Being myself an Aussie bloke, I can walk up to another bloke and say that. If the other bloke is a true blue Aussie, he can ignore the questioning aspect, and simply reply “G’day mate.” And thus it is established that we are indeed mates, and if one or the other of us happens to be in a spot of bother, there is a fair chance that the other will try to be of assistance.
At least this is the theory as clearly set out in Mateship 101.
Although the task of defining a national character for the people of any country is fraught with difficulties and subtle pitfalls, for Australians, mateship cannot be ignored, and even today most of us would include it somewhere in our description of what it means to be Australian.
I’ve just read “Mateship – A Very Australian History” by Nick Dyrenfurth (Scribe 2015). I regard it as a must read for anyone seeking to get a handle on the Australian character. It provides a thoroughly researched account of how the concept of mateship had its genesis among the early rural and sometimes ex-convict workers of Australia, and was then refined and developed in the gold rushes of the latter half of the nineteenth century, the growth of the union movement, and the involvement of Australians in the two World Wars. The author provides a rich mix of references to mateship by Australians of all ranks, from prime ministers on down, as they have sought to redefine it to suit their various purposes, and take advantage of the broad approval of the concept, notwithstanding its fuzziness in areas such as its lack of applicability to women.
Which begs the question, what if I say “Ow yu goin mate orright?” to a woman, in particular an Aussie woman other than my partner? I stand a fair chance of a reply along the lines of “I’m not your mate, and with a bit of luck, I never will be.” Of course, she would be taking the option of interpreting “mate” as meaning “intimate partner”, and drawing on the fact that, notwithstanding some strenuous efforts over the years, mateship has never been unambiguously extended to include the fairer sex.
In 1999, when some amendments to the Australian constitution were being considered, the then Prime Minister John Howard proposed the inclusion of a reference to mateship in the preamble, as follows:
“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. We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship.”
However, the idea was dropped, largely due to opposition from the poet Les Murray (who said that the term “mateship” was “blokish” and “not a real word”), and also the Australian Democratic Party.
I guess you could say we’re a weird mob. Although I must add that I’ve been deeply grateful on a couple of occasions when having car problems in some remote Outback spot, and a bloke arrived in another vehicle, and although I’d never met him before, turned out to be my mate, and helped me sort out the problem and get going again. True mateship!