Thursday, May 26, 2011

Is Australia's mateship ethic being lost in the big cities?

This question was raised by Shona in a guest post about volunteering in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. I don’t feel qualified to provide an authoritative answer, but that feeling does not always prevent me from providing comments on other matters outside my area of expertise. Perhaps someone will tell me if my comments are wide of the mark.

Mateship was identified by Russel Ward as an important component of the ‘Australian identity’ – the ideas about themselves that Australians tend to identify with - in his book, ‘The Australian Legend’, first published in 1958. Ward suggested that this mateship ethic stemmed mainly from the loneliness of life in the Australian inland. In his later book, ‘Australia’, Ward explained mateship in these terms:

‘In reaction to their loneliness, to the sundering distances and to the harshness of nature, men tended to help and trust each other. This is not to claim of course that Australians are in fact notably more altruistic than other people, but merely that they tend to value collective aid and mutual aid more highly than do, for example, Americans; just as they value less highly rugged individualism’ (1967: 9).

I am not entirely comfortable with those comparisons with America. I agree that Australians probably do tend to place less value on rugged individualism than do Americans. For example, surveys show that the percentage of Australians who consider it to be important to encourage children to develop qualities of both independence and determination is lower than in the US. However, Ward himself claimed that ‘fierce independence’ was a component of Australian identity. Ward also observed in ‘Australia’ that in the third quarter of the 19th century Australian political sentiment was ‘strongly individualistic and not markedly either collectivist or nationalist’ (p 79).

Has the propensity of Australians to form voluntary associations for mutual benefit been any greater than that of Americans? I doubt it. Remember the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville in ‘Democracy in America’ (published in 1835) :

‘Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools’ (II, 2, V).

Ward seems to be on firmer ground in suggesting that the early dominance of large-scale grazing properties in the Australia farm sector (in contrast to the dominance of smaller-holder agriculture in the US frontier until about 1870) led to a situation where much of the work was done by people – shearers, drovers etc. – who did not perceive their interests to be closely aligned with those of property owners (p. 60). This can be linked to the subsequent development of trade unions, major strikes, the rise of the Australian Labor Party and the advance of state collectivism – which tended to displace voluntary associations for mutual benefit.

It is worth noting at this point that mateship has a downside as well as an upside. The downside of mateship is that it can mean ‘looking after your mates’ at the expense of other people. For a long time this aspect of mateship supported racial discrimination, compulsory unionism and abuse of trade union power, high trade barriers protecting some industries at the expense of others, discrimination against women and various forms of corruption. Some aspects of this negative form of mateship are still evident in the activities of some interest groups, as well as some politicians, unionists, businessmen and public servants in the big cities as well as the rest of the country.

At last I think I am now ready to focus on the positive side of the mateship ethic and the specific question of whether it has been lost in the big cities. Volunteering is more common among those living in parts of the states outside the capital cities (38% of those surveyed by the ABS in 2006 versus 32% for the capital cities). When I look more closely, however, the difference is most marked in Victoria and New South Wales and non-existent in Queensland - the state with the highest average rate of volunteering (38%). In both Sydney and Melbourne, 30%, of those surveyed were engaged in volunteering, but in the rest of the two states the proportion was 41% in Victoria and 37% in New South Wales.

There are strong reasons based on self-interest to expect rates of volunteering to be higher in small rural communities than in major capital cities. In a small rural communities people are exposed to greater risk of natural disasters such as bush fires and floods and depend to a larger extent on voluntary help from each other to avoid harm to their families when disaster threatens. In most small communities people who had a reputation for free-riding (sponging on their mates) would probably not be denied help in the event of disaster, but few people would be prepared to take that chance.

Would people in Sydney and Melbourne show a strong spirit of mateship if these cities were threatened by a major disaster? I’m not sure. When a substantial part of Queensland was flooded earlier this year, it was obvious that many people in the rural areas showed great acts of kindness to each other. As the flood waters approached Brisbane I wondered whether this community spirit would be replaced by an attitude of just helping family and close friends. Such concerns were unwarranted. After the flooding many people in Brisbane volunteered spontaneously to help strangers to clean up their properties. This suggests to me that the best aspects of the mateship ethic is still alive and well in Brisbane. I can’t be as confident that people would help each other to the same extent in the event of a disaster in Sydney or Melbourne – but I hope I am being too pessimistic.

I rarely write a postscript so soon after writing an article. However, after checking the World Values Survey data on qualities that parents consider important in children I found that the situation has turned around between 2000 and 2006/7 surveys. In the later survey 64% of Australians identified independence as a desirable child quality versus 54% in the US. The percentages identifying determination/perseverence as desirable were 50% among Australians and 40% among Americans. That suggests to me that Australians might now place a higher value on rugged individualism than US citizens.

A comparison of active membership of voluntary organizations in the US and Australia does not suggest that volunteering is more important in one than the other. Americans are about twice as likely as Australians to be active members of a church, but Australians are about twice as likely as Americans to be active members of a sporting organization. (That lines up with the view that sport is the national religion of Australia). Active membership of 'Arts, music and educational' organizations and charitable organizations is much the same in both countries.

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