To me, Australia Day mainly means a day off at the beach with mates, probably enjoying a beer, a barbecue and having Triple J’s ‘Hottest 100’ playing on the radio in the background. In one sense, that’s about it - and that’s what I think is brilliant about it.

I think that we Aussies generally look a little distrustfully on formal nationalism - upon ‘flag-wavers’, elaborate speeches from authority figures, and even the national awards politicians insist on giving out. This stuff is ok, but it’s not what we’re all about. We like to enjoy life with our families and mates, and - thankfully for us - we get to do this outdoors and with a great group of people. That’s what is important to us.

But why is this lack of formality today ‘brilliant’? You see, Australians think that formal celebrations smack of divisiveness, saying our nation is ‘better’ than others, which potentially breaks what is important to us - the social bond we sometimes call ‘mateship’. We truly believe in a ‘fair go’, and encourage everyone to ‘have a crack’ (have a go). It is somewhat paradoxical then that Australia performs exceptionally well on just about every comparative quality of life index, including this year’s OECD Better Life Index where we attained the number one spot…although I have to give kudos to those at Delayed Gratification magazine who rejigged this and said that actually New Zealand is the best! Interestingly though and true to form, a Guardian article noted that we Aussies aren’t cheering about this - in fact I’d go so far as to suggest that most aren’t even aware of it, or care.

What is ‘mateship’? My favourite definition is simply ’the state of being a mate’. The simplicity of this definition illustrates the essentially self-explanatory nature of it. You should just ‘obviously’ be friendly towards others, and act decently to anyone - in other words if you have to have mateship explained to you, you probably won’t get it! But at the same time, an old study found that mateship is probably the only thing Aussies get really high-minded about. People went as far as to say a ‘mate’ is someone ‘for whom freedom, comradeship, a wide tolerance, and a strong sense of the innate worth of man, count for more than all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory in them.'[1]

‘Mateship’ is the Aussie take on friendship… but it is also much, much more. It is - and this is where I actually attempt to argue a point - treating people equally, regardless of race, gender, creed, religion. It removes the need for societal classes, reducing them to just two states: ‘mate’; and non-mate. The standard of entry for becoming a mate is pretty low - just generally doing what is essentially human: caring about others, sticking by them in adversity, and being public-spirited (not taking yourself too seriously helps as well!).

This strongly held and inherent view of mateship has allowed us - and to be honest not many Aussies talk about or even realise this - to go from being the most monocultural nation on Earth, to the world’s most multicultural nation within just one generation. Recent data found that close to 25% of Australians are foreign-born, and on top of that, nearly another 25% had at least one of their parents born overseas. This is the highest rate of multiculturalism in the advanced world. In addition to our multiculturalism, we were also one of the very first nations on earth to establish a living wage (via the ‘Harvester Agreement’), and with our ‘antipodean’ neighbour New Zealand, were the first nations to give women the right to vote.

On reflection, mateship is probably not really an Australian concept at all - but just our expression of what most people are striving for: universal human dignity. We are not there yet in Australia, we recognise this, but I think we should continue to focus on this as one of our core values.

That’s why celebrating Australia Day by ‘just’ enjoying a beer with some mates, probably at the beach, is why we like to celebrate it in this way.

[1] (A G Butler, The Digger: A Study in Democracy, 1945 in The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, p 213).