Australia's sense of mateship takes some hits

The easy - and implicitly male - camaraderie becomes suspect, asevidenced by a failed attempt to put 'mateship' in the Constitution.

"Mateship" isn't what it used to be in Australia - and maybe never was.

An ethos of friendly egalitarianism is as much a part of this country as Sydney's Opera House. It's rooted in Australia's beginnings as a society of convicts and ex-convicts seeking a fresh start.

But any number of straws in the wind suggest that this ethos is under strain - and that the term "mateship" itself, used to refer to a certain comfortable (and implicitly male) camaraderie, is now seen in some quarters as suspect.

The change is evident in both the public sphere - the prime minister's failed attempt earlier this year to enshrine "mateship" in the Constitution - and the private sphere, as men and women negotiate (again) gender relations.

Nowadays, Australians "are looking after No. 1," opinion researcher Rod Cameron reported last March in a study. "Never before has individualism been so prominent. In this context mateship is just breaking down."

Interestingly, Mr. Cameron's research found individual Australians pessimistic about their future. "We are really living in a much more competitive society. We have been downsized, outsourced, globalized, deregulated, contracted out, and multiskilled, and the poor old worker just sees competition all around."

It was against this backdrop that Prime Minister John Howard's attempt to incorporate the term "mateship" into a proposed new preamble to the Constitution failed. (And the new preamble, even sans "mateship," failed at the ballot box Nov. 6, along with the proposal to make Australia a republic.)

The new preamble was intended to articulate some national ideals that would appeal to people's hearts as well as their heads, as the Preamble to the United States Constitution does, with its references to "the Blessings of Liberty" and the like.

But Sen. Aden Ridgway of the Australian Democratic Party, only the second person of Aboriginal descent to sit in Parliament, observed that mateship "is not a word that captures a sentiment that includes all Australians.... Historical reflection sheds light on the fact that it is largely exclusive to Anglo-Celtic Australians."

Just days after launching his "mateship" proposal earlier this year, Mr. Howard backed down.

Axel Clark, professor of literature at the Australian National University in Canberra, sponsored a conference on mateship there last month. "Since the convict era, mateship has meant different things to people in different social groups: bush folk and city labourers; leaderships in politics, business, and the profession; outcasts and outlaws; women, immigrants, Aborigines and artists," he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last month.

Indeed, solidarity within a group often comes at the price of poor relations with those outside the group. Male bonding may have made Australia a notably egalitarian society, but it has also created issues between the sexes.

Eva Cox, a feminist sociologist at the University of Technology, Sydney, sees Australia as in something of a backlash to what she calls "huge advances" that women have made since the 1970s, in areas such as protection from discrimination in employment. And she points the finger of blame clearly at John Howard, whose conservative government took power from Labour in 1996: "He gave permission for certain stereotypes to reemerge."

"Men have been less adaptive to change because there was less in it for them," she adds. "Everyone else had a movement to go to. But for a lot of men, every time they look around, someone is trying to do away with something they hold dear." Local football teams, for instance, are closing down right and left, supplanted by larger commercial teams. For many men, this represents a loss of their identity.

But in another sign of the times, a government-funded counseling and referral service for homeless men and children opened in April. It's "mainly for people in marriage breakdowns," explains Barry Williams, president of the Lone Fathers Association, which launched the service.

Mr. Williams became a single father when his wife left him with four children. When an accident on the job meant he couldn't work, he pitched a tent on Parliament Hill to draw attention to his bid to receive what was then known as the supporting mothers' benefit.

He got it. And it's now called the supporting parents' benefit.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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