Mateship; virtue or vice?

Contact: email daveclarkecb@yahoo.com
Created 2007/02/28, modified 2019/02/02

Prime Minister Howard held that mateship was one of the great Australian virtues. What is mateship? You would have to say that mateship is about standing by your mates, right or wrong, through thick and thin, putting your friendship before all else.

What could be wrong with that? At first site it appears to be a creditable attribute, but the problem is not with who is included in the mateship concept, but who is excluded. If mateship requires that you look after your mates it also requires that you favour your mates over everybody else.


"I am a citizen not of Athens or of Greece, but of the World" - Socrates

This sentiment is at the opposite end of the spectrum to that of Howard's version of mateship. Socrates' statement is inclusive where Howard's mateship is exclusive.

Biblical Mateship?

The Ninth Commandment states that "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour". This suggests that it is acceptable, according to the Bible, to bear false witness against somebody you don't know!

  • It is mateship whenever a policeman looks the other way while his workmate takes a bribe; dobbing him in certainly would go against mateship.
  • It is mateship when employees of a government department band together to hide blunders in that department; whistleblowing is the opposite of mateship.
  • Mateship would be that loyalty that keeps a soldier from reporting a war crime carried out by cruel men in his unit.
  • Mateship is in action when a government official gives a contract to his friend rather than to someone else who might get the same job done for a lower price.
  • The biggest single problem of many of the African states is that people place family, clan or tribe loyalty (mateship) before the greater good of the entire state.
  • When John Olsen, disgraced Premier of South Australia (forced to resign after being shown to have mislead Parliament), was given the very lucrative post of High Commissioner to California, wouldn't you say that was mateship in action?
Isn't mateship another word for the "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" principle?

It seems to me that mateship is patriotism and nationalism on a smaller scale. Patriotism and nationalism involves unthinkingly placing your nation before others, while mateship involves putting your mates, right or wrong, before everyone else. Nationalism and mateship both involve favouring those who are closer to you, rather than those who are further from you.

Nationalism and mateship are the other side of xenophobia. The first two relate to favouring those closer to you, xenophobia relates to discriminating against those furthest from you.

It seems to me that loyalty to a larger ideal, rather than to a smaller, is more to be admired, and more likely to produce a good country and a good world. Instead of placing one's mates first, shouldn't one work for the good of the whole of society?

Perhaps mateship was the essence of Prime Minister Howard's greatest fault. When he took Australia into his mate George W. Bush's Iraq War against strong opposition from Australians and from the rest of the world he was upholding his 'high ideals' of mateship. Instead of looking at greenhouse and climate change from a global perspective, he looked at them from a short-sighted and short-term local perspective and saw action as not being "in Australia's best interest". (Action to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions might harm JH's mates in the coal industry.) He looked at "free trade" as being between two specific nations (those nations whose leaders he was closest to) rather than trying to encourage universal free trade. His approach to economics was to look after the wealthy (his mates) and neglect the poor. He greatly increased the funding of private schools, to the relative disadvantage of state schools, because the children of his mates mostly went to private schools.

At the time when the invasion of Iraq was being justified by the 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' argument PM Howard said:

"Well I would have to accept that if Iraq had genuinely disarmed, I couldn't justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime. I've never advocated that. Much in all as I despise the regime."

Recently we have seen the PM pushing nuclear power. Is it a coincidence that a couple of his mates (Ron Walker and Hugh Morgan) are proposing building Australia's first nuclear power station?

John Howard can admire mateship; I will admire fairness and altruism.


Page, James S. (2002). 'Is Mateship a Virtue?' Australian Journal of Social Issues.

John Howard gets Freedom Medal from his mate.