Harmony Day Lecture: Mateship in Australia

I have been asked to speak today about Mateship and its relevance to Australian culture and social cohesion. I begin by acknowledging the First Peoples of Australia and in particular the Yorta Yorta and Bangerang people on whose land we now live. Lets pray that they be welcomed and deeply respected within the Australian nation. May their elders be blessed and honoured. May we also pray that this sacred land truly inspire us to come together as a tolerant, multicultural, multi-faith, secular community in which all of us are considered to be mates – Aborigines, women, migrants, our families and our descendants from all around the globe.



I have been asked to speak today about Mateship and its relevance to Australian culture and social cohesion. I begin by acknowledging the First Peoples of Australia and in particular the Yorta Yorta and Bangerang people on whose land we now live. Lets pray that they be welcomed and deeply respected within the Australian nation. May their elders be blessed and honoured. May we also pray that this sacred land truly inspire us to come together as a tolerant, multicultural, multi-faith, secular community in which all of us are considered to be mates – Aborigines, women, migrants, our families and our descendants from all around the globe.

Even though Australia is not a society of equals, there is a myth that it should be and this myth of mateship shapes how Australians engage with one another.


First, I want to talk about the way the myth developed. Then about how Mateship became a key factor in building that social cohesion which has made Australia a pretty successful multicultural society.

Here in Shepparton most people passing in the street give a nod, a smile or say something. Often men will say “good-day mate” if they don’t know you, or if they have forgotten your name.

The word has German origins – to share a meal, but it became a word used among the labouring classes in England long before Australia became a convict settlement.

It is claimed though that on the convict ships coming out to Australia,

“The convicts brought with them from Britain the term mate, and they used it amongst themselves,” “They even rather provocatively termed their jailors mate and the basic message was ‘you’re no better than us’.”

It was their way of insisting on their basic equality as men.

This sense of mateship can be traced to Australia’s penal foundations where there were clear hierarchies and an intention to keep them, which in turn fostered a desire to break them.

Historically, the greatest rift in the penal days was between the “exclusives” and the “emancipists”. The first group believed that anyone who came to the colony in penal servitude is never capable of complete redemption. These people, tended to be among the wealthy landowners. They saw themselves as a superior class. For their part, the emancipists, all the ex-convicts, were concerned with equality of human rights. Governor Macquarie, much to his peril, supported the emancipist cause. His opposition was those forces which believed it would end respect for the law by allowing ex-convicts the normal rights of British citizens.

One of the human rights which meant much to many of the convicts was their freedom to follow their own religious tradition. From the time of the First Fleet, Governor Phillip and his team may have mocked religion in private, but they and later civic leaders in public, “supported it for its social utility”1. Religion was seen as

the guardian of the values and rules which maintained the social order. … However, not all the convicts looked to the Church of England as the source of their social cohesion or their moral codes. 2

The Irish convicts who began arriving in Australia in significant numbers from 17933, were mainly Catholic, with many Gaelic speakers4. Six out of every twenty convicts transported to Australia in those early years were Irish5. One of the interesting features of that was the gradual acceptance of Catholics in the emerging society. Mass for Catholic Convicts was allowed in Sydney in 1804, nearly 30 years before that was possible in England.

There were also significant numbers of Dissenters, Protestant who were not members of the Church of England. It was Catholic and Presbyterians who joined forces to prevent the Church of England being recognised as the Established Church of the colony. They were kicking goals well above their numbers, thanks to the acceptance of equal rights by the Enlightenment influenced Governors in the early Penal years. Catholics remained a sizeable minority of around 25% of the convict and general population during the 19th century and still are6.


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But back to the early days of settlement. Those convicts who had professional qualifications were given roles in public works. Greenway, the convict architect who designed many of the early public buildings in Sydney was one example. Gradually, they and the convicts who behaved and worked well, were given grants of land and became farmers. The more successful employed convicts. They became business men.

This sense of a basic equality shared by convicts, emancipists and their children was reinforced by the challenges of struggling to survive in Australia. All of them had to rely on one another in times of bush-fires and flood. Regardless of pedigree, class, religious affiliation or none, they all needed one another to survive, and simply became mates. The word emphasised that all were equal in sharing the struggle to survive in the early days when agriculture was in its infancy. Supplies from England or India were crucial for survival of all – governors, guards and convicts. That sense of a basic equality of all men was alive and strong as early as the 1820’s. English visitors in 1820’s were surprised to find business men, soldiers, prison guards, emancipist convicts all drinking together in Sydney pubs. A sense of equality and of the need to stick together had developed in the struggle to survive after settlement in Australia. Even the Australian custom of each member of a group taking his turn in shouting a round of beers is based on the belief that all were equal.


All of them had to rely on one another in times of bush-fires and flood

Consequently, from its beginnings, because of the presence of Indigenous inhabitants and of Irish Catholics, Australia’s settler population mix was multi-faith, multi-lingual and multi-cultural. We were a multicultural society way before that word was used in the 1950s.

Then came the gold rushes. The mateship theme was strengthened by the armed rebellion of miners at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat. But the goldfields also made it clear that the myth was not without problems. The diggers on the goldfields resented the presence of Chinese miners, and the myth of mateship was limited to those eligible to be members of a “white Australia”. That myth developed and ruled supreme for nearly 100 years. Asian and Aboriginal people were not recognised as “mates” and suffered significant disadvantages in living in Australia.

Then, a growing secularisation outlook, and the latent anti-Catholicism from Reformation times led to the secularisation of the public education systems being introduced around Australia in the latter part of the 19th Century. The largely Catholic Irish resorted to developing their own education system to protect their religious identity from both Protestantism and a hostile secularism which began to be influential in the late 19th century7.

Further developments at the end of the 19th Century, saw the growth of the worker struggles against the employers in Australia the the term taken over by the emerging Australian Workers Union and then the ALP. Mates were very much union men.


The ultimate contribution of “mateship” to Australian culture was reflected in the Constitution written for the Australian Federation at the turn of the 19th Century. It accepted every citizen’s right to be religious or non-religious, and decreed that government had no right to preference one religion over another. If Catholic schools are given State Aid, then Protestant, Muslim or any other religious school is entitled to the same assistance.

Another Key Element

Catholic and Protestant Australians, in spite of tension and the potential for a collapse in social cohesion, discovered that, in spite of their differences, they had a willingness to tolerate their differences and to live together in spite of diversity and tensions – the true meaning of mateship and social harmony. That was helped significantly by the experiences of men, Catholic, Protestant and Others, relying on one another in the trenches, in deserts and jungles and in the POW camps of the First and Second World Wars.

Yet, to the surprise of many, a very anti-union Prime Minister – John Howard – saw the business/entrepreneurial roots of the term as it was understood by the emancipist farmers and the diggers on the gold-fields. He adopted if for Howard’s battlers. On the other hand, the mateship myth of the Australian working classes and of the ANZACS continues to support the social justice dimension of the myth.

An historical approach to this issue shows how a pragmatic form of social engineering managed to do this. Australian states and Federation used: a mixture of restrained coercion in which immigration policies focused on homogeneity (British, white and Christian, mainly Protestant, with a controlled Irish Catholic component); and the embrace of democratic politics and industrial arbitration to minimise class divisions and poverty.

The Pragmatism is obvious. Since World War II that mix has been broadened. Secondly, the commitment to social justice focused on equality of opportunity rather than of outcomes. This meant that it had a broader understanding of the term income (one which includes services such as health, education, employment and housing for example). It didn’t want a simple wage-based vision of justice. It also expected that the state would help create and maintain a just society. These were significant factors8.

Others see both the egalitarian and real, but limited, tolerant traditions in Australian society as the very basis of the social cohesion which has been achieved in this country9. Without an acceptance of that community inter-dependence though, would the religious diversity in Australia of the 19th century have led to conflict and to the undermining of social cohesiveness? Not necessarily. It is argued that the Irish Catholics’ wanting to belong was stronger than sectarian differences10.

In spite of the tensions between them, the poet Henry Lawson could acknowledge that Catholics had gained acceptance as part of Australian society by the turn of the 19th century, “They tramp in mateship side by side – The Protestant and Roman”11. In another poem, The Waratah and the Wattle he says,

You may sing of the Shamrock, the Thistle and Rose, Or the three in a bunch if you will, But I know of a country that gathered all those, And I love the great land where the Waratah grows … 12



The process of melding our people into becoming Australians, members of a socially cohesive, functional society with its own culture, shared values and myths about itself, is part of the history of mateship. It seems to have repeated itself in the Snowy Mountain scheme. During my 40 years in Shepparton, I have heard post-war migrant men who had worked on the Snowy Mountain scheme talk of coming to work closely and trustingly with mates who were in opposing armies during the war. They found they had to work that way if they were to make a go of it, not unlike the Irish and English convicts and emancipists in earlier days.

Migrants arriving in Australia have to go through the process of learning about the culture, about the way Australians do things, the functions they are trying to achieve through their behavioural patterns and the underlying meaning which inspires them to act and relate in the ways they do. It is this process of enculturation which makes social living possible. It is also obvious that Australians are willing to accept features of other cultures which enrich our own. We eat a much richer variety of foods that we did when I was a kid.

A failure by members of the host community recognise some of the riches that other traditions offer to our, or a reluctance to acknowledge this can be destructive. Likewise any refusal to extend the myth of mate-ship to new migrants, or a reluctance on the part of migrants to go through the enculturation needed to integrate in Australia, is likely to lead to social division and a fragmentation of social cohesion. We have to remember that the marginalized Indigenous, the Catholics, Asians, Africans, Muslims and women have had or are having difficult journeys in gaining acceptance and becoming part of our society. The struggle for social justice, for mateship for all, is an ongoing challenge.

The struggle of women for social justice or mateship in Australian society is still a major issue. I’m not sure that women aspire to be called “mate”, but I strongly suspect that they see themselves as “mates” in their struggles for equality in the workplace.


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Mateship and Women

Often men lamenting the death of a wife are heard to say: “I’ve lost ‘me’ best mate”. Women were truly mates, sharing the dangers and challenges of life in this new land for them But they struggled to get recognition. And, struggle they did. Women in New Zealand led the world in gaining voting rights for all adult women in the 1890’s. Australia followed suit at the turn of the Century. But since then have been forced to accept a much slower pace in the struggle to get equal pay, equal representation in the higher paid positions in companies and on Company boards of Management. This has been disappointing. Gradually there are growing numbers of women getting into Federal, State and Local Governments, but women at all levels of Society still face the challenge of affordable child-care if they are to join their mates across the workplace.

Women are gradually making it into the mates ranks, but slowly and without a great deal of support in major religious groups. Few senior Catholic and Muslim religious leaders are supporting that struggle. Yet, women are the backbone of religious groups in Australia and the failure to accept them into full membership of Australian mateship may be something religious groups may come to regret.

Myths provide us with values and inspiration. Mateship has helped convicts, farmers, diggers on the goldfields, trade unionists, Anzacs in the trenches, in the deserts and jungles, the young conscripts who turned back the Japanese at Kokoda, and the post-war migrants on the Snowy.

The video shown during Mass today showed young migrant people clearly full of appreciation for the mateship they are experiencing at Notre Dame college.

Not only are there many new migrant students from different religions and cultures encountering Australia in a positive way, but a growing number of Aboriginal students have become part of that process. I must acknowledge the contribution that the Catholic education system has made in enrolling a growing number of Aboriginal students at the College. It also deserves to be acknowledged for the success it has had in developing among its graduates, a great commitment to social justice, one of the key elements of mateship. The Christian Research Association contacted 4000 graduates of Catholic Schools in Victoria and New south Wales. Not many graduates are regular church goers. But one of the stunning findings of that research was that over 90% of all graduates, Catholic and non-Catholic, have developed a strong sense of social justice.

Working together to ensure a fair go for all is at the heart of Mateship.


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This lecture has drawn from recent studies of mateship by:
Dr. Nick Dyrenfurth, (2015), Mateship: A Very Australian History, Scribe Publications, Melbourne;
from a review of his book by Margaret Burin – “Aussie mateship: Tracing the history of a defining cultural term”,
from John Thornhill
’s “Making Australia: Exploring our National Conversation”, EJ Dwyer, Sydney 1992
and from my own study, Frank PurcellThe Encounter of Islam with Australian Secular Society: a Comparison with the Catholic Experience”. La Trobe University (upublished) 2014.


1. Thornhill, Making Australia (1992), 56, citing Manning Clark, A Short History (1977), 11.
2. Philip Hughes, “Social Cohesion as a Function of Religion”, in Philip Hughes (ed), Australia’s Religious Communities: A Multimedia Exploration, Second edition, CD-Rom, Christian Research Association, Nunawading, 2004.
3. Peter Mayberry, Irish Convicts to New South Wales 1788-1849 at http://members.pcug.org.au/~ppmay/ships.htm, accessed 1 Dec. 2010;
4. Thomas Keneally, Australians: Origins to Eureka, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010,186.
5. Geoffrey Blainey, A Shorter History of Australia, Port Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1994, 30.
6. Patrick O’Farrell, ‘Double Jeopardy: Catholic and Irish’ in Bigotry And Religion In Australia, 1865-1950, Humanities Research Vol. XII No 1, 2005 at http://epress.anu.edu.au/hrj/2005_01/mobile_devices/ch03.html accessed 10 Nov 2009.
7. R. Fogarty, Catholic Education in Australia, 1806-1950, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1959, Vol I, 197—200.
8. James Jupp in ‘The quest for harmony’, in James Jupp, John Nieuwenhuysen, Emma Dawson (eds), Social cohesion in Australia, (Cambridge & Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 11-14.
9. Thornhill, Making Australia (1991), 3, 35.
10. O’Farrell, Double Jeopardy (2005) ibid.
11. Thornhill (1992), 99, citing Manning Clark, A Short History of Australia, USA: Penguin Books 1987, 185.
12. Marion Child (ed.),The Best of Henry Lawson, Seaford, Vic.: Bluestone Press, 2004, 180.





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