Mateship: a very Australian history

Hello and welcome to this launch of Nick Dyrenfurth’s Mateship: a very Australian history here in St Kilda on this Australia Day weekend.

Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and by paying my respects to their elders past and present. I’d also like to acknowledge our hosts at Readings and our friends at Scribe. Can I welcome the state and Federal members of parliament who honour us with their presence today, Martin Foley, Michael Danby and Tim Watts – and of course, the Federal Labor Leader, Bill Shorten MP, who I’ll introduce shortly. Thank you and welcome.


My name is Michael Cooney. I’m the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre, the think tank of the Australian Labor Party. Our task is to champion a Labor culture of ideas – something we pursue through a variety of projects connecting new thinking and progressive people.

Chifley was proud to support the publication in 2011 of A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, co-authored by Nick and Frank Bongiorno. So there’s a long connection between Nick’s work and the Chifley Research Centre.

There’s another connection between us. I was formerly speechwriter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard. So to put it mildly, 2011 was a year when I needed some inspiration and some consolation. Thank God that Nick’s book Heroes and Villains: the rise and fall of the early Australian Labor Party came out or I might have had to start drinking absinthe.

It is a marvelous volume which combines a ripping narrative history of things that happened and mattered with fascinating reflections on the way the actors in that drama understood themselves and represented their ideas. So you can imagine my anticipation as word spread that Nick had a book coming out about the history of mateship.

Nick’s work is never distorted by partisanship but it is always engaged in politics. And as the politics of 2015 opens, authoring a book about the history of mateship is a deeply political act.

Mateship has always had a political economy – ‘mates is them wot’s got one’s purse’. Now, the best Australian traditions of egalitarianism and solidarity – and even where they have been very imperfect, their essence has been good – are at the heart of the politics of 2015.

Partisan interests and libertarian ideology are at work to divide us each from the other and to make us less fair.

So I’m very much looking forward to our next speaker’s remarks. Comes the hour, so comes the man.

I remember some other things about 2011: the Opposition leader Tony Abbott trying to divide the country over rebuilding after the floods of that year, trying to block the flood levy, trying to play politics over aid to Islamic schools, and notoriously declaring ‘mates don’t tax each other’.

And I also remember the then-Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation spending months trying to solve people’s problems. People like the man whose house was ruined and whose insurance policy failed ‘through a technicality’ to protect him, and whose words to the ABC I vividly recall: ‘I mean, this is Australia, isn’t it?

It took a good minister in a Labor government to restore what Tom Kenneally called ‘special arrangements of fairness, and treatment along sensible, practical, fraternal lines, are part of the Australian fabric and inheritance’ – to restore mateship – and that minister was Bill Shorten. Welcome Bill.


SPEECH by Bill Shorten




I¹m here, in the true spirit of this book, to do a favour for a mate.

As Nick points out, ‘mate’ is a much-loved and extremely versatile word ­ in our country and certainly in the Australian Labor party.

I’ve got a simple rule when it comes to mates in politics – the more times the letter A is used, the better.

If I pick up the phone and hear a long ‘maaaaate’ it’s probably a vote sought, good news or just a funny story.

But if it’s just one, short, crisp ‘mate’, I tend to sit down and brace myself for some constructive feedback.

In Mateship, Nick takes us on an affectionate romp through two centuries of Australian history.

There is an easy flow to this book, a subtlety of argument that Nick has always wielded with great effect.

It’s a skill that puts Nick a cut-above the ordinary tenure-track professor or the garden-variety palace intriguer.

And it was certainly a gift that served him well when we worked together.

I remember it clearly.

I would start out skeptical, sometimes even opposed to Nick’s point of view.

But steadily Nick builds up the evidence, he gets into his stride.

You find yourself throwing in a couple of nods here and there, just to keep things moving.

And before you know it, you’ve been carried along by the momentum.

If you’re not careful, Nick leaves the room not just with your grudging respect ­ but your firm support, in writing.

I’m pleased to report though, that in Mateship, Nick uses his considerable powers for good.

Nick’s book is a celebration of our national character ­ but it’s far from a obsequious Labor hagiography.

The book acknowledges ­ at every important turn ­ that as much as we extoll its virtues, Australian ‘mateship’ has rarely included everyone.

For example, at the turn of the 20th Century, the Australian Workers Union could urge: all men to become co-operators ­ mates ­ instead of antagonists.

And declare itself open to all workers: no matter what their occupation or sex may be.

Yet at the same time say: No Chinese, Japanese, Kanakas, Afghans or coloured aliens.

Without seeing the hypocrisy at the heart of their call for ‘universal’ solidarity.

And of course, for a long time, mateship was very much a man’s business.

It thrived in the front bar, the betting ring, the slip cordon and the shearing shed – as well as the boardroom, the gentlemen’s club and the cabinet table.

And even today ‘mate’ as a term still retains something of that edge, a sense of men giving ‘a good bloke’ a better-than-fair go.

The fact is, mateship has not always been there when our nation, our people needed it.

After all, where was mateship at Myall Creek?

Or at Lambing Flat?

Where was mateship when governments and institutions worked together to take children from their mothers ­ because the mother was unmarried, or black?

And where was mateship when we denied these crimes?

Where was mateship when we turned our back on historical truth in favour of the ‘Great Australian Silence’ ­ a silence that was neither great, nor Australian.

This book asks these hard questions.

It casts a critical eye over one of the most widely invoked and least thoroughly examined words in our national vocabulary.

But Mateship is analytical and incisive ­not disparaging.

After all, as Nick confesses in the book’s Afterword, he likes mateship, he values it, he admires the comfort it has brought to Australians in tough times ­never more than in times of war and natural disaster.

Mateship has endured through gunfire and bushfires, flood and drought ­ at Anzac Cove and on Black Saturday, on the Burma-Thai railway and in Queensland floodwaters ­ and Nick celebrates that.

His affection and optimism is ever-present in his work – and that adds to the power of his argument.

It means that Mateship never wallows, or gets becalmed.

This is an important book, but the narrative never disappears up its own sense of importance.

This book is not without controversy, but it never falls hostage to the perception that the author is seeking sensationalism, rather than writing history.

Why does this matter?

Well, I believe Australians have had our fill of polemics masquerading as analysis.

We’re tired of people claiming victory in the ‘history wars’- as if the Australian story has to be fought to the last man and the last footnote.

I believe Australians are smart enough and generous enough to know that our national story is not a ‘choose-your-own adventure’ where we pick and mix the chapters that portray us in the best light.

We gain nothing from boiling down our history to a bland mish-mash myth of the Rum Rebellion and Burke and Wills, Bodyline and the stump-jump plough, the Victa Mower and Olympic gold.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating those moments and achievements ­ but it is wrong to pretend that they represent the limit of our national capabilities ­ or our national ambitions.

It is wrong to imagine that we can only gain and grow from revelling in past glory.

Nick’s book also reminds us of the contradictions at the heart of mateship.

An egalitarian creed, enthusiastically promoted by the author of WorkChoices.

A profound and unifying national value, with a lingering essential maleness that makes it irrelevant or alienating to half the population.

And in the face of these contradictions, we must take on a dual role.

We should be sceptics and advocates.

Sceptics, alert to inherent silliness, empty jingoism and the potential for hypocrisy.

And advocates, for the undeniable power of the idea in war and other tough times.

In other words, if we are to say that mateship defines us, let us decide what elements of the creed make sense and which ones are barmy or moribund.

And let us think about what other notions of nationhood and ‘Australian-ness’ are apt and useful: tolerance, openness, fairness, kindness and respect.

Let’s reflect on what makes for a good society in a modern world.

When he introduced the Racial Discrimination Act to Parliament in 1975, Gough Whitlam reflected that, ‘the main victims of social deprivation and restricted opportunity’ have been the ‘oldest Australians, and the newest’.

In finding the courage to face this truth, modern Australia has enjoyed its finest moments, we have built our greatest monuments.

Not monuments of marble or stone, not a statue in a park or a plaque on a building ­ but institutions of fairness, respect and progress.

Progress that fulfils the Australian promise, the guarantee of a fair go for all.

Land rights, Native Title, a National Apology, a commitment to Closing the Gap and ending more than two centuries of disadvantage -­ that’s inclusion, that’s real mateship.

Welcoming people from every culture and country on earth ­ building a society that celebrates difference and respects diversity ­- that’s real mateship.

Medicare, a national declaration that the health of any one of us, matters to all of us ­ that’s ‘kindness in another’s trouble’ – that’s real mateship.

Universal superannuation, ensuring Australians who work hard all their lives don’t retire poor -­ that’s the fair go in action, that’s real mateship.

A National Disability Insurance Scheme, breaking down the apartheid of disadvantage that exiled hundreds of thousands of Australians to a second class life in their own country ­ a success spurred by generations of national failure – that’s real mateship.

And, in the 21st Century, supporting the march of women through the institutions of power ­ striving for true gender equality: in pay, in opportunity, in public and private sector leadership and in the elimination of family violence.

For me, this is the real test of what it is to be an Australian.

And it is also the duty of progressive parties.

A mission that will endure as long as there are Australians denied the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Our Labor mission is a responsibility that brooks no delay, it is a calling that allows for no complacency, no inaction.

Change in our society is never finished ­ and the work of our movement is never finished.

There are always new threats to our security, new competitors for our economy ­ and old unfairness emerging in new forms.

And there is always more to learn about the Australian story.

John Howard used to say, with no small measure of pride, that his time in office put an end to the ‘perpetual seminar¹ on Australia’s national identity.

In a speech welcoming UK Prime Minister David Cameron to our Parliament last year, Tony Abbott declared that Howard had ‘settled’ a ‘largely sterile debate’ over Australia’s place in the world.

But no leader can ‘end’ a conversation about our nation’s sense of self.

No leader can ‘settle’ the question of Australia’s global role and responsibilities.

And no leader should take pride in trying.

Pulling up the drawbridge of our identity, of our place in the world, shuts out the contribution of the next generation, the evolution of self that every people has undergone with joy and trepidation, in every century, and in most decades of that century.

There is no last word in this conversation ­ and that is something we should celebrate, not shrink from.

We are the product of our past ­ but never its prisoners.

So, today, let us dispense with the idea that every time we talk about national identity it is unproductive ‘navel-gazing’.

Let us put paid to the notion that all historical introspection is intrusion and the exclusive preserve of ‘cultural elites’.

Let us have the confidence to examine the meaning behind the values we so frequently invoke.

And let us have the courage to ask ourselves if we measure up to more than just a grab-bag of clichés.

Let us be brave enough to demand Constitutional recognition for the First Australians.

And let us breathe new life into the dream of an Australian head of state.

114 years ago, Australians found the courage and goodwill to transform this continent into a Commonwealth.

In the 21st Century, let us live up to their example ­ let us declare that our head of state should be one of us.

Let us rally behind an Australian Republic ­ a model that truly speaks for who we are: our modern identity, our place in our region and our world.

This book reminds us of a timeless truth: real patriots don’t try and justify or excuse their nation’s flaws and failings and anachronisms ­- they get on and fix them.

Patriots don’t shrink from historical truth -­ they welcome it, they learn from it.

Patriots know that until a nation includes everyone ­ in its history, in its society, in its economy -­ then there is always more to do.

That’s our challenge, that’s our mission, that’s the patriotism of progress we strive for.

Nick, it is my great pleasure to launch Mateship today.

Congratulations on your fine contribution to our national debate ­- well done, mate.

About Michael Cooney

Michael Cooney

Michael is a former Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre. He was previously Speechwriter to Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard MP, Senior Adviser at the HR Coombs Policy Forum, Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, and was Principal Policy Advisor to Federal Labor Leaders Kim Beazley and Mark Latham.

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