The Paradox of Australian Mateship


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By pulling everyone together we are tearing people apart.

Words || Alicia Scott

The mythical idea of mateship really developed with Australia’s World War One diggers. It is thought to have originated from the comradery of the convicts on their journey to Australia; an abbreviation of ‘shipmate’. Today, we like to think that our culture, the culture of ‘mateship’, is defined by values like giving everybody ‘a fair go’. But with so many different groups of people making up modern day Australia, the sweeping generalisation of ‘a fair go’ seems at odds with our reality.

That is the paradox of Australian mateship: we claim to embrace equality, when really, many of our policies actually work against the notion. We continue to deny equality, and even basic rights, to many groups, including women, those who identify as LGBTQIA+, refugees, and Indigenous Australians. Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 6.34.16 pm

Moo Baulch, CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, recently shared, “If you conform to the nice shallow version of what a ‘mate’ is then that’s great. As soon as you start thinking below that surface you realise Australians can be incredibly sexist, incredibly racist, and incredibly homophobic”.

Despite making up half of the population, women are still considered unequal to men in what is still a patriarchal society. Figures from the Australian

The Bureau of Statistics reveal that the gender pay gap is the highest it has been in over twenty years, reaching a record 18.8 per cent. The average full-time male worker earns $1,587.50 per week, while the average female worker scrapes in $300 less than her male counterpart.

Women’s representative for the Macquarie University Student Advisory Board, Ellie Sanderson, finds this trend disturbing. “I think the problem feminism is facing now is a lot of people – including women – think we have achieved equality. They say that if the gap continues to get smaller at the [current] rate, it will take over seveny-five years before we reach parity.”

The lack of representation of women in a conservative Federal Government perpetuates the acceptability of male dominance in Australian society. Sanderson noted, “I remember when they announced the cabinet reshuffle and Tony Abbott proudly worded it as ‘we now have double the amount of women in cabinet’ and it’s like … that’s two women, dude. No one is patting you on the back”.

In a similar vein, Macquarie University student, Sam Farrell, who identifies with the LGBTQIA+ community, has suffered. She explains, “I travel a long way to university every day. If I am sitting on the carriage and there is only me and another man, I am way more aware of my surroundings than if it was just a woman … If the patriarchy didn’t exist, women wouldn’t feel scared to walk around at night by themselves either”.

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 6.37.37 pmThe LGBTQIA+ community make up a significant part of Australia’s population, yet they are often faced with harmful discrimination caused by Government attitudes and policies. A 2014 poll, conducted on behalf of Australian Marriage Equality, found that seventy-two per cent of Australians support the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Liberal Democrat Senator, David Leyonhjelm, is set to introduce the Freedom to Marry Bill into parliament, which is expected to bring the issue to the forefront of political debate.

That is the paradox of Australian mateship: we claim to embrace equality, when really, many of our policies actually work against the notion.

An increasing number of Liberal ministers, including Malcolm Turnbull and Arthur Sinodinos, have publicly voiced their support for same-sex marriage. Yet outspoken conservative MPs, such as Social Services Minister, Scott Morrison, continue to hinder progress towards a more equal Australia.

Echoing the Australian Christian Lobby, Morrison insists that heterosexual marriages set up the best opportunities for a child to flourish. Even if we ignore the extensive research that contradicts Morrison’s argument, it is hypocritical for him to claim he is concerned about the welfare of children when, as Immigration Minister, he was in charge of systematically keeping refugee children in horrific detention centres and denying them basic human rights.

While the prospect of legalising same-sex marriage may not resonate with some Australians, it would help foster a sense of inclusion with the LGBTQIA+ community and rectify their ongoing disaffection. Farrell finds it difficult to relate to the typical Australian aesthetic and has had firsthand experience of the divisiveness present in Australia.

“I cannot identify with that myth at all. Whenever I hear someone say ‘a fair go’ they are generally white, heterosexual males … I’m quite confident and don’t always present as gay, but if I am with some people who obviously look gay I feel myself being treated differently by society,” she discloses.

Farrell confesses, “I have been in a situation, it was after the Mardi Gras, and about six or seven men came onto the train and started beating up [these gay] men at the other end of the carriage. My friend and I escaped because it was terrifying. Even at an event where LGBTQIA+ people are meant to feel welcomed, they still come under attack”.

Women and the LGBTQIA+ community are not the only groups in Australia excluded from the apparently selective notion of ‘mateship’. It is clear that Australia’s ingrained racism towards Indigenous Australians, refugees and immigrants stems from this problematic, Anglo-centric notion. The prevalence of racism in our culture can be evidenced in all sectors of society, even in our politicians – it was only recently that our Prime Minister called Indigenous communities a “lifestyle choice”.

Dimity Shillingsworth, a member of the Waka Waka and Biri Gubba tribes said, “Within our culture we are supposed to take care of the land we belong to. So displacing people from the community and their country will result in a disconnection to spirituality which will lead to a lot of issues. It’s sad, because a lot of people in remote communities still live sustainably off the land. It’s not just their home it’s the part of the country they belong to, and where theirs ancestors lived.”

Although Australia prides itself on being a multicultural society, Farrell recalls her friends’ experiences with inherent racism, which is perpetuated on an everyday basis by the idea that Australia’s default ethnicity is ‘white’.

“My friends of colour always get asked ‘where are you from? No no, where are you from?’ People don’t ask me where I’m from, despite being first generation Australian on my mother’s side,” Farrell explains.

With almost three quarters of Australians in support of same-sex marriage, and over eighty per cent of Australians supporting recognition of Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander people in the nation’s constitution, it is evident that Australians’ attitudes are progressively shifting towards a more equal and unprejudiced society. With that said, the current conservative government must reassess their priorities to reflect the overwhelming public sentiment if they truly believe in ‘a fair go’.

Sanderson declares, “It’s not enough just to say, ‘Okay yes I support equality’; let’s think about what we can do about it”.