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Mateship (Australia’s word of honour) and Kokoda

MateshipNIKKI GEMMELL | The Australian

IT’S A word that presses all our national buttons. One of those go-to terms for politicians seeking an easy emotional resonance.

As a nation we’ve claimed it and desexualised it and morphed it into something deeply endearing; it’s held fiercely in our national psyche. It’s mateship. A term of colonial Australia used as vividly back then as it is now.

From the German for comrade, related to the concept of having a meal together, it was brought to these shores by the convicts. It evokes Depression drifters and diggers, six o-clock swills and smokos, tradies and truckies.

And as we approach Anzac Day, our sepia-tinged word for a deeply loyal companionship is coming under threat from unexpected quarters.

In Papua New Guinea, on the track known as Kokoda – another word barbed deep in our national psyche – the word “mateship” has been controversially replaced on a sign with the far more anodyne “friendship”.

Aussie veterans are furious because mateship has a very specific meaning for them; it’s as distinctively Australian as the rising sun army badge and slouch hat. Aussie mateship in war encapsulates sacrifice as much as it does the smoko; it’s about unwavering loyalty and trust and working together in adversity against a common enemy, whether that be a member of the Rum Corps, the unforgiving bush, the bastard boss or the Japs.

It’s a word stronger and tougher than friendship, encapsulating the beautiful best of Australian masculinity. It’s binding and softening.

After Kokoda - Mateship isuravaThe memorial at Owers Corner describes the mateship forged between the Australian and Papua New Guinean military, and vets are concerned that the change in signage could detract from the trail’s emotive military history.

“Mateship” is inscribed on one of four memorial slabs there; the others read “courage”, “endurance” and “sacrifice”.

The Australian has reported that PNG officials have changed the sign to become more politically correct, based on concerns that some locals were offended by the word “mate”. A government official explained that villagers along the track respected that the term meant loyalty and companionship, but others didn’t understand. Because the term “mate” can also, of course, describe a lover or partner.

Veteran Charlie Lynn says he’s not surprised by the move: “Mateship is no longer a politically correct word because of its male, Anglo-Saxon connotations … somewhere in the Canberra bubble they don’t like it so they’ve changed it to friendship.”

I love the word. Love hearing men call each other mate, in all its myriad tonal variations. It can be a plea, a threat, an admonishing; a yearn, a declaration of pride, an admission of love.

In an Australian context the word feels physical and emotional rather than intellectual. It’s an unconscious soldier slung over a shoulder, a shared cup of tea on the wallaby; it’s not necessarily a yarn about La Traviata.

Henry Lawson wrote in Shearers: They tramp in mateship side by side – The Protestant and Roman. They call no biped lord or ‘sir’, And touch their hat to no man!

The emotional resonance of the word in Australia can’t be underestimated. Several years back Westpac published a survey of 1,000 people who were asked to define what makes a typical Australian. Their top answer was “mateship”; runners-up were “friendly” and “laid-back”.

Nikki_gemmellMateship is a word of generosity incubated in adversity. It’s a great leveller, it’s classless, it’s about rolling up your shirt sleeves and working side by side, sweaty brow to sweaty brow; it’s about community as opposed to an elite only out for themselves.

This newspaper has reported that Australian authorities will be fighting to keep “mateship” on the Kokoda sign. In the lead-up to the 75th anniversary of the Kokoda battle – arguably our most significant World War II campaign – that feels right.


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Len Thompson

As the old saying goes - "why let the truth get in the way of a good story".

This story is not only full of untruths, it is not a good story.

1. The pillar with the word 'Mateship' is not at Owers Corner but at the Isurava memorial site,

2. There has never been a memorial, or sign, that had the word 'Mateship' on it at Owers Corner.

This whole beat up story emanates from a former NSW politician, Charlie Lynn, who has a vested interest in having his name and picture appearing throughout all forms of media outlets.

Naturally, surviving veterans of the Kokoda Campaign, Australian and Papua New Guinean and villagers along the Trail, are terribly upset on hearing this message and it is unforgivable that such lies and innuendo are used for personal egotistical gain. Kokodabro.

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