August 10

Eureka – Australia’s Historical Distraction


Stephen is Young ACM Coordinator and has just completed his second year of a university degree in History and Politics

On December 3 this year, a unique moment in Australia’s history will be celebrated at Ballarat – the 150th anniversary of the Eureka stockade. As one of the only examples of violent insurrection in this nation’s history, Eureka has increasingly become a contentious issue for historians because of the controversy surrounding its significance and impact on the development of Australian democracy. Eureka should be recognised for what it was; a violent attempt at democratic reform and a refusal to pay tax. Fortunately in the years since that momentous event Australians have ultimately rejected the use of such means to attain their political and economic objectives.

Until more recently, the events at Eureka and the Eureka stockade were used by the extreme left and right to champion their radical causes. It is well known that the Eureka flag has draped the coffins of Australian Communists and Fascists alike. In the public arena, the Eureka flag has been, and still is, the symbol of many Australian Trade Unions, such as the Electrical Trade Unions (ETU).

However, there are elements in Australian society who now wish to promote Eureka as the ‘birth place of Australian democracy’, and the flag as an Australian symbol of unity and independence. Eureka has long been a favourite of republicans; it has given them an alternative explanation to the development of our stable and democratic government and the flag has always been their first alternative for a new flag. In the words of republican Opposition Leader Mark Latham “The Eureka model is a fine starting point.”

Before the recent election, there was a strong push amongst republican members of the Labor party to move Eureka onto the national stage. In March 2003, the ALP Member for Ballarat, Ms Catherine King, proposed a bill to amend the Flags Act of 1953 to include the Eureka Flag as one of Australia’s officially recognised national flags. This was followed up by an announcement by Mark Latham that he had “pledged to fly the Eureka flag at Parliament House if he became Prime Minister.”

ACM responded with an official press release attacking the proposal. Further, ACM supporter Nigel Morris (also President of the Australian Flag Society) appeared in the Ballarat Courier attacking Mark Latham’s proposal as a ‘populist’ and ‘politically motivated’ push to glorify the Eureka Stockade. ACM Executive Director Kerry Jones also waded into the debate in the Ballarat Courier suggesting that the Latham proposal was divisive, saying that “you have to very much differentiate between symbols of national significance that unite the nation and symbols such as that [Eureka] flag which divided the nation.”

With the return of the Howard government at the recent election, the Eureka flag will not be flown from Parliament House. However, with the 150th anniversary celebrations the issue of Eureka continues to remain prominent and could be a potential vehicle for republicanism by stealth. ACM must ensure that the events of Eureka and the importance of the flag are kept in perspective and not hijacked by republican elements.

When assessing Eureka’s significance, it must be remembered that the event was highly localized. Similar insurrections did not occur anywhere else in Australia in relation to miners’ licenses and democracy was flourishing elsewhere without the need for violent insurrections. South Australia is the most prominent example, passing into effect a constitution in 1856 without any such insurrection. In NSW too, the oldest colony, responsible government was effortlessly achieved in 1856. However, there is currently a strong push, through the media, tourism and educational facilities, to promote Eureka to a higher level of national significance. Ballarat Tourism executive director Tim Stead is quoted as hoping that Eureka “will elevate Ballarat as a place of national significance – not just a tourist destination.” This desire would be all well and good if did not involve the promotion of the Eureka events to a level of significance which is unwarranted. A new book titled Imagining Australia ( M. Duncan, A. Leigh, D. Madden & P. Tynan, Imagining Australia: Ideas for our Future, (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest: 2004), calls for Eureka to become the central legend of Australian nationalism, with December 3 becoming Australia’s new national day. It is remarkable that the authors of Imagining Australia wish to promote a day which involved Australians killing other Australians as a new day for national celebration. There are many who wish to spin the story of Eureka, twisting much of the historical events to suit a marketing promotion and a certain anti-establishment educational perspective.

The Victorian Government has funded a $1.9 million program to mark the 150th anniversary, including the Eureka 150 Democracy Conference, Echoes of Freedom world music festival, the musical Eureka!, a 60 page book for secondary school students, a radio station to broadcast to the world, and many other festivities and publications including one celebrating the history of dissent – a concert called Living Dissent. The Victorian Government is taking the ‘reflection of democracy’ in the Eureka events even further by using it as a justification to introduce fixed four-year terms in both Houses and proportional representation in the Legislative Council. As well, they are amending the Constitution Act to give recognition to Victoria’s Aboriginal people and their contribution to the State of Victoria. Eureka is already being used as an excuse by the Victorian Government to effect constitutional change and there are those – particularly republicans – who would wish to see Eureka used to justify change at the Federal level. We’ve even been told by some Victorian supporters that there are signs in Melbourne saying “The Unlucky Country – Imagine Australia without Eureka.”

One of the centre pieces of the Eureka celebration is the new musical titled Eureka!, currently showing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne, and soon to tour around Australia. The show has been greeted with rave reviews from many in the mainstream media. However, others have been less enthusiastic. Journalist Andrew Bolt has blasted the show as a “wrong and racist reading that denies the credit for building our great nation to those who did most” (his article is included in this newsletter). Correspondence from some ACM supporters, such as Mrs Janette Taylor who has seen the musical, commented that “it is a better quality production than many previous Australian musicals and it seems to me a shame to ‘can’ it for some historical inaccuracies or exaggerations.” James Button of The Age summed up the potential historical influence precisely, suggesting that “as one of the main events leading up to the 150th anniversary of the Eureka stockade…it will influence the way people think about an event that is the closest Australia has ever come to a revolution.” The show may indeed be a theatrical masterpiece which can be likened to Les Miserables, nevertheless ACM must insure that dramatic interpretation does not become confused with historical reality and that the negative message it sends about our heritage of British law and institutions, does not pass into popular history.

The events surrounding Eureka have become the focus of competing historical interpretations in regard to the event itself and its significance to Australian nationalism and democracy. So what is the truth about Eureka, Australia’s historical distraction? Here are some quick references:

  • There were around 100,000 miners in total on the Victorian goldfields near Ballarat at the time of Eureka. Of this about 150 men were present at Eureka during the raid, of which around 30 Miners and 5 soldiers were killed.
  • The Government at the time was forced to implement taxes to pay for the services demanded by the sudden influx of miners into the region. This tax was conducted through the miner’s licence. The miner’s licence had been introduced in NSW earlier and was copied in Victoria with the aim of deterring those in the labour force from becoming miners, and to provide revenue for service provision.
  • Around the time of Eureka, much resentment was encountered in relation to the miner’s licence. Those administering the licence under the successor to popular Governor La Trobe, Sir Charles Hotham, were not equal to the massive administration requirements, and would only serve to aggravate the situation.
  • On November 16, 1854, Hotham had established a Royal Commission into the situation on the goldfields to improve the situation and relations with the miners. Hotham did make many mistakes in his administration of the goldfields, being young and inexperienced, but he refused to let the miners take the situation into their own hands.
  • Hotham was keen to talk with the miners about their grievances, but was also keen to ensure that the rule of law was kept. Alarmed by the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, he sent more troops to secure the area and further aggravated the miners with a licence hunt on November 30. As the historian Geoffrey Blainey has commented in a recent article G. Blainey, (‘Victoria’s Bloody Sunday’, Royal Auto, November 2004. p. 20) “In 1854 every governor in the western world…probably would have acted similarly.”
  • Republicanism did not play a major role. It was mostly influenced by radical immigrants such as the author of the only contemporary account of Eureka the Italian radical Raffaello Carboni. Such men had been influenced by insurrections that had occurred elsewhere, had not been in Australia long and were very quick to leave after the insurrection.
  • The Eureka leader Peter Lalor would go on to be a mine owner and a conservative Member in the Victorian Parliament. The miners at Eureka were either radicals or what some might term ‘little capitalists’.
  • Work on a Victorian constitution had begun in 1852, and during the time of Eureka it was before the British Parliament about to be passed. It was then subsequently approved by the Legislative Council in Melbourne. This constitution provided for the franchise for holders of a miner’s licence.
  • South Australia, as Geoffrey Blainey has pointed out, was able to achieve a ‘democratic’ constitution at the same time as Victoria with no need for violent insurrection. (Although as historian of colonial government, Greg Melleuish points out none of the colonies were to achieve universal manhood suffrage in their Upper Houses until much later.)
  • Too often we forget the soldiers involved who gave their lives to ensure that democratic reform continued peacefully and that the rule of law was enforced.

These references imply that Eureka was indeed a violent distraction in Australia’s past, an exception in what has otherwise been a proud example of democracy evolving through peaceful means. Luckily, insurrections such as Eureka did not destabilise the democratic process, and the colonial governments remained steadfast in their resolution to continue with the reforms towards the implementation of self-governing constitutions. If anything, Eureka symbolises the path our early Australians chose NOT to take. Many immigrants to Australia had experienced the violence of Europe and other continents as they struggled towards democracy. By shunning the violent route to democracy as exemplified in Eureka, Australians laid the foundations for the peaceful democratic reform upon which our system has continued to evolve. Eureka is indeed a unique event – it is a unique example of violent insurrection that Australians have since rejected.



Eureka, Eureka Stockade, Goldfields, Goldrush, History, Stephen Copeman, Stockade

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