First published by The Big Issue in February 2015
Right now, Australia is preparing to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli. Call it clichéd, but at no other point on the national calendar are we so called upon to contemplate that fraught and ageing ideology: mateship.
The history and significance of mateship in our country’s social, political and cultural climate and the debate that surrounds it is said by some – usefully or otherwise – to resemble that of a national religion. If mateship is a national religion, then perhaps Nick Dyrenfurth, former advisor and speechwriter for the Australian Labour Party, has just written our New Testament.
Mateship: A Very Australian History, Dyrenfurth’s newest work, examines the narratives and influences of mateship in Australia, from the arrival of the first fleet all the way to the polarising blokey rhetoric of Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott.
Despite having written extensively for and about the ALP (he has co-edited and authored books with the likes of Tim Soutphommasane and Frank Bongiorno), he insists his book is a non-partisan one. “I’m not trying to ram a particular polictical or ideological message down anyone’s throat,” says Dyrenfurth. Rather, he is trying to open up a long-abandoned can of worms and ask Australians to appreciate the fresh complexities that lie within. What opportunities might be gained from upholding mateship? What are the dangers in exploiting it? In fact, what is it?
Dyrenfurth is amused by the word’s origin: the middle-low German word “māte”, which literally translates to sharing a plate of meat with someone. “In some respects,” he says with a hearty chuckle, “given our predilection for barbecues, nothing much has really changed in centuries.”
He has been intrigued by mateship ever since former Labour leader Bob Hawke became the lovable larrikin in the Lodge. Since then, he has been documenting the way pollies from the far left and right have vied for ownership of the hackneyed term and used it to pull on our heartstrings, call us to action and win our votes.
Mateship wears many hats in this comprehensive and heavily researched historical account. It’s a source of comfort, of mockery, a political weapon, a method of social exclusion, a romantic creed, the measure of a man, and a muse for poets and filmmakers.
Refreshingly, the book departs from the political landscape for long enough to detail mateship’s relationship with our artists and writers. In a later chapter Dyrenfurth seems to view the arts with significant admiration when he suggests that that a burgeoning creative era in the 60s and 70s (think: books like Puberty Blues, The Anzacs; films like The Club and Sunday Too Far Away) was partly responsible for a broader examination of mateship, and that this led to its status as cultural bedrock being called into question.
For the first 220 pages, Dyrenfurth plays the part of neutral historian and his own feelings on the relevance of mateship remain somewhat elusive. Thankfully, his publisher convinced him to include an afterword clarifying his position, and this makes for a thought provoking read. Pressed to elaborate on his stance in person, he admits a cautious affection for the ideal. Interestingly, he’s not convinced John Howard’s hotly contested move to include a reference to mateship in the preamble to the Australian Constitution back in 1996 was such a bad one: “In some ways having a reference to an ideal which, for many people signifies equality, egalitarianism and fairness, is actually not that crazy a proposition.”
On the flipside, Dyrenfurth openly acknowledges mateship’s ugly underbelly, such as its ties to misogyny and xenophobia. “Many women, whether they’re progressive or conservative, will say mateship doesn’t speak to me whatsoever and I’m not interested in having it as an exulted national ideal. I completely understand that.”
So where to next in the mateship narrative – and what can be gained from talking about it? Again the religious parallel becomes hard to ignore: “It will be interesting to see whether politicians and thinkers can invoke mateship during what I think will be quite troubled times, and whether we can think critically about the events which transpired all those years ago, rather than simply resorting to cliché and falling back on a lazy mythology of those events.”
It’s possible, Dyrenfurth seems to think, that a critical conversation about mateship, its pitfalls and benefits, may help to arm Australians against the choppy cultural and economic storm he predicts to be brewing. Also, an awareness of how politicians use mateship to manipulate us seems a valuable lesson for anyone, if only so we can avoid being sucked in to the spin.
As a society evolves so must its beliefs. Just as some modern Christians shun the sentiments of the Old Testament; just as some Catholics speak out against the exclusion of worshippers who identify as anything other than heterosexual; so too must mateship’s relevance to the lives of contemporary and future Australians be held to account. It is this interrogation, this national dialogue, which Dyrenfurth is attempting to stir.