Mateship; virtue or vice?

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 there are several problems with it if you give it just a little bit of thought. If mateship requires that you look after your mates it also requires that you favour your mates over everybody else. And if your mate does something that is very wrong, should you still stand by him or her? If your mate does an injustice to someone who is not your mate, don't you have some responsibility to that other person? Surely you have a responsibility to wider society in addition to loyalty to your mates?

Is there any difference between mateship and cronyism (the practice of partiality in awarding jobs and other advantages to friends or trusted colleagues)? Not much I would think.


Created 2007/02/28, last edited 2021/11/09
Contact: David K Clarke – ©



"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.

What is nepotism, the preferment of one's relatives over others, if not a form of mateship? It is universally accepted that nepotism is unethical. How then could the preferment of your mates be a virtue?

How mateship can be the wrong course:

  • 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 was certainly mateship in action when an Australian policeman looked up the confidential address of an abused wife and informed the abusive husband, the policeman's mate.
  • It is mateship when employees of a government department band together to hide blunders in that department; whistleblowing is the opposite of mateship.
  • The fossil fuel industry makes huge donations to Australia's big political parties, so the big political parties look after the fossil fuel industries at the expense of future generations; mateship in action;
  • 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?
  • A particularly odious example of mateship has been the Morrison government's blatant preference given to retiring senator and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann in his bid to become Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as discussed below.
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?

Waterloo Wind Farm
Wind farm
Mateship has a big part in the Australian Coalition governments' favouring of the fossil fuel industries, that are run by their mates, over the renewable energy industry that the world must turn to if our children are to inherit a world that is not greatly damaged by climate change.

Perhaps mateship was the essence of Prime Minister Howard's greatest fault. When, against the strong opposition of the Australian people, he took Australia into his mate George W. Bush's Iraq War 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, short-term local and selfish perspective and saw action as not being "in Australia's best interest". (Action to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions might harm PM Howard'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."

Later we saw the PM Howard pushing nuclear power. Was it a coincidence that a couple of his mates (Ron Walker and Hugh Morgan) were proposing building Australia's first nuclear power station?

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

This section added 2020/11/27

An example of blatantly unethical mateship

Senator Mathias Cormann announced in July 2020 that he would leave parliament by the end of the year.


Jobs for the boys

Australian governments of both major parties have a record of providing lucrative positions for retiring ministers, this attempt would have to be one of the most odious examples of these 'jobs for the boys'.
In November 2020 the Australian people learned that Senator Cormann had been flown around the world in a Royal Australian Airforce plane at the Australian taxpayers' expense (probably in the vicinity of $3,000 per hour) trying to get himself the job of Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Senator Cormann's tilt at this position has the full support of the Morrison government who nominated him for the lucrative job.

As reported by the ABC "the OECD is an international organisation that works to create policies that promote economic growth and look to improve social and environmental challenges faced globally." (My emphasis)

Senator Cormann served as Australia's Finance Minister from 2013 to 2020, under the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. In this position he has fully supported those governments in their battle to slow the development of renewable energy and prop up the polluting fossil fuel industries. He has actively fought against support for the environment.

Senator Cormann's nomination as Secretary-General of the OECD is not just a blatant case of mateship and 'jobs for the boys', in relation to this position in particular it is quite obscene.

I've written more on this subject on a dedicated page.

Related pages

External pages

Mates first policy: Scott Morrison’s No. 1 value is seeing the country rot from the head down; "When 'looking after our mates' is your foundational value, those who work for you will get the message: taxpayer funding is there for the taking."

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

John Howard gets Freedom Medal from his mate.

Related pages on this site


Criminal leaders



Failings of Australian governments