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Recognising Eureka

I moved a private member’s motion in parliament today to recognise the importance of Eureka in the Australian national story.

Eureka, 26 November 2012

DR LEIGH: To move—That this House:

(1) recognises that:

(a) the Battle of Eureka:

(i) was a key moment in Australian democracy;

(ii) called for basic democratic rights, including broadening the franchise and removing the property qualification to stand for the Legislative Council;

(iii) inspired subsequent movements in Australian history, including female suffrage and the Australian Republican Movement; and

(iv) demanded changes to make mining taxation more equitable, with the revenue to be spent on improvements to local infrastructure; and

(b) the importance of the Battle of Eureka is to be commemorated by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka in Ballarat, partly funded by the Australian Government in recognition of its national significance; and

(2) encourages all Australians to remember and respect the Battle of Eureka by:

(a) visiting the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka to learn about the history of the Battle of Eureka and its effect on modern democracy; and

(b) flying the Eureka Flag on 3 December each year in its memory.

Three hours after midnight on the Sabbath morning of Sunday, 3 December 1854, a winter and spring of discontent erupted in a short and dirty skirmish atop the gold-led diggings known as Eureka on the western outskirts of the Victorian town of Ballarat. The colonial authorities had sent troops from two British regiments, supported by the Victoria police—296 men, all told, against a tottering stockade defended by some 150 miners of the Ballarat Reform League. The miners protected a hand-sewn flag bearing a design of the Southern Cross, beneath which they had each sworn an oath ‘to stand truly by each other, to fight to defend our rights and liberties’. The bloody scrum described as the battle for Eureka lasted for fewer than 15 minutes. Six men of the colonial forces and 22 miners were killed. One hundred and fourteen of their Reform League comrades were imprisoned in the Ballarat lock-up and the flag was torn down. In the following months, 13 miners charged by the state with high treason were unanimously acquitted by citizen juries. All bar one of the political demands of the Ballarat Reform League were granted within 12 months. The first bill for the universal enfranchisement of men in the Australian colonies was passed by the Victorian Legislative Council in 1857.

Today I have pleasure in welcoming to the House John Moloney and Richard O’Brien from the ACT branch of Eureka’s Children. Eureka’s Children fosters the memory of Eureka and the principle of Australian democracy. I thank Mr Maloney for his recent reminder that the battle for Eureka is now an indelible part of the Australian narrative. It ignited the struggle for Australian female suffrage and continues to inspire the Australian Republican movement. The accusing memories of Pemulwuy and Yagan bear witness that this was not the first time in Australia colonial history that a rebellion had been led in defence of a people. The smug orchestrators of the Rum Rebellion proceeded and succeeded in their coup d’etat, while the dead convicts at Castle Hill can attest to the first revolt of white men against the wickedness of colonial authorities.

The Eureka protesters were mostly not Australian citizens as we understand the concept. Only two of them can be said to have been Australian-born. Black and white Americans, Jamaicans, Italians, Swedes, Scots, Jews, Dutch, French and Germans participated in the Eureka protest, with Asian Australians being the only conspicuous absence. But, like the convicts at Castle Hill, the overwhelming majority of miners at Eureka were Irish. They were led by Irishman Peter Lalor and were easily motivated by Irish distrust of English overlords. Yet, out of the gun smoke and mist, the story that emerges does make the battle for Eureka unique in Australian history, a story that cannot be found in any paragraph before or since, a story that was and is an outstanding flare in our democratic consciousness. Until that summer dawn in 1854, no Australian political movement had claimed or defended the democratic freedoms that we today, in this House, understand as the self-evident bedrock of our society.

A month before the battle, 10,000 miners had assembled on Bakery Hill and voted into existence the Ballarat Reform League. The league immediately passed a resolution and with it vaulted across an Australian political Rubicon. The resolution declared, ‘It is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called upon to obey, that taxation without representation is tyranny’—the first explicit demand of Australia’s unfranchised for the rights of political recognition and the responsibilities of political representation. The founding resolution was swiftly developed into a charter calling for full and fair political representation based on universal male suffrage, an end to the property qualification for members of the Victorian Legislative Council, so vigorously defended by the conservative forces, salaried members of parliament, voting by secret ballot, and a shorter parliamentary term. In Australia’s short history that charter is unique, the original affirmation of the democratic expectations of an Australian citizen. I acknowledge the work of Taimus Werner-Gibbings, who has assisted me with this speech, the advocacy of Peter FitzSimons in his excellent book on Eureka, and my co-authors David Madden, Macgregor Duncan and Peter Tynan, with whom I co-authored a book called Imagining Australia, which featured the Eureka flag on the cover.

Deputy Speaker, I hope this debate will be bipartisan. Robert Menzies said that Eureka was ‘an earnest attempt at democratic government’. He repeatedly wove Eureka into his speeches and we should all be proud of the Eureka story.

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