This evening I delivered the 2013 Eureka Lecture arguing the Eureka Stockade is Australia's greatest story and deserves far greater prominence.
‘A victory won by a lost battle’: What Eureka Means to Australians Today
2013 EUREKA LECTURE
TUESDAY, 3 DECEMBER
Delivered at the Museum of Australian Democracy, Eureka, Ballarat East
Exactly 159 years ago, in the dirt upon which we are gathered, a man called ‘Happy Jack’ fought and perished. We know little about him – not even his real name. But he was described in one nineteenth century newspaper account as ‘a big black fellow… one of the pluckiest fighters in the Stockade’. Without the Eureka Stockade, Happy Jack might have made his fortune on the goldfields – or, as was more common – scrabbled to eke out a living. But he would likely have had a family. A handful of children. A classroom’s worth of grandchildren. He might have lived to see the dawn of the twentieth century. To be there at the moment of Federation.
Happy Jack was fighting for a cause larger than himself. So too were those who stood alongside him. They came from around the globe. From Canada, Württemberg, England, Nova Scotia, Petersburg, Wales, Scotland, Elberfeldt, Prussia and Rome. Eleven of the dead miners came from Ireland.
The killing was brutal. After perhaps a 15 minute exchange of bullets, the soldiers were within the stockade. Most of the dead were slain after this point. Troopers, hot with victory, killing in cold blood, stormed through the mining encampment, setting fire to occupied tents, cutting at the injured and fleeing or riding them down beneath the hooves of their horses.
Llewellyn Rowlands was hacked to death by troopers over 800m from the stockade. A woman, her name unrecorded, was murdered pleading for the life of her wounded husband. Eyewitness accounts mention Captain Wise bravely leading his men over the wall, ignoring a bullet hole in his leg. The same accounts describe Captain Ross, a Canadian miner, being killed after the action was finished. He died at the foot of a flagpole that held aloft a flag called the Southern Cross.
Some reports suggest 30 miners died within the vicinity of the stockade – their bodies rent by numerous sword wounds – with the final toll as high as 60. Without doubt, wounded crawled into the scrub or down diggings and died of their damage, alone and forgotten. The night after that morning, a Government sentry on a hair-trigger fired into the dark. His bullet killed a woman and her child. We may never know the names of all of those who perished: the Eureka memorial honours those whose names are known ‘as well as the other men and women whose names are unrecorded’.
And yet those who lost the battle of Eureka went on to win the war. Just three months after the confrontation, 13 miners were farcically tried in the Supreme Court for high treason against the State of Victoria. To loud and consistent cheering from the Court’s public galleries, Timothy Hayes - the Chairman of the Ballarat Reform League; James McFie Campbell - a black Jamaican; Raffaello Carboni - self-styled revolutionary; Jacob Sorenson - a Jewish Scot; John Manning - a journalist with the Ballarat Times; John Phelan - the friend and business partner of Peter Lalor; Thomas Dignum - from Sydney; John Joseph - a black American; Jan Vennick - from the Netherlands; and the Irishmen; James Beattie, William Molloy, Michael Tuohy and Henry Reid, were all acquitted by juries that generally deliberated no longer than 30 minutes. Indeed, John Joseph, the black New Yorker who was the only American for whom the US Consul did not intervene, was chaired through Melbourne streets after his exoneration.
On 24 November 1857, Victoria’s Parliament – alert to the democratic spirit of the goldfields - passed a bill granting universal suffrage:
‘All British, male citizens of sound mind and record, 21 years of age or over, could vote for the Legislative Assembly, regardless of their income or property, so long as they could read and write. And they could do so by secret ballot!’ -
One of the truisms of politics is that ideas that sound revolutionary today become conventional wisdom tomorrow.
As historian Geoffrey Blainey put it, Eureka:
‘[B]ecame a legend, a battlecry for nationalists, republicans, liberals, radicals, or communists, each creed finding in the rebellion the lessons they liked to see.’
December 1854 is a long time ago. A child born in Sydney in the early years after 1788 may well have lived to read newspaper reports on 3 December 1854.
And yet, it’s not so far back. My great-great-grandfather might have glanced at the same article. Since his time, Eureka has been reinterpreted by successive generations, the same way each generation feels a need to update Shakespeare, or perform again the great rock ballads.
Was Eureka a youth movement of an 1850s clash of generations? A revolt of free-enterprise against the tyranny of the British Empire? An uprising of the proletariat against the Australian bourgeoisie? The first explicit flowering of republican sentiment in the colonies of the Southern Ocean? Was it small business owners protesting against unfair taxes and red tape? Was it miners demanding more efficient resource rent taxation? Or did it go deeper: a protest against burdensome taxation without representation - a bona fide Boston Tea Party on Australian shores?
Whatever the interpretation, Eureka had a more powerful hold on the Australia of my great-grandfather and my grandfather than it does on today’s Australia. As Mark Twain wrote of Eureka in 1895:
‘I think it may be called the finest thing in Australasian history. It was a revolution – small in size; but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression....It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle. It adds an honourable page to history; the people know it and are proud of it. They keep green the memory of the men who fell at the Eureka stockade, and Peter Lalor has his monument.’
In the 20th and 21st centuries, Australian political leaders have gone on the record to agree with Twain about the unique resonance of Eureka in Australian history. Ben Chifley, monument of the Australian Labor Party, wrote that, ‘Eureka was the first real affirmation of our determination to become masters of our own political destiny’. Chifley’s successor as Federal Labor’s leader, H.V. Evatt, averred bluntly ‘Australian democracy was born at Eureka’; while conservative luminary Robert Menzies constantly wove the Eureka story into his speeches and declared that the uprising was, ‘an earnest attempt at democratic government.’
Even John Howard – no apparent lover of Eureka’s ongoing symbolism – noted, ‘[Eureka was] central to the development of Australia as an independent democratic country,’ while Steve Bracks doubts that Australian Democracy, ‘would have come as quickly – and I suspect our democracy would not be as egalitarian - without Eureka.’ Gough Whitlam hoped that ‘an event like Eureka, with all its associations, with all its potent symbolism, will [come to] acquire an aura of excitement and romance, and stir the imagination of the Australian people.’
The history, this past – our past – isn’t dead. As William Faulkner – and Clare Wright – have said - it isn’t even past. The tidal wave of accounts written after Australia’s Federation is evidence enough that, unlike these names, the history of the Eureka Stockade is not set in stone. Nor, I think, will it ever be. The Battle of the Eureka Stockade has become a Battle for the Eureka Stockade, a battle for its history, meaning and legacy. Geoffrey Blainey has compared Eureka to a, ‘great neon sign with messages that flick on and off with different messages for different people on different occasions.’ This is fair because history has always only ever been an attempted consensus of speculations about what was done beneath the morning mist and gun smoke; but what is done isn’t what’s seen, and what is seen isn’t what gets written.
Organisations of the left and the far right both see Eureka as a militant struggle of protest against the entrenched powers of the status quo, a radical tradition to which only they are the rightful heirs. The beauty and utility of Eureka exists in the fact that these groups, on opposite fringes of our society, can find vindication in their appropriation of the event’s symbolism.
But so can we.
As John Moloney has written, Eureka was a:
‘bloodied drama of the human spirit...their deaths and the symbol under which they died, the Southern Cross, now belong to the consciousness of our nation.’
Our perception and embrace of Eureka is about how we see ourselves, our national fabric, our Australian essence.
What we feel about who we are.
Because history cannot be defined, let alone owned, by any individual or group – particularly self-aggrandising extremists. Well, stuff them. They own Eureka as much as we, they can relate to it as much as we. But no more than we. We can elevate the Eureka Stockade to the central legend of the Australian patriotic identity – where it will embody the first Australian claim to the global ideals of democracy, freedom, republicanism and multiculturalism, enhanced by our national values of egalitarianism, mateship and above all, the “fair go.” Every one of us can identify all or some of those ideals within ourselves, no one would unearth a philosophical dispute with the core values that became the basis of the struggle. It can be all things to all our people.
The Eureka Stockade is Australia’s greatest story. It deserves to be acclaimed as a founding story, perhaps the founding story, of this nation.
For tens of thousands of years, Australians have been constantly updating our dreamtime – our national legends – to reflect new information, new speculations, new interpretations. As the commemoration of World War I takes place over the next four years, we will see much of this discussion take place in the middle of the public arena.
But I defy the pages of our history to uncover a moment of similar transcendence as the Eureka Stockade. Of similar power and suitability. 26 January is Australia Day but also, in the words of Paul Keating, the point from which ‘We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We failed to ask - how would I feel if this were done to me?’
ANZAC day, Australia’s dominant founding legend, lacks both the purity of motivation and moral authority of the Great War’s conclusion, or even the balm of ultimate military success that characterises every other nation’s heroic military moments.
The world went mad in 1914 because a Serbian killed an Austrian and the major European powers could not – or did not – prevent the conflagration that eventually took 10 million lives. Australia went to war without question and without hesitation. It wasn’t our fight, but we fought alright. Our soldiers described their experience on the cliffs, amongst the sand-dunes or in the trenches as fighting for their mates and not to let them down.
Almost exclusively of those nations that fought World War I, Australia’s major commemoration of that conflict is not Armistice Day, 11 November, the day the catastrophe ended, but ANZAC Day, 25 April, the day Australia’s war started. Unusually, we commemorate Reveille more than the Last Post. There’s a message in that, perhaps.
It’s telling too that we focus so strongly on Gallipoli, an invasion that took nine months to invade three miles at a cost of 8700 Australian lives. An invasion described by a journalist in the trenches, Rupert Murdoch’s father Keith, as a, ‘series of disastrous underestimations,’ that was, ‘one of the most terrible chapters in our history.’
Unlike Pericles at the funeral of the Athenian Heroes or Lincoln at Gettysburg, there were no speeches from Australian leaders in 1914 that told us why we were fighting. No speeches that framed the coming cataclysm as a battle between right and wrong, a defence of inalienable rights owned by a free people, a fight for freedom. At best, Prime Minister Andrew Fisher’s strident, shrill declaration that Australia would, ‘stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to the last man and the last shilling.’
Not enough. Never enough.
However, the absence of a defining speech or an oath for the ages highlights more starkly the gap in our national story. And if you’re looking for stirring prose, I’m afraid you won’t find it in our Constitution. As one of its greatest fans, Greg Craven, puts it: ‘Saying the Australian Constitution does not have a strong hold on our popular imagination is like saying fish survive better in water than on land: a statement so obvious as to be remarkable only because someone could be bothered making it.’
Unlike most any other country, Australia references only a military action as its day of national maturity. We do not turn to, we do not celebrate, we do not rely, upon inscribed Australian words that establish our democratic soul.
This is unlike the United Kingdom, which may look to the signing of the Magna Carta Libertatum by King John on Runnymede meadow in 1215 – that nation’s finest democratic hour.
This is unlike the United States, which can draw upon the 1776 Declaration of Independence (‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’), the United States Constitution of 1787 (‘in Order to form a more perfect Union’), and the 1789 Bill of Rights (‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech’).
This is unlike New Zealand, whose national day commemorates the Treaty of Waitangi between the British settlers and the Maori nations.
And this is unlike France, which celebrates its nationhood on July 14, Bastille Day, when the citizens of Paris overwhelmed the Bastille Fortress and inspired the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights’).
By contrast, we Australians have no such documents. No statement of freedoms, no democratic demands, no organic recognition of universal rights, and no common principles of liberty defined, transcribed, acclaimed and proclaimed.
It was written here, in Ballarat, in the late spring of 1854. Its expectations were as clear, its motives as pure, the privileges it identified as universal, its language as authentic and as beautiful in its transformation of moral rights into political demands, as any of those I have just mentioned. It was the democratic sum of all establishment fears, and it lit the touchpaper of the fuse that exploded on these hills in the waking minutes of December 3rd.
We have words. They are our words.
They were written in Australia, in response to Australian experience, and they were read in the Australian morning sun on Saturday the 11th of November to a crowd of 10 000 men and women gathered on Bakery Hill. According to Canadian miner Alpheus Boynton, the words were declaimed by men who, ‘took their stand upon the platform, not to fire the people with a rebellious spirit but a spirit of resistance to oppression, to claim their rights as men.’ They are words that have been inscribed on the Memory of the World Australia Register of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
They were words inspired by a growing and, by that morning, irrepressible collective sense of injustice amongst the mining community. The community was beginning to realise that pickings on the goldfields were no longer as easy as advertised, and profit, if any, would be slogged out over the long term. There was labour for willing hands but the chances of a liberal reward for that labour was vanishing into the mud. Clare Wright suggested recently that,
‘Those who [had] immigrated in their thousands to the Victorian goldfields aspired to something different from what they knew, and particularly from the hierarchies of Home. Yet they also expected that the substructure – the traditional values and social assurance of law, order and justice – would stay the same.’
But the substructure they endured was partisan and corrupted. For some time, the unfairness of the mining license fee had been decried – a monthly charge levied by the Colonial Government on anyone who resided on the diggings, regardless of whether they dug, regardless of whether they found. 30 shillings a month when the average wage was 34 shillings a week and a loaf of bread cost four shillings. The infrastructure that the license apparently paid for did not exist. Although there was a baby boom in Ballarat, those children were dying like, ‘spring flowers,’ for want of doctors and hygiene. The Police were underpaid, dishonest and abusive. The licence, as Wright has identified, made poverty a crime and the penalty of poverty was prison. The memories of oppressive and brutal hunts carried out by authorities anytime they chose for unfortunates too poor, too unlucky or too foreign to buy a license agitated the mining community.
The fact that miners, indeed anyone without property or serious wealth, were also disenfranchised - not allowed to vote or buy land - was the deep-set offence. It was a wrong requiring an entire social realignment to right, but it was a realignment many considered fundamental and overdue.
A series of recent events had fired up the miners, gathering dark clouds of strife above Ballarat. One month previous the miner James Scobie been murdered outside the Eureka Hotel, owned by nouveau-establishment entrepreneurs James and Catherine Bentley. When, at the next days’ inquest, James Bentley, the mining community’s first and only suspect was acquitted of any involvement by a magistrate not celebrated for his moral virtue, the looming discontent blackened like a summer storm. The fix was in.
A week later, some thousands gathered outside the Eureka Hotel to vent their spleen. Heated by a hot, dry sun, fanned by gritty and menacing winds, fuelled by alcohol and pack mentalities, dissatisfaction became anger, threats became violence, the crowd became a mob and the mob became a riot. Flames were set to the Hotel and it burned, quickly and completely. Over the next fortnight, the arrests of nine men in connection with the fire provoked two more mass meetings. These meetings agreed to the need for a league to protect miners’ rights. Everyone who wanted to be a part of that organisation was invited to Bakery Hill on the 11th of November.
At that meeting, men spoke, the crowd listened and, convinced, voted the ‘Ballarat Reform League’ into existence. The Charter that the League then immediately adopted noted ‘That 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.’ It committed the League to manhood suffrage, the abolition of property qualifications for the Legislative Council, and payment of members of parliament.
The Charter is the outstanding flare in our democratic consciousness. We have never been the same. Until that summer day no Australian political movement had demanded or defended the freedoms that we recognise today as the bedrock of our society. The call by the miners to have their dignity recognised and valued is echoed in egalitarian principles we still espouse. The League’s formation and political ambition electrified these golden plains.
Its impact was acknowledged by this editorial in The Ballarat Times:
‘This League is nothing more or less than the germ of independence. The die is cast, and fate has stamped upon the movement its indelible signature. No power on earth can now restrain the united might and headlong strides for freedom of the people of this country, and we are lost in amazement while contemplating the dazzling panorama of the Australian future. We salute the League, and tender our hopes and prayers for its prosperity. The League have undertaken a mighty task, fit only for a great people—that of changing the dynasty of the country.’
Australians who, like myself, fondly hope for a day sooner rather than later when Australians will come together to agree that Australia’s Head of State should be an Australian of merit-earned rather than a Germanic-Briton to title born, happily read in these words the first conscious step in the direction of Australian republicanism and Australian independence.
A critical aspect of the Eureka uprising is the strong strain of republicanism prevalent amongst the miners. The desire to create an Australian republic and to gain independence from the United Kingdom owed itself to the presence on the goldfields of large numbers of Irish, Americans and Europeans. The Irish were republican because of their hereditary hatred of the English; the Americans were republican because of their own history of struggle against the British; and many of the Europeans bore republican sympathies having lived through the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe.
Nonetheless, any Australian, republican or no, can read the words of the Charter, or listen to their fearless clarity, and understand immediately their relevance to any Australian, of any era, ethnicity, age, gender, religion, political affiliation, state, city or suburb.
On 29 November another Reform League mass meeting swore to defend from arrest any member of the League who was unlicensed, with weapons if it came to that. The uncommonly collectivist, us-against-them, team mentality of the Australian goldfields was made concrete.
And then, on 1 December, in a moment of pure theatre and matchless symbolism, all the League members became unauthorised diggers as the disdained and disputed gold licenses were consigned to the flames of a bonfire set in view of the Government Camp, while a handsewn flag was raised to the top of a handcut flagstaff.
A white constellation on a blue field, ‘all exceedingly chaste and natural,’ the Southern Cross was also described as the Eureka Flag or the Australian Flag. It had been sewn by Anastasia Hayes. The Age described it as waving triumphantly, ‘in the sunshine of its own blue and peerless sky, over thousands of Australia’s adopted sons.’ Raffaello Carboni, one of the leaders of the League, called on all miners, ‘irrespective of nationality, religion or colour to salute the Southern Cross as a refuge of all the oppressed from all countries on earth.’
Beneath the Southern Cross knelt Peter Lalor and swore on behalf of all those who stood around him;
‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties!’*
They are as bold and brave a set of words as has been sworn on this continent. They are not a glorification of Australia’s first invasion in defence of Empire, nor are they self-congratulatory couplets from the founding of a prison-nation. They are words galvanised by expressions of the universal human right to political participation and freedom from undemocratic oppression taking place across the globe. They are words that complement the continuing struggles for those rights today. Any citizen, of any country, could identify with these words, but citizens of this country should be inspired by them.
That these ideals were a branch of a global democratic project is underscored by the polyglot menagerie that was Ballarat’s mining community. Chinese miners were mistrusted and not invited, but otherwise Black and White Americans, Jamaicans, Canadians, Italians, Swedes, Scots, Jews, the Dutch, French, Germans and, of course, Irish immigrants attended and voted in support of these words. And they all voted as equals.
So the crucial elements of the Australian experience were crystallised in the Eureka Stockade moment – Australian multiculturalism, Australian democracy, Australian egalitarianism, and Australian republicanism – values many of us feel cannot be separated from what it means to be Australian. Eureka speaks to us positively about all of them.
But not comprehensively so. There was much about the Battle of Eureka that was not iconic, much that we must be wary of over-inflating. The words – the Charter of Liberties and the Oath of the Southern Cross – are outstanding, but while it was in some respects multicultural, the attitude of the European miners to their Chinese brethren is indicative of the deep and easy nature of Australian racism still walking in the shadows of our society.
So too for women. Australia’s suffrage movement was driven in large part by women whose formative experiences were on the goldfields, but Lalor was not in arms to extend the franchise across the gaping gender gap. Adult men were within the ambit of Eureka’s democracy, but not adult women. In a ‘conversation with the author’ that I did with Clare Wright in Canberra recently, I asked her how she thought Peter Lalor would have felt if he’d known that Australia’s first female Prime Minister would be the Member for Lalor. Wright replied: ‘I don’t think that he would have been very happy about it’.
Sadly, Lalor’s legacy as a democratic firebrand is also besmirched by his actions after he was elected to Parliament following the great political reforms catalysed by the Eureka Stockade. In Parliament he voted against a bill to introduce universal (white male) suffrage in Victoria, voted for a land bill that explicitly protected the rights of the rich over the requirements of the underclass and used low-paid Chinese workers as strike-breakers at a mine where he was a director.
Eureka is a great symbol, but not a perfect one. In my first speech, I talked about how the Australian Labor Party was the rightful heir to Alfred Deakin’s model of social liberalism. Yet there’s not much that’s liberal in Deakin’s defence of White Australia and protectionism.
Eureka too has its limits. So goes the human condition.
Although the Battle of the Eureka Stockade was not a major armed rebellion, at different times by different people it has been compared to the Civil War of the English, the Revolution of the French or the United States War of Independence. It is important to accept that, much as we seem drawn to victorious deeds in glorious combat, the brief struggle within the Eureka Stockade and the following unheroic massacre was not our Marston Moor, our Bunker Hill, our Bastille moment. The accusing memories of Pemulwuy and Yagan bear witness that this was not the first time in Australia’s colonial history that a rebellion was led in defence of a people’s right to self-determination. The smug orchestrators of the Rum Rebellion preceded and succeeded in their coup d’etat, while the dead Irish convicts at Castle Hill can attest to the first revolt of white men against the wickedness of Colonial Authorities.
To quote Wright:
‘The miners were not disloyal to their sovereign, but rather had lost any shred of respect for the minions who served her. They did not want to change the system of government; they wanted to be included in it. … Those rights, they considered, were nothing more or less than their entitlement as free-born Britons to be treated like men. Not animals, serfs or slaves: men. They sewed a flag and built a fence.’
And, I could add, they were thumped into next week by the Government. That’s all.
The core ideals expressed in the Charter and the Oath stand comparison to anything similar, but the fight to defend them cannot, even though some of us might wish our founding principles baptised in gouts of gold-flecked blood. Tragically, and terribly, blood was spilt on the Ballarat dirt, but it was the Oath sworn to the Southern Stars that should ignite our imagination.
Indeed, the events around the Eureka Stockade, and the reaction to it, now and then, bespeak of a curiously Australian style of political revolt. It knits together instantly recognisable themes of the Australian national character in a way like no other event in our history.
For instance, our little acknowledged but overriding respect for the security offered by the State. As the Eureka kettle began to boil, the majority of Victorian citizenry expected the authorities to take control of the situation, and despite the violence applauded them when they did. The State was safe.
But when it was clear the revolt had been defeated and the status quo restored, the people embraced the opportunity to demonstrate what has become compulsive Australian support for the underdog.
And then, when the State was safe but the underdogs triumphant, thoughts turned on the question raised by the losers of this civil brawl; namely whether a civil society was required to recognise democratic rights and needed relatively inclusive, representative government. Society answered those questions quickly. In legislative terms, breathtakingly so – considering it was not the establishment who were set to benefit most from political reform. But that Australian characteristic – today absolute – our commitment to democracy, for everyone, eventually, was born in the mass public support which brooked no obstruction. By 1857 a series of laws had been passed in Westminster and Melbourne that provided every white male with a vote in elections in the Victorian Legislative Assembly - the second male democracy in Australia after South Australia, and the first with convict heritage. And the license fee became a mining right. 30 shillings a month became 20 shillings, one pound, a year.
Compare that to England, the United States, France and New Zealand, where goodwill and peace to all humankind of was not the immediate, manifest consequence the people of those countries had desired when they identified and wrote down common rights of humanity. France consumed itself during the Reign of Terror within five years of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the same span that it took the New Zealand Wars to erupt after Waitangi, England was riven by a civil war in the 1640s and 50s that took toll of a greater proportion of its population than did the First World War and did not consider its female population mature enough to vote until 1928, while four score and seven years after the fathers of the United States brought forth on the North American continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, the citizens of that nation were engaged in a great civil war, testing whether it, or any nation so conceived, could long endure. But it was not until 1920, 55 years after that conflagration’s conclusion, that women took the vote in the USA.
Since the 1903 federal election, Australian women have had the right to vote and stand for office. On this measure, Australia is the world’s first democracy.
Australia in contrast, sparked by the beautiful ideals expressed at Eureka, but not riven by the scale or nature of their proving, very quickly became the very model of a modern democracy. As a result of the political reforms ushered in by Eureka, notes Peter FitzSimons:
‘Australia became nothing less than one of the key ‘lights on the hill’ for democratic movements around the world, most particularly when it came to secret ballots, known as the ‘Australian ballot’...the country would remain at the forefront of those reforms for decades to come.’
There’s hard work in this. The same hard work done by the men and women on the Eureka diggings. Unrelenting, unforgiving. Hard work undertaken with no guarantee of ultimate success, but with every hope of improving the future for themselves, their families, their communities and their society. Hard work that continues.
But there’s some luck too. Economic historian Ian McLean points out that - perhaps for reasons of administrative simplicity - the colonial authorities initially chose to prescribe an extremely small claim size for goldminers: eight feet by eight feet. This spread the ‘lottery’ of gold mining across a large group of self-employed miners, who then helped spur the transition towards democracy. The alternative would have been much larger claim sizes, with mining carried out by wage labour. Our history might have looked like that of a dozen ‘resource curse’ autocracies around the globe.
No story, myth or legend is static. Least of all our history at the Eureka Stockade. To see the ideas of Eureka thrive, we need to be open to all interpretations of those events, old and new, to be open to the idea – to encourage the idea – that principles of freedom, of fairness, of democracy, written down and sworn to beneath the timeless Southern Cross sparkling atop Bakery Hill, that these principles can and do mean different things to different people.
* * * * *
GK Chesterton once said ‘Tradition is the democracy of the dead’, that it is about ‘giving votes to our ancestors’. Quoting these words, British Labour MP Jon Cruddas rebukes progressives for too easily scorning tradition. We must, Cruddas argued, respect the struggles and sacrifices of those who have gone before us.
There’s nothing ‘conservative’ or ‘nostalgic’ about a love of history and tradition. I take it as read that the Eureka principles will always mean something to all us. To any of us. Beneath the turbulence, anger and fear, in the stark commitment gone beyond class, race and gender, as the first gunshots burn the dawn stillness, we can each of us, all of us, stand there in the morning fog and we can know what we stood for. What we stand for.
For an idea that continues to epitomize Australia’s success, safety and ambition in a world often beset by a sea of troubles. An idea born in Ballarat that our nation lives and defends. An idea – the idea – undeniable, reliable and precious – that, beneath our radiant Southern Cross we can, and will, advance.
* My speech originally omitted the words 'and fight' from the Eureka oath. The oath (as read out by Lalor) was: 'We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.' I am grateful to those who got in touch to point out this error.
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