Mateship and diggers: will ANZAC values survive as Australian values?

Prime Minister Turnbull recently created headlines by making it more difficult to become a citizen and introducing questions to the citizenship test and about commitment to “Australian values”. When quizzed what Australian values were, Turnbull initially faltered before reciting “freedom, equality of men and women, mutual respect, the rule of law, democracy, a fair go”.  Turnbull acknowledged that these are shared with many other countries “but they are in and of themselves unique” and that “there is something uniquely Australian about them.”

Other than these pithy phrases, Turnbull has not explained what the unique something is and there has been little meaningful conversation about what values are particularly Australian, or values that Australia would particularly want to hold. There’s not even been much debate about to what extent Australia exhibits those values stated by Turnbull.

Asylum seekers in Australian detention centres and those forcibly sent to detention centres in other countries like Papua New Guinea may struggle to see Australia’s love of freedom from behind locked doors. Democracy has no tax without representation as a central tenet but despite paying taxes, I and a million others do not have the right to vote. My last blog talked about the patent inequality of men and women and it would be a unique interpretation to think that gender equality exists in Australia today.

I previously wrote about Australian values of blokiness and being able to have a fair go. Closely related to blokiness is the value of mateship, a word that I had never even heard of until coming here. It’s a value that embodies loyalty and friendship, and also a sense of the common; common in the sense of together and interdependent, but also common in the sense of being in common, being equal. It is generally used in reference to men and has roots in the military and World War 1.

Australia became a single confederated country on 1st January 1901. Before then, Australia was a collection of British colonies and it was not long before this “new country” was fighting alongside its “mother” country in World War 1. Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty in the UK government and was pressing for a landing at Gallipoli in Turkey. On 25th April 1915, Australian and New Zealand forces landed on the beaches of Gallipoli in the first major combat for these young countries. On that day, a British general wrote to the General of the Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) forces that they had to “dig, dig, dig” until being safe. Despite digging in, they began a campaign that would leave many dead, injured and imprisoned amid stories of heroic courage, determination and resolve.

The notion of a “digger” had been around before but became a prominent phrase during World War 1 and the values of a digger are closely related to the social egalitarianism aspects of the mateship concept. Sometimes it is in times of fortitude that we exhibit our true selves and I think many Australians, certainly men, would want to see themselves as diggers – straightforward blokes who have strong bonds of mateship which demand loyalty.
Wars are a significant part of British history, and London especially is home to many monuments marking these and the passing of those who died in them. I used to often pass by the Cenotaph in London and my legs, whether walking or cycling, would always slow down as I did. The sombreness emanating from such monuments would weigh upon passers-by like a heavier gravity. However, in terms of scale, monuments, like the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, are gigantic compared to those in the UK.

The Shrine in Melbourne sits atop a hill with an unbroken view from the city centre. An eternal flame burns in front of it and within it is a museum that would take you a day to take in fully. It reminds me more of a pyramid than the columns or statues that the UK holds.

Shrine of Remembrance

At these shrines around the country, tens of thousands of people will attend dawn services held on ANZAC Day (25th April). I went to one in Melbourne arriving in darkness at 5:45am to be near the back of a 30,000 crowd of grandfathers and granddaughters; of mothers and sons; of wives and brothers; of fathers and children.

April is the second month of Autumn in Melbourne and if it is a clear night, there can be a bite of chill to your face. If not, the darkness can be accompanied by a dampness or drizzle that befits the occasion. Because the shrine is atop a hill with the crowds on the grassy banks around it, the setting is the opposite of a normal amphitheatre meaning that people are craning necks or gently worming their way to the front. But it is not what you can see that draws people to this, it is what you can hear, and more importantly, what you feel.

A General may speak of the service given by many men and women and a veteran may speak of friends lost and lives changed forever. A bugle will sound and a piper will play the magnificent Highland Cathedral. Throats will gulp; eyes will look skyward, or downwards at feet; hands will seek solace in a tightening clasp; and grandfathers will pull granddaughters closer into their embrace.

Lest We Forget is a part of British identity focussed on Remembrance Sunday or Armistice day, both in November and linked to the end of World War 1. However, in Australia, it has taken on a more frequent and omnipresent value that appears even more central to the national identity. It is the phrase that surrounds ANZAC Day, which is a time of the year much longer than a single day.

As well as multiple shrines around the country, as you drive down a road entering a rural town, you often find that you are driving down an Avenue of Honour with trees and small crosses or headstones commemorating people from that town who had died in war. There are constant reminders lest we forget.

Bacchus Marsh Avenue of Honour

The Avenue of Honour in Bacchus Marsh, near Melbourne

At the dawn service, the master of ceremonies informed us that the traditional ANZAC Day parade would be led by Vietnam veterans. I thought to myself that including veterans from the Vietnamese army who now live in Australia was an amazingly inclusive decision. It surprised me but since many of these people could now be Australian citizens, I thought it could be a wonderful gesture that Australia was remembering all of its people who had fought in wars, not just those who had fought for Australia.

This was obviously a bit stupid and naive. I’m not sure if the MC said Vietnamese veterans or Vietnam veterans, but what he meant was Australian veterans of the civil Vietnamese war that America and Australia fought in on the South Vietnam side. He didn’t mean South Vietnamese people now living in Australia (and even less likely north Vietnamese, which was the communist side), even though there are hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese-born people in Australia.

Each country has a film that is held up as speaking of the essence of that country, often around a particular time. For many Australians, the film Gallipoli with Mel Gibson is that film. But it struck me at the Shrine that the Australian identity forged in World War 1, and felt by so many people at ANZAC Day services or walking an down Avenue of Honour, may not be something that Australians of the 21st century will continue to identify with, and if so, will the values of that identity also fade?



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1 Response to Mateship and diggers: will ANZAC values survive as Australian values?

  1. Pingback: Is Australia a democracy when millions cannot vote? | Stories of Australia

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