A year ago, on 4 July 2018, that flagship of Australian values diplomacy, mateship, went down with all hands in the Potomac River in Washington DC. That day had been set aside to commemorate a centenary of allied combat involving Australian and United States forces in foreign fields. Sadly, the launch turned into a scuttling.
Around six months earlier, Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, had initiated a cultural diplomacy campaign in Washington under the title “Celebrating a Centenary of Mateship.” The embassy launched a dedicated webpage and announced a calendar of events, including a military tattoo, a religious service in Washington National Cathedral, and centenary commemorations involving prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and president Donald Trump.
The occasion being marked was certainly deserving of commemoration. One hundred years earlier on 4 July 1918, Australian and American troops under the command of General Sir John Monash conducted a successful offensive against German forces in the French town of Hamel, helping to turn the tide against German forces on the Western Front. This was the first time American and Australian troops had fought side by side, and the first occasion on which American troops fought offensively under a non-American commander. General Monash had chosen 4 July as the date of the battle.
And so, the embassy website continues, “Since that day, Australian and American soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and women have served alongside one another in every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries. Our military alliance endures today, as our armed forces work together in Iraq and Syria to combat the threat of terrorism.”
No sooner was the schedule of centenary events under way than an Australian journalist, Meggie Palmer, detonated a digital depth-charge, pointing out in her online newsletter that all fifteen Centenary of Mateship ambassadors were male and white. That may not have concerned Ambassador Hockey, who had long been engaged, alongside former prime minister Tony Abbott, in a long-running domestic culture war celebrating national values such as mateship and treating concerns about gender equity and cultural diversity as self-indulgent identity politics. But the Australians had misread their mates, even in Donald Trump’s America-First America. An apology was issued — Hockey accepted the blame — and nothing more was heard of the Centenary of Mateship.
To be fair, men on both sides of Australian politics are prone to nostalgia about old-fashioned Australian values and tempted to translate their homespun folklore into diplomacy. Labor may be less inclined than the Coalition parties to trumpet “national values” in its foreign policy statements, or enact them in bilateral relations in office, but it has a similar weakness for translating working men’s values into diplomacy.
Please click here to read the full “How mateship made way for freedom, democracy and rule of law” article at Inside Story.
This article is an edited version of the Perspectives:Asia lecture given by Professor Emeritus John Fitzgerald, Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art on Thursday 4 July 2019 hosted by the Griffith Asia Institute and Queensland Gallery of Modern Art.