HENRY REYNOLDS. Mateship Multiplied.

Sep 29, 2018

I was idly trawling through the many programmes available on the hotel’s television and came upon the History Channel. To my surprise there was a feature about what was called Australia’s 100 years of mateship with the United States although the particular focus was on Australians who had worked in Hollywood. I later discovered  that the episode  was one of a series of nine five minute features billed as ‘Australia and the USA: A Century Together’ and which ‘talked candidly about the effect both cultures had on each other.’ But the central theme was clear: ‘ it was in war that the bonds grew strongest.’  In fact, the viewer was informed that it was a ‘ friendship largely forged in  blood and iron.’

The History Channel did not make it clear that what was being shown was funded by the Australian government. However its role had been more openly displayed in April with the announcement of the awarding of four special Fullbright Scholarships which were part of ‘the Australian Governments first 100 years of Mateship Campaign, marking a century of bilateral partnership in war and peace.’ 

But large questions remain. Who is the campaign directed at? Where is the presumed audience? Why launch the campaign now? How did such an intellectually meretricious programme receive official blessing?  Was DFAT consulted I wondered or was it created by a public relations firm?

We can assume that the Americans are the chosen audience. An official website addressed to travellers to Australia informs the reader that the bond between the two countries was’ forged under fire.’ In fact the ‘mateship forged in battle is the bedrock of a unique contemporary relationship.’ Malcolm Turnbull’s speech in the States in February left little to the imagination. Mateship, he declared, ‘is reserved for those who share an unspoken bond of friendship, trust, commitment and shared values.’ Warming to his task he enthused: ’Mates stick by each other through good times and bad. Mates have each- others  backs.’

The ostensible reason for this sudden outburst of mateship was the centenary of the Battle of Hamel which, while significant, lasted less than two hours. Australians and Americans briefly fought side by side. But after that they did not fight together and until 1942 there was no military partnership of any kind. It was clearly a strange on again off again mateship. And it is likely that the American public knew nothing about the fleeting moment of togetherness in July 1918. What an insignificant milestone  to be chosen mark the start of what is rhetorically called, ’a century together.’ And the determination to narrow the long relationship with the States to the period after 1918 and to partnership in war wilfully distorts our joint history to the point of caricature. So much is simply left out in favour of blood and iron.

If we had so chosen mateship could have been  dated from the time when young Australians helped crew American whalers sailing out of Hobart or from the close association which often developed on the goldfields of California and Victoria. Republicans in the Australian colonies declared their kinship with America and held festive dinners on the 4th of July. But of even more importance were the intellectual friendships which developed between leading colonial politicians like Deakin, Higgins and Clark and American counterparts. The strong American influence on the Australian constitution was far more significant than transient fellow feeling of battle. Perhaps the creators of the campaign didn’t think intellectuals could be mates. And what of those Australian feminists like Alice Henry and Miles Franklin who were important figures in both feminist and trade union circles in early C20th America? Presumably their friendships could not construed as mateship either. Or were they just too radical to be considered? There was indeed an extremely important exchange of political and social ideas long before the boys went into battle on the Western Front. Australian political development was keenly studied in America as Marilyn Lake shows in the soon to be released, ground breaking study, Progressive New World:How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform.But thinking,it would seem, couldn’t make the cut when compared with fighting.

So what we have is a distorted, diminished and militarised version of the long relationship between the two countries. But why spend money on it and why now? The obvious answer is that it is a response to the Trump Presidency and an attempt to counter his unpopularity and so keep Australia securely by the American side or joined at the hip in the imperishable words of Malcolm Turnbull. The implicit message is that no matter who is in the White House the alliance will endure. Mike Munro, who fronted the History Channel series, said as much when he asserted: ‘ Not even Trump can destroy this deep ,lasting relationship….we’ll always be close mates for sure.’ In a following commentary the viewer was informed:

That seems certain, as Munro depicts, when Mateship catches up to the present, where American and Australian troops are again working together in our Top End to prepare our defences against an uncertain future.

So the message presented to the Americans is clear. The relationship is overwhelmingly about fighting. But it is not just a reflection about the past. It clearly suggests that Australia will continue to fight side by side with Americans regardless of where ,when or why. As Turnbull declared mates stick by each other through good times and bad. Is this the sort of thing that our politicians and diplomats tell the Americans in private? Do they commit us in advance to future conflicts? Is this what our defence and security establishment wants to hear? Is this their ideological predisposition? Are they preparing for this eventuality? Are we already locked to American plans? Is our martial future pre-determined?

In August 2001 the visiting Deputy Secretary for State Richard Armitage declared publicly that the United States would expect  Australians ‘ to fight and die alongside Americans in a war against China’. It was part of Australia’s obligation under the alliance which the U.S took very seriously. We must assume that this is still the American position despite the passage of time and the change of administrations .If decision makers in Washington are aware of Australian rhetoric about a century of mateship they would have every reason to assume that whatever happens Australia will be there if war with China breaks out .There seems to be little chance that our political leaders could side step the catastrophe. Or even want to?

: Is an eminent Australian historian and Honorary Research Professor, Aboriginal Studies Global Cultures & Languages, University of Tasmania

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