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 recently, the events at Eureka 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 among 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”.
Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (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 localised. Similar uprisings 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 rebellion. 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 would be fine if it did not involve the promotion of the Eureka events to a level of significance which is unwarranted. In the book Imagining Australia: Ideas for our Future, Duncan, Leigh, Madden and Tynan call 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 wish to promote a day that 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 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”.