Did you see in a gap in the literature that needed

Nick Dyrenfurth: My earliest political memories from childhood are of Bob Hawke, the Labor ‘mate’ who landed in the Lodge. I was fascinated by his blend of intellectualism and larrikinism. Then, as a
young man coming to some semblance of political maturity in the mid-to-late 1990s, I was
fascinated by John Howard. Here were two politicians of differing ideological persuasions,
each drawn to the same secular creed, each trying to place their particular stamp on it. I was
particularly intrigued in the case of Howard.  At precisely the same moment as his
government was conspiring to destroy the Maritime Union of Australia, Howard was
embarking on a personal mission to reinsert mateship into the heart of our national story by
way of his proposed constitutional preamble. I thought to myself: what is going on here? After a
decade or so of research I now understand that it wasn’t that unusual for someone like
Howard to sanctify mateship. That secret history needed to be written. There are literally
hundreds of books devoted to Australian national identity, but none – remarkably in my
opinion – which specifically deal with this eight letter word that so dominates our history.  

CS: The history of mateship provides much that would surprise contemporary Australians.
For example, its explicit use to try to win the yes vote for the conscription referendum
during the First World War. Was there anything that surprised you or that you found
particularly interesting during your researches? 

ND: I was startled by two elements of colonial mateship. First, for almost the entire nineteenth
century when Australians spoke about what it meant to be a ‘mate’ they did so in a manner
which bears no relation to the virtues and vices we commonly associate with the national
mythology. Above all, mateship described a form of business partnership. Having a mate,
particularly in the bush, was a pragmatic necessity. He – and it's almost always a he – is
simply a means towards making a buck. There’s nothing particularly altruistic or noble about
boasting a mate. And colonial Australians really don’t talk about ‘mateship’ as an abstract
ideal as such. Second, the speed with which this idea of mateship as an ‘ism’ or a practice
becomes nationally and even internationally regarded as a key component of the Australian
character is astonishing. It all happens within the space of a decade or so – the 1890s and
early 1900s. It really is a testament to the power of the written word and the influence of the
radical and labour movement press of the time.

CS: Your book shows mateship as an exalted national myth with prosaic roots. The first
mates were more economic partners than anything else, but later Henry Lawson wrote
almost feverishly of mateship, as if he was trying to convince himself of its existence. Do
you think there is a touch of anxiety about mateship that it needs to be continually
talked up to make sure it doesn’t cease to exist?

ND: I think there is more than a grain of truth to those suggestions. Lawson and the boozy
bohemians of Sydney were very much projecting their blokey camaraderie on to the good
burghers of the bush. He was in fact criticised for this very tendency both when he wrote and
later during the 1950s when a new spirit of critical inquiry was emerging within the literary
world. It’s interesting too that mateship’s apotheosis during the 1890s and rebirth a century
later in the 1980s came during eras of economic turbulence when large swathes of the
Australian population were either thrown out of work or doing it tough. So in times when
mateship seems to be lacking in the population we insist upon its prominence in our national
story. In each decade we were also making sense of how globalisation influenced what it was
to be an Australian in an increasingly interconnected world. As we were exposed to the
cultural influences of the wider world we insisted upon Australia’s distinctiveness.

CS: Former prime minister John Howard tried to have the word mateship officially
recognised as a national characteristic in the preamble to the constitution. Yet even
people like Bruce Ruxton, state president of the Victorian branch of the RSL, said the
move was ‘corny with a capital C’. Why do you think Howard came up against such
fierce opposition if mateship is an agreed upon national characteristic?

ND: On the one hand, my gut feeling is that a lot of people didn’t think Howard was doing it for
the right reasons – that it was a diversion from the Republic debate designed to ‘wedge’ his
opponents. On the other hand, those that did take him at face value – especially feminist
critics - absolutely loathed mateship. It was the perfect political storm in that sense. I think
many Australians who like and value mateship also felt uneasy with placing mateship on a
formal pedestal. As someone whose politics leans to the left I actually think it was a twin
tragedy that the republic and the mateship preamble didn’t get up. That’s not a particularly
fashionable thing to say in the circles I move in. But as a leftie why wouldn’t you want a
statement of egalitarianism and equality reflected in our supreme legal document?     

CS: Women and non-whites have historically been excluded from mateship’s embrace, but
you point to these groups being more included in recent years. Do you think mateship
will ever truly represent anyone who is not a white male, or is its history too strong? 

ND: I can understand why many Australians continue to feel uneasy about mateship. The baggage
is hefty. Yet if you accept that Australia has changed for the better in many ways over the
past four decades – we are more open, tolerant and diverse and our male denizens have
smartened up their act too – then I say take a second look at mateship. Its simple premise – in
my view – is that we are together in this life. I think that’s a personal and national ideal
worthy of our aspirations. Another reason for taking a second look is that as my book shows
the meaning of mateship has changed many times over the years. Its original meaning was
gender blind and there is no reason to believe that we can’t return to that meaning.

CS: What was the last book you read and loved?

ND: Non-fiction: Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. If you want
to truly understand the Israeli condition and conflict with the Palestinians you have to read
this clear-eyed yet passionate account written by one of the nation’s very best journalists.
Fiction: George Orwell’s Burmese Days. 1984 and Animal Farm make a lot more sense after
reading this on a recent holiday. A deeply unhappy book that was a pleasure to read.

The above interview was prepared for Books + Publishing magazine.