Who owns the Eureka legend?

Which side of politics owns the Eureka legend?

An after-dinner debate for the conference on “Eureka’s significance, then and now”

Australian National University

3 December 2014

My thanks to John Moloney for his introduction, Dave Headon for organising tonight’s debate, and the gathered historians for being here on this, the 160th anniversary of Eureka. Let me pay my respects to the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land and their elders past and present.

I want to particularly thank my three parliamentary colleagues: Nick Champion, Michael McCormack and Lucy Wicks. We don't do enough in parliament that is bipartisan. These three parliamentary colleagues are people who enjoy talking about the role of history in our national conversation, and recognise that history isn't just the stories gone by, it is part of the golden threads that link the past to what we do in the future. 

And so, at the start, a confession: the Coalition - as careful watchers of Question Time will know - are very good at identifying things I've written in the past and drawing them out. So I'm sure my Coalition colleagues have turned to The Australian, 18 July 2013, and pulled out an opinion piece I wrote: 'Why both sides should celebrate Eureka'. I'll be honest, there's never been a debate that I've been happier to lose than this one tonight. Nick and I are going to give it our best shake, but if in the end you decide you want to draw it down the middle, then I’ll be pleased for Eureka to stay the property of all. 

My argument tonight will be simple. Whitlam, Evatt and Chifley were for it. Howard was against it. And Eureka represents Labor values of multiculturalism, republicanism and egalitarianism. 

First of all, on who supported it: Chifley was proud of Eureka. He said: “Eureka was more than an incident or passing phase. It was greater in significance than the short-lived revolt against tyrannical authority would suggest. The permanency of Eureka in its impact on our development was that it was the first real affirmation of our determination to be masters of our own political destiny.”

Whitlam, if anything, was a little more excited by Eureka. His government was elected on the anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz - the 2nd of December - on which, as he put it "a ramshackle, reactionary coalition” was defeated. But when Whitlam gave the 1973 Eureka lecture in Ballarat, he spoke proudly about the fact that his government was almost elected on the anniversary of the Eureka uprising. He said: "egalitarianism - by whatever name we call it - is at the heart of the Australian tradition." Whitlam agreed with Doc Evatt that “Australian democracy was born at Eureka”.

By contrast, Howard disowned Eureka. He said: “it’s a part of the Australian story, not quite the big part that some people give it, but equally a significant part.” If you went to the National Museum of Australia when Howard was Prime Minister, you would have seen a museum that was Eureka-free. When the request was for the Southern Cross to fly above Parliament House on the 150th anniversary, John Howard said no. So instead it flew - thanks to Bob Carr - on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but it didn't fly above the national parliament.

And then there's multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is at the heart of the Australian Labor Party story, and was at the heart of Eureka. So at Eureka were Canadians, Irish, Swedes, Italians, Germans, French, Jamaicans, black Americans and white Americans. In fact only two of the Eureka miners were Australian born. Raffaello Carboni called on all miners - irrespective of nationality, religion of colour - to salute the Southern Cross, as a refuge of all the oppressed from all countries on earth. The miners vigorously protested against the assault of the disabled, non-English speaking Armenian falsely accused of assaulting a military trooper.

Eureka was also Republican – an ideal that sits proudly with Labor. The Irish were republican because they hated the English, the Americans were republican because they hated the English too, and many of the Europeans who had lived through the 1848 uprising bore republican sentiments.

Then there is the egalitarian nature of Eureka. As a notice erected on the goldfields said at the time: “will you tamely submit? … Remember that union is strength, that though a single twig may be bent or broken, a bundle of them yields not nor breaks”. Can you imagine Coalition members standing up in parliament and saying "remember that union is strength"? I don't think so.

Multiculturalism, republicanism, egalitarianism, Chifley, Whitlam and Evatt for it, Howard against it.

Finally, who were they against? They were against the police. What colour were the police wearing? They were wearing blue. I rest my case.

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