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Thomas R Lovett

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Australian Culture - Mateship and A Fair Go
by Thomas R Lovett   
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Last edited: Saturday, June 20, 2015
Posted: Friday, December 19, 2008

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Australian Culture was formed in brutal punishment and hardship of convict life in the driest continent, under cruel and vindictive control of British redcoats and "flogging parson-magistrates" yet it became one of the fairest and most law abiding and most democratic nations on earth. How did this happen?








Australia Day – 26 January

Australian Cultural Values

Tom Lovett

Descended from convicts and early settlers of Irish, English, Cornish and European origin, Tom grew up on a farm, became a woolclasser and worked in the shearing sheds in the outback, was a soldier and then an editor and a consultant.  He is now a writer and broadcaster.  He is father of six and grandfather of twenty.  Here he writes about the origins and attributes of two Australian Cultural values, Mateship and a Fair Go, while touching on other cultural values and idiosyncrasies, such as the Australian ‘bush-ethos’, the ‘tall-poppy’ syndrome, itinerant lifestyle, secularism, sportsmanship and self-deprecating humor.


Aussie Mateship


Mateship was not invented in Australia but we gave it the name.  An example from antiquity; David and Jonathon before David became King of ancient Israel.  There are other examples in history and myth; King Arthur’s knights come to mind.  But these are generally exceptions rather than the rule.   Uniquely, in Australia, Mateship developed into a cultural norm.   Everyone is entitled to have a mate.

Mateship means far more than friendship.  It means a bond between two people, usually men, which is stronger than kinship, stronger than comradeship-in-arms and stronger than any other type of bond that can develop between two people outside marriage.  The pervading culture of equality and egalitarianism is a major factor in the development of Aussie Mateship. 

In 1926, Bill Hornadge wrote,

 “What is a mate nowadays?  Somebody you can rely on - through thick, thin and middling; past hell and high-water.  Like the mariner’s compass he always points north to you.  In any trouble, you know what he will do, without argument; because, since he is your mate, it is exactly what you would do yourself.  Your mate is indeed yourself in another fellow’s skin - perhaps your better self, perhaps your worse self; but always the same old six-and-eightpence (68 cents), even when he measures up to thirteen and fourpence ($1.34), or down to five and tuppence (52 cents).  Seems contradictory, doesn’t he? - Your mate.  He is!  My Australian oath he is!  Look at my mate!  Take it from me, there never was such a dogmatic, obstinate, prejudiced, pig-headed son of a twisted mallee root since mates were discovered.  Yet I stick to him; I can’t get rid of him; he is inside my skin; he’s me, bother him!”.[1]

Australian Mateship developed out of the cruel hardships that the first white ‘migrants’ suffered in stinking mainly English and Irish jails, in rotting hulks on the Thames, chained in the dank, dark holds on leaking convict sailing ships on storm tossed or becalmed oceans for many months, and later chained together clearing land, breaking rocks and constructing roads and buildings by hand and living in rough camps guarded by arrogant redcoats armed with guns and by favored prisoners armed with whips.

When three-quarters of the population was either convict or of convict origin, Mateship grew and flourished amongst the reformed and wicked alike in the midst of harshness and cruelty.  Convicts who could not abide the evil system of slavery and punishment any longer who managed to escape into the bush were likely to become bushrangers and join up with other escapees, who became their mates.  They were as much endowed with Mateship as the majority, well-behaved convicts who were granted tickets of leave, were pardoned for good behavior, or finished their sentences.  Most free colonials, except government officials and the wealthy landowners, were unwilling to report to the authorities the sighting of a bushranger. They knew what a captured bushranger’s punishment would be and often had experienced it first-hand.  That form of Mateship is still widespread in Australia today.  We dislike dobbers.  Yet we are one of the most law-abiding nations on earth.

For the first seventy years most of the 50,000+ convicts experienced intolerable suffering, loss of everything that was dear; the only hope being to survive another day, and eventually being freed if one could only survive that long.  Many died in chains.

Bill Scott’s book quotes a letter by George Thompson written in 1792,

“About four miles from (Parramatta) is another settlement - Toongabby - where the greatest number of migrants are, and work very hard (there is also a good crop of corn standing, and promises well).  Their hours for work are from five in the morning till eleven; they then leave off till two in the afternoon, and work from that time till sunset.  They are allowed no breakfast hour, because they have seldom anything to eat.  Their labor is felling trees, digging up the stumps, rooting up the shrubs and grass, turning up the ground with spades or hoes, and carrying the timber to convenient places.  From the heat of the sun, the short allowance of provision, and the ill-treatment they receive from a set of merciless wretches (most of them of their own description) who are their superintendents, their lives are rendered truly miserable.  At night they are placed in a hut, perhaps fourteen, sixteen, or eighteen together (with one woman, whose duty is to keep it clean and provide victuals for the men while at work), without the comfort of either beds or blankets, unless they take them from the ship they come out in, or are rich enough to purchase them when they come on shore.  They have neither bowl, plate, spoon, or knife but what they make of the green wood in this country, only one small iron pot being allowed to dress their poor allowance of meat, rice, etc., in short, all the necessary conveniences of life they are strangers to, and suffer everything they could dread in their sentence of transportation.  Some time since it was not uncommon for seven or eight to die in one day, and very often while at work, they being kept in the field till the last moment, and frequently while being carried to the hospital.  Many a one has died standing at the door of the storehouse waiting for his allowance of provision, merely for want of sustenance and necessary food.”[2] 

Convict transportation continued another sixty years.  It affected the lives of all the surviving freed convicts and their offspring for at least another seventy five years.  Hence, for at least three quarters of their existence the Australian colonies and, later, the states of this federation, were deeply influenced by the culture of convict survival.

Those fortunate convicts, who gained freedom legally or not, were very grateful.  They expressed their gratitude by caring about their mates.   They had ample opportunity - in drought, fire and flood - to care about and support their mates.  Under the never-ending oppression of judges and clergy-magistrates they stood by their mates and knew that their mates would stand by them in court.  “I am alive; I am grateful; I must help my mates,” was and is their credo.

It is a paradox that such great injustices and even greater suffering brought into existence perhaps the fairest nation on earth. 

 Modern Aussie Mateship

Just as it was offered to our immigrant forefathers, most modern Australians offer this unique form of friendship and equality to all comers, illegals, and overstayers, as well as legitimate migrants and refugees, if they will not abuse it.

The most outspoken, passionate lovers of Australian culture that I meet are as likely to be the children of immigrants themselves as they are likely to be descendents of convicts like me.  Even so, not many of them realise the full extent of the pain and suffering, caused by the harsh climate, the harsh land and the even harsher punishment our forebears bore that was the furnace in which the old European class system was melted away and Australian Mateship was born.

What is a Mate

Mateship n.  1. the quality or state of being a mate.  2. code of conduct among men stressing equality and fellowship. (Macquarie Dictionary)

A mate is a very close friend.  Usually a man's best mate is like someone who is known in America as a "buddy", only lots more.

A best mate is someone who will share his last piece of food with you, even give you his last can of cold beer on a scorching hot day.  He will defend you against much greater odds.  He will stick up for you when you are being slandered or attacked, even at the risk of losing his own reputation, job, or whatever is at stake - even his head.  A mate is the one person who will come, sit and yarn with you when everyone else has turned their back.  A mate is the epitome of the Good Samaritan.  He will stick by you through thick and thin.  And when you keel over in the heat of the outback and die he will dig your grave in the stony ground, mourn your passing, deliver your mementos and see to it that your family is cared for.

There is a bond between best mates that is, in many ways, greater than any other type of bond.  Mateship is embedded in the Australian psyche and had it origins in the dreadful treatment of convicts by our British colonial masters.  It was fostered through the harsh life of the first settlers on the fringes of the Driest Continent, through many ship wrecks, droughts, fires and floods and the lonely woman-less life in the outback during the early 1800s.  And it was refined through the rugged and victimized diggers' lives on the gold fields in the mid 1800s.  It reached its peak in the World Wars on Gallipoli, in France, Changi and Kakoda and in the trauma and suffering through the great depression. 

Banjo Paterson wrote as an open letter, to the troops in 1915, a poem he titled:


"We're All Australians Now"


Australia takes her pen in hand,

To write a line to you,

To let you fellows understand,

How proud we are of you.


From shearing shed and cattle run,

From Broome to Hobsons Bay,

Each native-born Australian son,

stands straighter up today.


The man who used to "hump his drum", 

On far-out Queensland runs,

Is fighting side by side with some

Tasmanian farmer's sons.


The fisher-boys dropped sail and oar

To grimly stand the test,

Along that storm-swept Turkish shore,

With miners from the west.

The old state jealousies of yore

Are dead as Pharaoh's sow,

We're not State children any more

We're all Australians now!


Our six-starred flag that used to fly,

Half-shyly to the breeze,

Unknown where older nations ply

Their trade on foreign seas,


Flies out to meet the morning blue

With Vict'ry at the prow;

For that's the flag the Sydney flew,

The wide seas know it now!


The mettle that a race can show

Is proved with shot and steel,

And now we know what nations know

And feel what nations feel.


The honoured graves beneath the crest

Of Gaba Tepe hill,

May hold our bravest and our best,

But we have brave men still.


With all our petty quarrels done,

Dissensions overthrown,

We have, through what you boys have done,

A history of our own.


Our old world diff'rences are dead,

Like weeds beneath the plough,

For English, Scotch, and Irish-bred,

They're all Australians now!


So now we'll toast the Third Brigade,

That led Australia's van,

For never shall their glory fade

In minds Australian.


Fight on, fight on, unflinchingly,

Till right and justice reign.

Fight on, fight on, till Victory

Shall send you home again.


And with Australia's flag shall fly

A spray of wattle bough,

To symbolise our unity,

We're all Australians now.

 'Lest We Forget'

- Author unknown


Where men and women fight bushfires, droughts, floods, farm foreclosures and other disasters, Mateship abounds. To survive all these disasters a man or woman needs to have at least one mate.

Few non-Australians understand the full meaning behind Australian Mateship.   New generations of Australians have incomplete understanding of it also.  Mateship is no longer inculcated in the young by osmosis as it was in my day.  It may be fading into the mists of folklore.  Consumerism fostered by the media over the last 40 years threatens to swamp our traditional home grown culture and values.  But in my childhood and youth it was a strong influence throughout society.   You never desert a mate. 

During the Japanese occupation of Singapore, while I was a boy, one hundred thousand captured British Commonwealth troops, including twenty two thousand Australians, suffered badly, savagely beaten and starved, many died.  Without medical aid, and forced to live in disease-infested work camps, they labored from dawn to dark.  In Changi, Malaya and Burma, Australians had a higher survival rate than all the others.  This fact has been attributed to the mateship culture and wry humor of young Australian soldiers - everyone sharing what little they had and looking after each other in the midst of slavery, starvation, bashings, torture, vile diseases, imprisonment and beheadings.  Yet they were still able to pull pranks on their captors, perform plays, play games and take it all not too seriously.  I am not suggesting that the other soldiers did not do similar things but it is well-known that Australians did it more.   Adversity really does bring out the basic elements of human character, and Mateship is one of the finest.   

Mateship is supported by a platform on four strong supporting pillars; Integrity, Humility, Fairness and Perseverance.  Mateship can't last if any of the pillars are missing.

Humor is the platform, a major human bonding agent, especially the kind of humor that makes fun of self.  Other bonding agents are mutual interests, values, place of origin, complementary abilities, but the strongest bonding agent is that of helping each other through severe hardship and suffering.

The majority of the members of previous generations of Australians were nurtured in hardships.  Most Australians will reach out to others going through tough times no matter where they came from.   And when the others can also laugh at themselves and what they're going through, that is when they will be recognized by Australians as true blue Aussies, and that is when they will find out that they also have plenty of mates; all of us not taking ourselves seriously.   We don't want to be thanked; we only want the others to show that they will do likewise and reach out to help others when needed also and not take themselves too seriously either. 

Perhaps the greatest difficulty for new arrivals, especially English, Middle Eastern, Indan and Asian folk, to fit into Australian culture is when they take themselves and their own cultures too seriously. 

Except in the field of sport, Australians are not like that.  Our cultural humility is often confused by intellectuals as the “tall poppy” syndrome or as distasteful Australian cultural inferiority.  But it is our cultural humility that makes us one of the most lovable people on earth.  We want to keep it that way, although we won’t admit to it.  And we especially don’t want newcomers to contaminate it with their feelings of cultural superiority.  But if they are not big-headed about it then we are more than willing to celebrate their cultures too, as long as they respect ours.

Every newcomer is invited to volunteer with us and experience hardship in emergencies, fighting fires, floods and catastrophes, helping meet people’s needs, peace-keeping, and not take it all or themselves too seriously.  Then you will surely be an Aussie mate. 


A Fair Go

Bill Scott wrote:

“The savagery of the treatment shown to convicts in Australia was worse than that shown any slaves on plantations elsewhere in the world.    ....The convict laborer...who collapsed or died could be returned by his master to Government responsibility, and a replacement secured.  The men who first scratched the surface of the land at Port Jackson, who built the stone barracks and churches at Port Arthur and Moreton Bay were less than slaves.  Perhaps it is small wonder that the attitudes and traits that these men developed for survival should have remained to some degree extant until the days of my boyhood.”[3]

 “The one source of spiritual comfort, the consolation of religion was largely denied them...  Chaplains were provided, but only too often these men were concerned with the lining of their pockets at the general expense of the community rather than with their proper spiritual duties.  The memory of the Flogging Parson ....was still so bitter even in the 1930s... as to cause Kenneth Slessor to write what is probably his most venomous poem “The vesper Song of the Reverend Samuel Marsden.”

It is a strange paradox that such great injustices and even greater suffering brought into existence perhaps the fairest nation on earth. 

When freed many convicts headed for the bush.  Some found wives, formed families and took up selections, cleared the land and began more back-breaking toil trying to make a living on the dry land, but women were in short supply.  Others adopted the itinerant life of the drover and the shearer. 

Russell Ward, born 1914, wrote in The Australian Legend:

 “From the beginning, outback manners and mores, working upwards from the lowest strata of society and outwards from the interior, subtly influenced those of the whole population.  Yet for long this was largely an unconscious process recorded in folklore and to some extent in popular speech, but largely unreflected in formal literature.  Towards the end of the nineteenth century, when the occupation of the interior had been virtually completed, it was possible to look back and sense what had been happening.  Australians generally became actively conscious, not to say self-conscious, of the distinctive “bush” ethos, and of its value as an expression and symbol of nationalism.”

The Christ of the"Never Never"

Poet:  Henry Lawson  1867 – 1922.  He wrote this poem in 1898:

With eyes that seem shrunken to pierce

To the awful horizons of land,

Through the haze of hot days, and the fierce

White heat-waves that flow on the sand;


Through the Never Land westward and nor'ward,

Bronzed, bearded and gaunt on the track,

Quiet-voiced and hard-knuckled, rides forward

The Christ of the Outer Outback.


For the cause that will ne'er be relinquished

Spite of all the great cynics on earth-

In the ranks of the bush undistinguished

By manner or dress - if by birth -

God's preacher, of churches unheeded -

God's vineyard, though barren the sod -

Plain spokesman where spokesman is needed -

Rough link 'twixt the bushman and God.


He works where the hearts of all nations

Are withered in flame from the sky,

Where the sinners work out their salvations

In a hell-upon-earth ere they die.


In the camp or the lonely hut lying

In a waste that seems out of God's sight,

He's the doctor, the mate of the dying

Through the smothering heat of the night.


By his work in the halls of the shearers,

Where the drinking is ghastly and grim,

Where the roughest and worst of his hearers

Have listened bareheaded to him.


By his paths through the parched desolation

Hot rides and the terrible tramps;

By the hunger, the thirst, the privation

Of his work in the furthermost camps;


By his worth in the light that shall search men

And prove - ay! and justify each -

I place him in front of all churchmen

Who feel not, who know not - but preach.

 - Henry Lawson

As well as Mateship that “bush” ethos is the origin of another basic Australian cultural characteristic, the principle of a Fair Go.

The unique Australian experience has produced a unique culture, as most immigrants will agree.  No free ride but a Fair Go for all.

The Fair Go principle was established early in the history of Australian settlement.  Poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon who lived from 1833 to 1870, wrote

Gordon’s Creed

“Question not, but live and labor

Till yon goal be won,

Helping every feeble neighbor,

Seeking help from none;

Life is mostly froth and bubble,

Two things stand like stone:

Kindness in another’s trouble,

Courage in your own”.

In my youth, in the nineteen forties and fifties, I often heard the phrase, “Fair Go Mate!”

Meaning - “Give me my fair share” (of whatever is being distributed), or “Don’t take more than your fair share”, or even “Don’t meddle”, or “It’s none of your business”,

“Fair Go Mate!” could be shouted in a public forum, to heckle a politician giving a speech to tell him to “Stop beating around the bush,” or “Come clean with the truth”.  Or simply “Be honest!”

Fair Go has many more meanings. 

To “Give a man a Fair Go” means to do the right thing toward someone over which one has some control or influence. 

Not to dock a normally reliable employee’s wages who came late to work for a legitimate reason, is giving a man a Fair Go.

Letting a shy man tell his story in a pub, is another example of a Fair Go.

In general, the majority of Australians still live by this principle.  Everyone has a right to a Fair Go.  Just saying the words, “Fair go,” will bring a man up short and cause him to consider whether what he is doing is fair and reasonable.

And when some person or group is seen to be denied a Fair Go, Aussies will defend and support them strongly.

In every election campaign both major parties struggle to position themselves as the “underdog” being denied a Fair Go, knowing that the party the voters identify as the underdog will gain a significant increase in votes on election day because the voters want them to have a Fair Go.

Fair Go and Mateship have the same origin.  While one’s mates are identifiable individuals who have special rights which are reciprocated, A Fair Go is everybody’s right.

Walking down a crowded footpath Australians coming in the opposite direction automatically make space for one to pass – that’s a Fair Go.  In queues, on public transport, and in heavy traffic Australians wait their turn and don’t push in.  Newcomers may see it as weakness or timidity, but it is strength and one of the great Australian ways.

A Fair Go is democracy in action, in our uniquely Australian way, born out of extreme hardship, cruelty and intense struggle to build a fair and prosperous nation in this, the harshest, driest and seemingly God-forsaken, land, populated by rejects from British jails, villians and vagabonds, crooked judges and preachers, land grabbers and gold diggers.

The adage, those who forget the past are bound to repeat it, is true .

God forbid that we should repeat Australia's convict past when the whole eastern half of the great Australian continent was one huge jail.  That period brought over 50,000 convicts, petty and non-petty criminals, Irish rebels and framed rivals to British demigods to our shores.  They formed our culture of ‘mateship’ and a ‘fair-go’ for all.  Although transportation ended after seventy years, freed convicts and their offspring dominated the Australian working class for one hundred and fifty years and their legacy remains. Let us remember them and all that we have gained from them, the villains and the vagabonds, the many who made good and the heroines and heroes.  But never let us forget the tyrants and tycoons and the flogging parson-magistrates and land-grabbers who spilt our forebears’ blood, stole their provisions and let them starve.


Tom's weekly radio programs:  'Recover Your Dream Australia'  8pm Saturdays,  'Ministers Forum' 9pm Wednesdays - on Bathurst Christian Radio LIFE-FM 100.1 ,  <  Email: <>

[1] - Hornadge, Bill, 1926, p129,130

[2]  George Thompson, in a letter (1792). [Scott, Bill p37]

 [3] Introduction to The Complete Book of Australian Folklore, Bill Scott, p.13











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