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Historically, more than just good friends

7 February 2015 No Comment

Review of ‘Mateship: A Very Australian History’

By Nick Dyrenfurth

Scribe, 256pp, $29.99

NICK Dyrenfurth’s Mateship is the first significant exploration of what the author terms “our secular egalitarian creed since Russel Ward’s path-breaking 1958 work ‘The Australian Legend.’

Many of the themes in Dyrenfurth’s well-produced book (though it unfortunately lacks an index) had been explored previously with fellow scholars at the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. Moreover, as Dyrenfurth acknowledges, the early stages of this often provocative and insightful book benefited from his three-year postdoctoral fellowship, hosted by the University of Sydney’s rather tweely named discipline of work and organisational studies.

It is comforting to know that in recovering mateship’s complex and sometimes relatively unknown past, Dyrenfurth is aware of “the inherent tension of writing history, to use the phrase of historian Stuart Macintyre.

On the one hand, historians are charged with an obligation of objectivity; on the other we are obliged to honour the past, to preserve it and keep it alive in popular memory. As Dyrenfurth agrees, this is particularly the case when dealing with national history. Hence, as Macintyre puts it, even the most detached and objective historians are typically “drawn to the past with a deep emotional engagement.

This especially applies to Dyrenfurth’s new book on the meaning of mateship and its role in white settler and contemporary Australia.

In his useful introduction, Dyrenfurth attempts to define mateship. Put simply, it “describes the bonds of loyalty and equality, and feelings of solidarity and fraternity that Aus­tralians, usually men, are typically alleged to ­exhibit. The fact it involves much more than mere friendship is demonstrated by the proletarian and often radical ideal of mateship espoused by 19th-century Australian socialists, including the utopian William Lane and Australian Workers Union founder William Spence, as well as by the poet of the poor, Henry Lawson.

Significantly, many of Australia’s most militant socialists and trade unionists regarded alcohol as a primary means of dulling revolutionary possibilities. That is why The Bulletin — which features widely throughout this helpful book — often published cartoons of the top-hatted Mister Fat (the capitalist) being hand in glove with Mr Booze (the publican) and with other purveyors of the demon drink.

Dyrenfurth’s primary aim is to reveal the diverse ways in which “Australians formulated ideas about mateship, and how those ideas influenced the shape of our history. His well-constructed analysis is divided into four interconnected parts.

The first, ‘Genesis’, explores and occasionally questions what are alleged to be the incubators of the idea of mateship. ‘Scripture’ examines how from the 1860s until World War I a motley collection of legend-makers invented a mainly working-class and nation-building idea of mateship. The third part, ‘Crusades’, demonstrates how political warriors of the Right and Left tried to claim mateship as their own.

The book’s final — and in many ways most instructive — part, ‘Reformation’, explores the fall of the mateship ideal after the mid-1940s and then its rise under the stimulus of a revived sense of Australian nationalism from the 1970s and 80s until the present.

In an illuminating afterword, Dyrenfurth points out how two of our longest serving prime ministers, Bob Hawke and John Howard, both reinstated mateship to the heart of our national story. Unsurprisingly, each politically different and ideologically distinct leader chose a version of mateship preferred by his side of politics.

Hence, even though Dyrenfurth is relatively radical and progressive, at the book’s end this even-handed historian isn’t so sure that “Howard’s plan (in 1999) to enshrine mateship in a revised preamble to the (Australian) Constitution was so far off the mark.

This is despite the fact Dyrenfurth may disagree with Howard about a precise definition of mateship and what an ideal notion of mateship may involve.

While in this usefully illustrated book Dyrenfurth exposes some of mateship’s historical flaws and particularly its exclusion of women, he argues forcefully that the notion of mateship has evolved for the better over recent decades. This has occurred, he argues, in some ways in tandem with the ways in which our nation itself has changed and is changing — socially, culturally and demographically.

Indeed, it is difficult to disagree with Dyrenfurth’s conclusion that, for all its paradoxes and contradictions, mateship “remains a personal and national idea worthy of our aspirations.

This is precisely why, in 21st-century Australia, the notion of mateship continues to have considerable currency and is often seen to be integral to competing narratives of and about the Australian nation.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, February 7-8, 2015, Review, Books p 22.

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