Australian PrehistoryHistory - AustralianAustralian CultureAustralian IdentityCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other Countries


Share |

Australian Identity

Does Australia Need a National Identity?

The Australia Day controversy

Australian values
Australian Values

Australian LanguageLanguage and Identity

Iconic Australians
Iconic Australians

Australian symbolsAustralian Symbols

Australian StereotypesAustralian Stereotypes

Aboriginal RightsAboriginal Rights

Racism in AustraliaRacism and Egalitarianism

Australian mythsAustralian Myths
Fact or fables?




Australian Myths; Fact or Fable?

This is a true republic, the truest, as I take it, in the world. In England , the average man feels he is inferior, in that he is superior: In Australia he feels that he is equal. " Francis Adams - minister to Britain (1861-68) and son of American president John Quincy Adams.

  Irrespective of whether they are true or not, the type of myths that a society creates reveals an insight into its aspirations and values. In that regard, these myths are facts in themselves. Furthermore, they help define a model of behaviour so that over time, the myths can act like a self-fulfilling prophecy as people try to apply the myths to the operation of their own lives.  

In the United States, the most significant myth is that of the American Dream which proposes that anyone can achieve - irrespective of whether they an immigrant, racial minority or a person stuck in a wheel chair. Although only a minority of Americans actually see their dreams come true, the vast majority of Americans still believe in the dream, and have worked hard to make it a reality. Most notably, the myth has been evoked by activists such as Martin Luther King Jr in campaigns for racial equality and the wheelchair-bound Franklin Roosevelt in his presidential legacy.

Unlike America, Australian myths have very little to do with realising one's ambition. Instead, myths based around mateship, egalitarianism and a belief in a fair go aim to achieve a peaceful society where people don't feel either superior or inferior and where the underdogs are supported.

It should be pointed out that the myths do not have universal support in Australia and never have. Mateship seems to particularly disliked by some sections of Australian society. For example, in 2012, the NSW Health Department banned the use of the word mate because senior management deemed that it could be disrespectful, disempowering and unprofessional. Likewise, academic Richard Waterhouse took aim at those who he saw as "apologists for unqualified mateship" while fellow academic Jessica Stewart argued typical values such as mateship needed to be expunged of their racist and sexist elements.


Mateship is a famed Australian character trait. Although critics like to point out that people in other countries also have friends, arguably no other country celebrates friendships in their national identities as does Australia. In that regard, the celebration of mateship as part of a national identity is a uniquely Australian trait.

The use of mate as a term of endearment originated on the Convict ships to Australia. Authorities had dehumanised the Convicts and forbade them from using each other’s names. Consequently, they started referring to each other as mate (from shipmate). It signalled a bond between the Convicts that the authorities couldn’t break.

The strength of this bond was apparent when a Convict named Paddy Galvin was tortured in an attempt to extract information about a planned rebellion. A fellow Convict wrote:

 "There was two floggers, Richard Rice and John Jonson, the Hangman from Sidney. Rice was a left handed man, and Jonson was right-handed, so they stood at each side and I never saw two trashers in a barn moove their stroakes more handeyer than those two man killers did .... as it happened I was to leew'rd of the floggers and I protest ........ Next was tyed up paddy galvin, a young boy about twenty years. He was ordered to get 300 lashes. He got one hundred on the back and you cud see his back bone between his shoulder blades, then the doctor order him to get another hundred on his bottom. He got it, then the doctor order him to be flog on the calves of his legs. He never gave so much as whimper. They asked him where the pikes were hid, he said he did not know, and if he did he would not tell. "You may as well hang me now," he says for you will never get any musick from me". So they put him in the cart and sent him to the hospital"

The Convict origins of mateship perhaps explains some of the political uses that it later developed. For example, the fledging union movement started celebrating mateship as a way of strengthening the bonds between unionists that government and business wanted to weaken. In the words of unionist and poet Henry Lawson,     

"When our ideal of mateship is realised, the monopolists will not be able to hold the land from us."

The concept of mateship was strengthened further in World War 1. Australian soldiers found themselves in Europe fighting a war that didn’t really seem to have much purpose and certainly had little to do with Australia. Fighting for mates perhaps became a kind of justification. As one Digger said,

"I didn't join out of patriotism. I was looking for what I'd lost; the feeling of a lot of mates all working together, relying on each other, for some other reason that making dividends for the shareholders."

The Diggers' belief in mateship was exemplified in the Australian war traditions that grew out of World War 1. Whereas most countries use their military day to affirm the power of their nation, Australians use their military day to remember the character of those who died in war. A central feature of the Anzac Day service is a paragraph taken from the poem 'Ode for the Fallen':

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them."

Along with the Ode, Australian military tradition lionised mateship with the immortalisation of John Simpson and his donkey. During the Gallipoli campaign, Simpson deserted his unit and saved hundreds of wounded men by carrying them from the battlefield to the army hospital. It was an act of self sacrifice that ultimately cost him his life.  

Mateship again attained prominence during the 1930s depression. Swagmen roamed the countryside looking for work or rabbits to trap, eat and sell. Landowners showed great hospitality to them and swagmen showed great hospitality to each other when they shared a meal and a fire. Using the word mate signalled a sense of endearment between strangers. It both reflected the intimacy they felt, and encouraged them to feel intimate.

Looking at Australian history in its entirety, the celebration of mateship can be traced to two main influences. The first was the extreme hardships suffered on Convict transports and Australians in war and in economic downturns. These hardships fostered social bonding. The second was that many of the migrants to Australia didn’t have families to fall back on thus turned to their friends in times of need. Obviously not all Australians have suffered hardships equally and not all Australians have lacked a family network. As a consequence, mateship has been less important to some Australians than it has been to others. Nevertheless, due to the role that it has played in shaping the social development of Australia, mateship is essential to understanding why Australia is like it is today.

Convict Flogging

Convict solidarity was a threat and to alleviate the threat, authorities tried to stop Convicts referring to each other by name. In addition, they often had them flog each other. The use of the word 'mate' became a form of linguistic defiance.


  Australia is not a country where everyone is equal. There are clear differences in wealth and there is a competitive streak in Australian sporting culture that is intended to produce clearly defined hierarchies. Furthermore, in work, people have different levels of responsibility and abilities, and in the military, there is an acceptance of rank.

At times, critics of Australian myths have been a bit obsessive about trying to point out such examples of inequality. For example, the 1993 Australian Education Union's curriculum policy stipulated that children must be taught that they "are living in a multicultural and class-based society that is diverse and characterised by inequality and social conflict".

Even though Australia is not a society of equals, there is a myth that it should be and this myth shapes how Australians engage with one another. For example, Australia is a society where a coal miner may sit down with a winemaker, billionaire, and civic leader to share a beer without any feeling that any of them are inferior to any other. (Not many other countries have people from different classes and different ethnic groups socialising across social boundaries to the degree that they do in Australia.)

  The egalitarian ethic can be traced to Australia's penal foundations where there were clear hierarchies and an intention to keep them, which in turn fostered a desire to break them. As one news report stated:

“31 Deep divisions exist within New South Wales greatly adding to the burden of being a people isolated at the bottom of the world, and therefore needing more than ever to live together in harmony. Historically, the greatest rift has been between the "exclusives" and the "emancipists". The first group believe that anyone who has come to the colony in penal servitude is never capable of complete redemption. These people, who tend to be among the wealthy landowners, thus see themselves as a superior class. For their part, the emancipists, who are all ex-convicts, are concerned with equality of human rights. Governor Macquaire, much to his peril, supported the emancipist cause, despite opposition from the forces which believed it would end respect for the law by allowing ex-convicts the normal rights of British citizens.

Since the Bigge inquiry, though, the colony has been re-established much more firmly as a prison rather than for reform, which has only worsened the tension. As well, the emancipists are divided, between those who committed crimes at home, and in Australia. This reflects a third division, being Sterling for the British-born, and the "Currency", the home-grown population.”

These early social conflicts produced some cultural legacies intended to realise a form of psychological equality. One of these legacies was the tradition of buying the rounds at the pub where everyone (irrespective of their financial background) was expected to buy their shout. It was a way of demonstrating that at the table everyone was egalitarian.

Another legacy was in the informal nature of Australian English, which uses first names instead of titles, and slang such as "g'day mate" on important occasions. Furthermore, Australians often are on a first-name basis with bosses.

  Ironically, being treated as an equal has sometimes offended foreigners. For example, in 1980, a Japanese prefecture sponsored a weekend seminar to discuss problems that Japanese people might experience in Australia . One speaker, Hiro Mukai, stated:

    "Australians appear very naive to the newly-arrived Japanese. They speak the same way with everyone."

The Landlord
W.B Gould
The Landlord

The Landlord, by Convict artist W.B Gould, shows an early expression of Australian egalitarianism. It depicts a suited man with a toothless grin. Strict convention amongst noble man of the time was a deadpan expression; especially if one's teeth were missing. Without doubt, Gould had painted an ex-convict whose desire to conform to social prestige had been surpassed by a self-effacing personality.

A fair go

  A belief in a fair go can loosely be explained as wanting to help an underdog over an oppressor. The phrase probably came from Convicts asking for a ‘fair crack of the whip’, which loosely translated as fair punishment and fair opportunity.

The Convict myth seemed to find a receptive audience on the Victorian goldfields, where the authorities were treating the migrants the same way they had been treating Convicts. Raffaello Carboni, one of the leaders of the Eureka rebellion, explained the outcome of the disabled man's trial:

"McGregorius is not charged with being without a licence, but with assaulting the trooper Lord - ridiculous! This alters the case. The trooper is called, and says the old story about the execution of 'dooty,' that is, licence-hunting. A respectable witness takes his oath that he saw the trooper strike the foreigner with his clenched fist, and knock him down. The end of the story is in the Ballarat tune, then in vogue: 'Fined five pounds; take him away.' "

Seeing such abuses of power helped fuel the Eureka Rebellion, which has also been linked to the genesis of Australian nationalism. Unionists later adopted the Eureka flag and with it, an ideology of uniting to protect the underdog against oppression.

  Aside from in unionism, the myth seems to have been particularly influential amongst Australian soldiers. For example, when explaining why Australians volunteered for service in World War 2, author Chester Wilmont wrote:

"'Italians with whom I talked found it hard to believe that the Australians were volunteers. They understood their own position. They had been sent to Libya to win glory for Mussolini. They presumed that the Tommies were there merely to defend British Imperial interests. But why were the Australian volunteers there? The ordinary Digger would have found it difficult to tell you. If you ever persuaded him to talk he would not have spoken of defending freedom, or removing injustice, or of saving the Empire. He might have said, "Oh, I wanted a bit of fun;" or else, "I dunno, I was fed up with my job;" or perhaps, "well, all my cobbers were joining up and so I went along too." Not much more than that. These would not be the real answers. Men may join up for fun or for a change, but if these are the only reasons, they would not go into action and fight through with bayonet and grenade when machine gun bullets kick the dust around their feet and they see the man next to them go down. If you could get the ordinary Australian to say what he really feels, it might be something like this: "Well, I came away because I believe in a fair go and I wanted to be with my mates; because I like being able to say to a copper, 'That's all right, copper, you got nothin' on me;' because I want to say what I like when we're having a beer at the pub; because I want to do what I like with the few quid I've got in the bank; and because women and kids are being bombed in London and shot in Prague, and someday this might happen at home if we don't do something about it." It was because they felt the battle was being fought for things like these, which mattered directly to them, that the Mallee farmer and the Kalgoorlie miner, the Bendigo bank clerk and the Sydney solicitor made the soldiers of Tobruk just as they made those at Gallipoli.' ."

There certainly was a great deal of evidence that the fair go myth was shaping behaviour of the Australian soldiers. For example, in Palestine during the World War II, Australian soldiers became annoyed by Arab husbands riding a donkey while his wife and children trailed behind carrying the family chattels. To make a point, the Diggers would drag the Arab off the donkey, and replace him with the wife.

A similar support for the underdog was seen in the "Battle of Brisbane" between Australian soldiers and American Military Police. Rather than fight the Japanese, Australian and American serviceman decided they wanted to fight each other and for almost two nights, between 2,000 or 5,000 serviceman ran around beating each other up. The origins of the fight can be traced to institutionalised racism in the American military, which offended Australian soldiers and the Australian public. The American army had a policy of segregation and restricted African American soldiers to the south side of the Brisbane River. The Australians were appalled by the segregation, and refused to support it. Specifically, local dance halls allowed black Americans to enter, white Australian soldiers drank with black American soldiers and white Australian women seemed to show as much attraction to black Americans as they did to white Americans.

The hospitality extended to black Americans inflamed tension between white Americans and white Australians and caused distrust between both militaries. Ironically, the spark that caused the all in brawl was Australian soldiers coming to the defence of an American soldier who was being beaten by an American Military Police Officer. Onlookers from each side only saw fighting between serviceman from each country and escalating tensions resulted in them taking a side.

While the Battle of Brisbane demonstrated that the fair-go myth can sometimes be used to attack racism, at other times, it can make Australians appear racist. Most cultures around the world are structured around a ruling class and a subservient under class. When Australians attack these power hierarchies, they are attacking the very basis upon which these cultures are based. On the positive side, it is a form of cultural rather than racial discrimination. When the culture changes, the oppressor may be welcomed with open arms. This was seen when Australians volunteered to stop Italians, Japanese and Germans in World War II only to then welcome Italians, Japanese, and Germans to migrate to Australia after World War II. As told by German migrant Hein Bergerhausen:

“For the first few days I was worried (about hostility towards Germans) … but you could see almost straight away there was nothing to worry about. Everyone just seemed to be glad to be here…It was a happy time…. The war was behind us… we were all starting again.”

Likewise, in the words of Australian Tom Little,

“I’d four years in the (Australian) army- I could have hated those German chaps as much as anyone, but I couldn’t see the sense in it. We were there to do a job. The war was over and they were there to kick off again and start a new life.”


  Eureka Massacre

The Eureka Rebellion was fuelled by widespread discontent over the way the authorities ruled the goldfields and a feeling that miners were not getting a fair go.

Questions to think about

How are cultural values are passed on in customs and language?

Contrast the values symbolically expressed in the following customs

  • Splitting the bill versus the richest person paying
  • Splitting the bill versus the man paying
  • Everyone buying a round versus the richest person buying for others
  • Using first names versus using titles
  • Being informal in the use of language versus being formal
  • Public volunteering versus the government controlling social programs


Australia has a strong government provided welfare system. In addition, it has a network of charities like he Salvation Army that provide relief to those doing it tough. In Asia, few countries provide social welfare. Instead, the expectation is that those in difficult situations should turn to family for help. Assess the pros and cons of

1. Government welfare (Newstart/Dole)

2. Family welfare (Extended family providing support and individuals in turn sharing their income with extended family)

3. Community welfare (Salvation Army/ volunteering)

Fair go

You see someone being bullied by a group. Rank the following in regards to what you should do

1) Inform the police

2) Fight the bullies to protect the person being bullied.

3) Expect the person being bullied to stand up for themselves, and encourage them to do something

4) Ignore what is happening. It is none of your concern

5) Ask the bullies to give their victim a fair go

After creating you own rank, compare yours with another person and make a joint rank

  The use of myths in campaigns

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr Tanja Dreher researched attitudes to Muslims in Australia. She found that in the two months following the attacks, 248 reports were made to the Community Relations Commission for a multicultural NSW (CRC), which had set up a telephone hotline to receive calls relating to perceived racial discrimination. Most of these calls had been made by Muslims. (At the time there were 340 000 Muslims in Australia, which meant 1 in every 1500 Muslims had called the hotline.)
After reaching her conclusions, Dr Dreher then compiled a press release stating:

"There is in fact evidence of a serious gulf between the myth of 'a fair go' Australia and the reality. As a society we need to start taking responsibility for the intolerant and frequently ignorant nation we have become." (UTS Experts Making News October 2005

  1. Do you think Dreher’s intention was to strengthen the fair go myth or deconstruct it? Why?
  2. What do you think Dreher hoped to achieve with the press release?
  3. How did Dreher try to use the myth to persuade her audience?
  4. Based on the statistics at her disposable, do you think Dreher’s conclusions were “fair”.

A fair go in art

Banjo Patterson’s Man From Snowy River tells the story of an underdog that proves his worth. Read the following stanzas and answer the questions:

  1. The group initially exclude the man. Why?
  2. Who shows faith in the man?
  3. How does he persuade the others to let him come?
  4. The poem has arguably been one of the most popular in Australian history. If art can be a mirror of social values, what does the poem reveal about the social values of Australia?

And one was there, a stripling on a small and weedy beast,
He was something like a racehorse undersized,
With a touch of Timor pony three parts thoroughbred at least
And such as are by mountain horsemen prized.
He was hard and tough and wiry just the sort that won't say die
There was courage in his quick impatient tread;
And he bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye,
And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.

But still so slight and weedy, one would doubt his power to stay,
And the old man said, `That horse will never do
For a long and tiring gallop lad, you'd better stop away,
Those hills are far too rough for such as you.'
So he waited sad and wistful only Clancy stood his friend
`I think we ought to let him come,' he said;
`I warrant he'll be with us when he's wanted at the end,
For both his horse and he are mountain bred.



Share |