Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Trouble with Mateship

mateship n.  friendship, especially between two men or within a group of men, on terms of equality and mutual support.

That’s the Encarta Dictionary definition; and the gist of other definitions I’ve found has been the same. Sounds innocuous enough.

A lot of Australians take mateship very seriously indeed. It’s seen as one of the core Aussie values, along with ‘a fair go’, the Aussie spirit and — in many versions — a cold beer.

In this context as an Aussie value, it has a wider meaning, which goes something like this: if you’re in strife I’ll try and help as if we were mates, ‘cause I know you’d do the same for me.

‘Old School’ politicians like PM John Howard are so passionate about these core Aussie values that they want laws passed obliging new residents to sign up to them. Howard’s former opposite number, Kim Beazley, even wanted tourists visiting Australia to be told to sign up to them.

“So what?” you’re thinking. “OK, so the laws sound a bit draconian and meaningless (people’s values aren’t changed by signing a piece of paper) but where’s the problem?”

The problem is this: Picture a 52-year-old sheep farmer from Carnarvon, WA. He’s white, 188 cm (6’2”) tall, weighs 107 kg (17 stones), has a wife and two children and has taken over the family homestead from his father. Mateship is in his blood. Three people come to him for help:
  1. a member of the Yandeyarra Community in the Pilbara, WA

  2. a political refugee from Iran

  3. a wheat farmer from Horsham, VIC
Does he extend mateship equally to them all? Perhaps he’s keener to help the Aborigine (1) who lives the nearest? Or maybe the most help goes to the political refugee (2) who’s the most in need? But I don’t think so.

I was driving down the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory recently and saw a man holding a toddler, standing next to his car, signalling for help. While we jump-started his car, he explained that he was a Torres Straight Islander (an aborigine from one of the small islands just north of Australia), who had been waiting most of the afternoon for someone to stop. This was the hottest part of the year and there was no shade other than the vehicle. He and his daughter were smartly dressed and the car was modern and clean. As the only highway between Darwin and Alice Springs, a large volume of traffic must have passed them over the course of the afternoon. So why did no one stop?

For many of the most passionate advocates of the importance of mateship, it’s about extending friendship towards a person they could picture as a mate; someone they see as like them. And that’s where it all falls down.



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