A new book has just been published on Mateship. Now, I guess many of you will be unfamiliar with this word which is used to refer to the embedded culture in Australia and New Zealand.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, mateship is defined: ‘a companion, fellow, comrade, friend; a fellow worker or business partner.’ Compare this to The Australian National Dictionary (AND) and the first thing AND does is to separate out some shades of meaning, and one of them is: ‘an acquaintance; a person engaged in the same activity.’ This sense covers quite a range of relationships, but the essential point about it is that the relationship does not necessarily involve a close bond of friendship.
Some are very critical of how some males in Australia describe mateship. “My mate” is always a man. A female may be my sheila, my bird, my charley, my good sort, my hot-drop, my judy or my wife, but she is never “my mate”.’ In the early records there are occasional references to women, but when they do occur, they lack the intensity of emotion associated with the male references. It is this sense of mateship that is exclusively Australian.
When in 1999 Prime Minister Howard proposed a draft preamble to the Constitution that included the sentence ‘We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship’, there was some public outcry over the inclusion of a term that, because of its role in a male tradition, appeared to exclude half the population. Prime Minister Howard argued that mateship was ‘a hallowed Australian word’.
The word and the culture around mateship can be traced back to the first white Australians – the convicts shipped there from the UK. They brought the term mate with them and used the word provocatively calling their jailors mate insinuating that they were no better than the convicts.
Mateship is a term that champions any differences in wealth or political beliefs. The culture of mateship was very evident during the First World War when the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) fought during the deadly Gallipoli campaign. Around 25,000 ANZAC troops were involved in this campaign and during the first day more than 2,000 perished. Survivors, when asked about their experience, talked about devoting yourself to each other and the national effort.
In his book Dr Dyrenfurth talks about mateship on the Victorian goldfields during the 19th century when it was used to serve the sense of oneness amongst all the miners. He said, “They referred to each other as mates and for the miners mateship was all about making a buck.”
Today mateship is core to the culture of Australia and in a survey conducted by Westpac Bank, more than 1,000 respondents were asked what defines a typical Australian. The top answer was mateship, followed by friendly and laid-back. Mateship is firmly embedded in the Australian psyche and is core to who and what Australians are and helps to express Australian values.
Next time an Australian refers to you as mate you will have a better understanding of where they are coming from.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]