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Living Water
to Light the Journey


Chapter Twelve

Mateship to Community



They tramp in mateship side by side—

The Protestant and Roman—

They call no biped lord or sir,

And touch their hat to no man!

Henry Lawson

Shearers

 

The surest antidote to youthful demoralisation is a sense of purpose: acquiring, that is, a belief in (and dedication to) something larger than oneself. In the individual child, this transcendent sense of purpose takes the form of what is commonly called a spiritual belief. But a sense of purpose is not a matter of individual belief alone: rather, it is intricately linked to a community of persons that has inspired the child’s commitment to others beyond the self. This is why…community and spirituality go hand in hand….Modern culture has elevated the self and derogated the spiritual, to the detriment of its younger generations….The question for us is not how to turn the clocks back and undo the social advances of recent history but rather how to make modern culture more “spirit-friendly” (to put it in a modern way) for the developing child.

William Damon

Greater Expectations

 

A few years ago we became friends with a Korean family who were living temporarily in Melbourne while the husband, a professor at Seoul University, engaged in research. When their stay ended the wife returned home a few weeks ahead of her husband, in order to arrange new accommodation for the family.

 

In Melbourne, they had been living in a large house which, like many rental properties, had not been maintained in tip-top condition. Yet in his final week in the house Professor Kang spent virtually his entire time cleaning it. He must have spent $50 or more on buckets, bowls, brushes, towels and cleaning solutions. He explained to us several times: “I do not want Australians to get a poor image of Koreans.” (My wife told me Mrs Kang would have been furious if she had known what he was doing; usually her husband never lifted a finger around the house.)

 

The large, solid wooden desk I am using as I write this book was his. He bought it when he came to Australia, then gave it to me when he left, refusing any payment. Indeed, so embarrassed was he at giving me a second-hand desk with some scratches on it that he varnished it before handing it over.

 

Such a sense of honour would be rare in Australia, and my wife assures me it is far from universal in Korea, though it is still a force there. And, of course, there is a fine line between honour for one’s country and excess pride -  or even blinkered nationalism.

 

By contrast, a friend spent some years living in the beautiful British provincial city of Leeds. He recalls that a highlight was the arrival every couple of years of the Australian cricket team to play some big matches there.

 

Unfortunately for him, these games also attracted swarms of roving young Australian fans who followed their team around England and who seemed intent on living up to the image that many British people have of Australians, that we are an uncultured, philistine mob of drunken yobs for whom a can of Foster’s is an extension of our right arms. In other words, national honour was not at the forefront of their consciousness.

 

Different cultures have traditionally cherished different virtues and values. Even in Western society we have held different virtues more highly at different times. Thus, chivalry and chastity are not now particularly valued

 

But is there a peculiarly Australian virtue, or character trait, that is different from those found in other countries?

 

 

It is often said that Australians possess a spirit of mateship that transcends family or upbringing, a mateship quite different from anything that exists elsewhere. I quoted Donald Horne’s The Education of Young Donald at length in Chapter 11. Here he is again:

 

When I became a soldier and went to a war I would find out about mateship. From the Australian short stories we read at school we realised vaguely that mateship was also something practised in the old pioneering days in the bush, but we were not specifically taught anything about it at school: as a term used in civilian life “mate” was simply a slang word and you would lose marks in an English composition if you used it. According to the official syllabus the virtues that were to be inculcated into us were not mateship but courage, prudence, perseverance, self-control, self-respect, cleanliness, orderliness, obedience, kindness, gentleness, fair-mindedness, and truthfulness. One of the ways in which this purpose was to be achieved was through instructing us during history lessons in the fables of “noble persons”, such as Leonidas, Cincinnatus, Haroun-al-Raschid, Richard the Lion Heart, St Francis, Joan of Arc, Sir Thomas More, Sir Philip Sidney, Captain John Smith, and Helen Keller. We learned about these people and passed examinations in their nobility, but they were all toffs and the only one of them who cared about his mates was that proto-Anzac, the wounded Sir Philip Sidney, who gave his water to another wounded soldier and died.

 

But is mateship a real Australian virtue? Friendship is important and valued anywhere. In his book on ethics Aristotle devoted two entire chapters to friendship.

 

Yes, I think there is something special about Australian mateship. Emerging from the rugged outback life, it was certainly a transcendent virtue. As Henry Lawson’s poem Shearers - quoted at the head of this chapter - suggests, it allowed even enemies or rivals to come together in what today might be termed a kind of male bonding. It continued into wartime - enabling toffs and working class, city and country, to join together as diggers. It is even talked about today among sportsmen.

 

But with Australia essentially now an urban and multicultural nation, with war no longer part of the equation, and with women wanting to be bonded as well, the spirit of mateship is weakening, even on the sporting field.

 

One of Australia’s most famous dramas is Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Some have viewed it as a celebration of the traditional Australian virtue of mateship. But in fact there is an underlying tension evident in the “matey” relationship between the two main characters, Roo and Barney.

 

Some astute critics have in fact seen the play as heralding a breakdown in mateship. Professor P.H. Davison noted in Contemporary Australian Drama, that Summer of the Seventeenth Doll showed a society coming to terms with the notion that success in the modern world will increasingly depend on one’s worth, rather than on one’s mates. “This may not be desirable, but it is so. The implication is that in this new society the old loyalties must give way to new relationships based upon ability.”

 

Unfortunately, as mateship becomes less matey we are not replacing it with what is really needed: a sense of community. Indeed, our spirit of community, too, sometimes seems to be breaking down.

 

The result is that we find exposed a nation of people who may take pride in what they believe to be their self-reliance, courage and ambition: that is, what academic Judith Brett in her excellent book Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People calls the virtues of independence. But too often this independence masks a spirit of emptiness, of loneliness and even of despair.

 

 

Too frequently our cities have become solitary places. There is not enough of the joy of life that we sometimes see in cities in Asia or Europe. There seems to be a lack of shared values, a sense that we are moving in different directions.

 

Part of the problem is that in our pluralistic society we have been told so often that everything is relative and that there is no fixed morality; we have lost confidence in being able to know what is right and wrong. Who among us nowadays is prepared to discipline a child whom we do not know, but whom we see behaving badly in the street? Some adults are even nervous about helping a child in trouble.

 

When I go back to Korea to stay with my wife’s family the streets around their small flat are constantly alive with children of all ages. Adults are there too - groups of housewives sitting and talking, old people enjoying the sun, teenagers chatting, a few young men in a huddle around their cars - and they are all ready to intervene if a child is in any sort of trouble, or starts to misbehave. My wife jokes that her elder sister cannot walk by a child with a runny nose - any child at all - without pulling out a hankie and wiping clean the kid’s face.

 

There is a palpable sense of community and of intimacy that does not exist to nearly the same degree in our own cities, where many will not venture past their letterbox unless cocooned in a car.

 

 

Part of the problem is that we have politicians who talk about family values yet who seem to implement policies that work against the family and, therefore, against the community. For example, the state of Victoria, where I live, recently changed the law so that shops can stay open very long hours.

 

Now I am no fan of shopping - unless it is at a bookshop or CD store - but I do recognise that there is a certain thrill, a kind of a buzz, about shopping late at night. In Korea the shops stay open until very late, and it is exhilarating to walk down brightly lit, bustling local streets at 10 o’clock on a freezing winter’s night, bundled up in coats, scarves and mittens, queuing at the little street stalls to buy grilled octopus and to drink hot liquor, and stopping often to chat with friends and relatives.

 

But in Korea most of the shops are small, family-owned operations, like milk bars in Australia. The family lives behind the shop, or upstairs.

 

The effect of allowing late-night (and, in some cases, all-night) shopping in Victoria has been to put more power into the hands of the giant, impersonal shopping-mall conglomerates, forcing the low-wage employees of the supermarkets and department stores there to work longer hours (which in many cases is, of course, very welcome to them). The numerous small, family-owned stores must also stay open longer, requiring husbands or wives to stay late, while someone has to be at home to look after the kids.

 

In October 1997, management at Victoria’s largest shopping complex, in Chadstone, informed tenants that they would be expected to open for 32½ hours straight, from 9am, on 23 December. An article in The Age quoted the manager of one store as saying that she had worked in retail for eight years and had seen her leisure and family time melt away. An employee at a small retailer was quoted as saying the “horrendous” hours decimated family life, and she asked: “Where do the children go when Mum or Dad has to work all the time?”

 

 

Schools used to offer a sense of community. Virtually everyone went to the local school. But now parents shop around, and schools have to become aggressive in attracting new pupils.

 

We sent our three boys to the local state primary school, which has spent heavily on computer equipment. It has a computer lab with a trained supervisor, and computers in each classroom, right from the prep level. Few other primary schools in our area have anything as elaborate. I would rather the school used some of its funds for an orchestra, and spent more on boosting music and arts training. But it seems that parents today want computers. (Melbourne leads the world in some areas of computerisation in schools.) Enrolments are rising.

 

Recent years have seen especially strong growth in private education. A friend advised us to send our boys to a private school. He said they will have to spend so much time commuting, and, in addition, will have so few school friends in the neighbourhood, that they will be unlikely to join gangs.

 

They may also end up having very isolated lives.

 

 

Sports clubs can still be an important centre of local community activity. But again there is change. Who wants to be loyal to a club when the star players are out-of-town mercenaries with vociferous agents who throw a temper tantrum in the press every year at salary-negotiation time? And when the league is controlled not by community leaders but by an international media boss?

 

Unemployment is another cancer ravaging our community. In the words of La Trobe University reader John Carroll, writing in The Age: “To realise that your society, which asks you to be a decent, law-abiding citizen, has broken its unwritten contract to give you a reasonable opportunity of stable, long-term employment, is to feel betrayed.”

 

There is little doubt that unemployment helps cause crime, but some surveys imply that this may be as much to do with the loss of an important socialising experience (work) as with actual need. Other surveys in Australia are starting to suggest that long-term unemployment is detrimental to physical health.

 

There are further, less tangible, ways in which our sense of community is being eroded. Look at the high salaries being paid now to some executives. Why is it necessary to pay annual salaries of millions of dollars to executives? In order to make sure we get internationally competitive executives, is the reason given.

 

Is our country so unattractive, our companies so unpleasant, that we cannot get good people any other way? Why did AMP need to pay its managing director a salary package that, according to press reports, could be worth as much as $20-30 million over three years, depending on the AMP share price? Wouldn’t he work for half a million dollars a year? Most people would.

 

Working as a business journalist in Melbourne I found that there was a gulf in media newsrooms between finance journalists and the rest. So, it was little surprise to me that few in the media seemed to notice the connection between 1998’s big stock market story - the public listing of AMP - and the year’s major political story - the surge by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party in the Queensland state election.

 

For much of the strength of One Nation came from a rural reaction against the policies of economic rationalism and globalisation that have led to huge riches for some in the cities while hurting many country towns. Rural dwellers are now among the poor of Australia. When AMP was being listed it was a time for the city to demonstrate restraint, humility and a sense of solidarity with the country, not to celebrate excess.

 

In October 1997, the Australian Financial Review wrote:

 

Stagnant profits have failed to put a dampener on CEO salaries. This year more managers than ever earned more than $1 million. Yet the increases are, unlike those in the US, unrelated to how they perform. Last year 27 Australian executives in publicly listed companies were each paid more than $1 million as take-home pay. This year the million-dollar club boasts nearly 70 members, not including the massive option deals available to most corporate chiefs. Yet overall profits fell for the second successive year.

 

Some of the highest salaries are paid to bank CEOs. I spent more than seven years in Tokyo in banking, so, unlike many Australians, I do not hold any particular grudge against banks. (After we arrived in Australia, in 1993, I spent a year as a business reporter with the Sunday Herald Sun, before quitting to work freelance. One day, one of my editors asked me to do a banking story, and, knowing I was new to Australia, he gave me some jocular advice on the angle to pursue: “In Australia we have a long tradition of bank bashing,” he said. “And at this paper we are happy to continue the tradition.”)

 

But it is hard to have loyalty to a bank - or to any other business with which you have a continuing relationship - when you know that the bosses have been headhunted from elsewhere, and have come for the million-dollar package.

 

 

In Tokyo, I was working as a freelance journalist and, despite that city’s famously high cost of living, was doing well enough to enjoy a reasonably comfortable life. Then, in 1985, I entered banking, after being offered a job as a securities analyst in the Tokyo office of a big British merchant bank. The head of research, keen to recruit me, explained that the merchant banking business was just like any other, “except it has a lot more noughts on the end”.

 

He offered me a job with a lot of noughts on the end. My income did not go up 20%, or 40%, or even 60%. It went up five times. That was the kind of money being paid in investment banking in Tokyo in those days. I also got an annual bonus, a rent-free luxury apartment, an annual home-leave allowance and other perks. In Australian-dollar terms, it was a high, six-figure package.

 

It would be nice to report that I started giving big amounts to charity and generally taking steps to help the many who were less fortunate than me. But the opposite occurred.

 

I understood - like many of the older (that is, aged over about 25) executives in the bank, but unlike the younger ones - that I was lucky. The Japanese stock market was booming and foreign fund managers were eager participants. But they did not trust the Japanese stockbrokers - whom they regarded as blessed with the same degree of honesty traditionally accorded second-hand car salesmen - and they wanted to read research reports written by foreign stockbroking houses. But few foreign bank staff members in those days knew Japanese.

 

I could read the Japanese newspapers, and I could interview a company manager in Japanese and then write a very readable report in English on the company, and so I, along with several other journalists, got scouted for lucrative positions, despite having no background in accounting or finance. We were in the right place at exactly the right time. “It’s a dirty job, but someone has to make all that money,” became our motto.

 

An important goal became survival, which meant flattering the right bosses and stabbing in the back any colleague who looked like getting too far ahead. It also meant keeping an eye open for any other job that might pay more. We were in the business for the money. Loyalty to the company barely existed.

 

Worse, knowing that we had been lucky, we could see that some of our bosses - who often got double or triple or quadruple our own high earnings - had also been lucky. Some were titled members of the British aristocracy, retired military officers or both, and merchant banks seemed to serve as a dumping ground for them. Admittedly, thanks to their connections they could often bring in lucrative business to the bank. (And I should stress that, thanks to the high salaries on offer, the banks also attracted a lot of absolutely outstanding talent.) But the result was that, as well as sucking up to our bosses, we were enviously trying to bring them down at the same time.

 

It was an unhealthy atmosphere, due to so much money flowing around. Stockbroking may be a special subculture, ruled by fast money. But a society dominated by the power of money, with no concept of service to the vulnerable, is not a healthy society. A sense of community becomes impossible.

 

 

In response, many churches are working to restore a sense of neighbourhood community, moving out among local people and meeting them at their point of need. A noteworthy example is the remarkable international Alpha programme, a course of religious teaching intended for new Christians, which started at Holy Trinity Brompton Church, in London, in 1977.

 

The course was taken over by Anglican priest Nicky Gumbel, formerly an Oxford-educated barrister, who restructured it to help non-Christians wishing to discuss issues of life and faith in the modern world. The church experienced explosive growth, and released the material to other churches. Today, it is published and used around the world.

 

In any case, for some families it is now the local church that remains the only place where a living community heart still beats. It is a heart that is ticking more weakly than it used to, with church attendances down and a growing number of parishioners “shopping around” for the pulpit they feel best meets their needs.

 

But, certainly, some churches exude a vibrant sense of community that is obvious to even the casual visitor. They perform a church’s basic tasks of preaching the gospel and strengthening the faith of worshippers; but in addition they run thriving Sunday Schools and youth groups, and they operate numerous outreaches into their local area. As our community structures fragment, it could be the local church - virtually the only institution in our society that is involved with the entire family during each stage of its life journey - that becomes the main instrument for healing our wounded culture.

 

____________________________________________________________

 

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