Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Icons should be priceless”

25 August 2015

Countless men, women and children have met their maker in the vast emptiness of the Australian outback.

Their marked and unmarked lone graves are scattered wherever settlers have roamed in Australia.

Some died in accidents along the stock routes or in the mining tents, some infants died of pneumonia in their mother’s arms as the family wagon searched for land, some died when a petty quarrel ended in gunshots in some off-beaten campsite.

But while each site marks an important moment in time in our history, there is perhaps no more famous final resting place than the shallow waters of a billabong in north-west of Winton.

The fate of the swagman in the song Waltzing Matilda has been enshrined in Australian folklore for more than a century, yet its appeal never wanes.

Schoolchildren sing it. Historians discuss and debate it.

Some historians and legal professionals have even go so-far as to claim there are serious discrepancies in witness accounts about the shooting death of Samuel “Frenchy” Hoffmeister that challenges the idea he committed suicide.

Some view it as a political allegory about the class war between workers and graziers during the shearers strikes of the 1890s.

And in many ways that perhaps shows the lasting appeal of Waltzing Matilda.

In many ways it is still a puzzle how this song has become seen as embodying the official spirit of Australia.

It remains a uniquely Australian story yet we still ask ourselves what Paterson meant when he wrote the words?

To this day, we still wonder why a song about a thief who commits suicide still swells us with such pride and patriotism?

We ask ourselves, more than a century after it was written, what does this song say about our national spirit?

The song again drew headlines in June when the Waltzing Matilda Centre at Winton was destroyed by fire.

Like most Australians, I felt a genuine sense of loss when I heard the news.

That sense was only further amplified when, about a fortnight later, I travelled to Winton with Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash and saw the damage to the museum first hand.

In the weeks since the fire it has come to light that a Melbourne-based production company has sought to expand its trademark over the Waltzing Matilda brand.

It has sparked a heated debate about the commodification of our national icons and whether it is appropriate for private companies to claim ownership over symbols that have transcended their original meaning to become external expressions of a society’s inner convictions.

Banjo Paterson could never have fathomed when he wrote the lyrics to Waltzing Matilda in 1895 that his words would later provide console for diggers in the First World War trenches, temper for crowds cheering Australian sportspeople and inspiration to untold songwriters, poets, writers and, even the odd politician or two.

The swagman in our song has taken a hallowed position as the type of character who the rich and powerful might regard as a criminal, but who we, the average Australian, believes to be a hero, champion and fighter for justice.

There is no doubt that cultural icons can have significant commercial value, since the marketability of products or services may be boosted by an association with an iconic symbol and its inherent message.

But I do not think I am alone when I say that I do not believe national consciousness should be commodified.

Some things must be above the almighty dollar.

Waltzing Matilda expert and Kynuna resident Richard Magoffin was the owner-operator of what he called the Matilda Expo and Heritage Theatre, where for almost two decades he sang, played an accordion and told his stories. He also sang and told stories in Kynuna’s Blue Heeler Hotel.

Magoffin was a bloke who understood what made up the Australians spirit.

Interviewed before his death in 2006, Magoffin said he believed Waltzing Matilda was much more than a simple ditty about a swagman who leapt into a billabong.

Instead, he said the song was the celebration of the Australian predilection to “talking in opposites” – turning disaster into humour.

“We call a tall man Shorty, a red-headed bloke Bluey, a big fella’s called Tiny and you can call your best mate a proper mongrel bastard,” Magoffin said.

“Anzac Day commemorates a dreadful military disaster and we sing a silly song about a suicide. It all suits us because we are a silly lot … I don’t know whether we turn disaster into chaos or into humour or both.”

Any warm blooded Australian can’t help but smile when they read this wry characterisation of our peculiar national consciousness.

It’s a spirit we’d be fools to give away, let alone sell to the highest bidder.