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What would participants in the Eureka Rebellion make of our constitution today?

By Peter van Vliet - posted Friday, 3 December 2004

One hundred and fifty years ago Peter Lalor a leader of the Eureka Rebellion declared, “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties”. A few days later on the dawn of December 3 he was severely wounded at the Eureka Stockade, later losing an arm. Tragically, around 25 of his fellow diggers died along with 6 troopers.

Peter Lalor expressed the frustrations of diggers burdened by an unfair gold mining licence, which was imposed by a colonial government they had little democratic control over. The drama that unfolded in a few months on the Ballarat goldfields has never left Australia’s imagination. Various fringe groups have tried to appropriate the Eureka legend, but increasingly Eureka is a beacon for Australia’s strong democratic traditions. Increasingly it is also a beacon for our unrealised republican aspirations.

While Eureka was not wholly a republican rebellion it had strong republican overtones. Like Australians today the Ballarat Gold Diggers were a multicultural bunch and included Englishman, Scots, French, Germans, Italians, Chinese and Canadians. They came to Australia for a better life, not unlike the millions who came following the Second World War who have so enriched our nation.


But what would Peter Lalor, who later refused a Knighthood as a respectable parliamentarian, make of our constitutional arrangements today? Would he be surprised that our head of state was still the Queen of England and not one of us? Would his compatriot, Raffael Carboni, be curious about why a modern nation where a great majority of people no longer consider themselves of British ancestry still has a British head of state?

The short-lived Eureka rebellion is something all Australians can take pride in. Unlike the English Monarchy, it has relevance to all of us. The diggers who died in vain, were trying to create a better world under the Southern Cross. They wanted a world where representative democracy and merit counted for more than monarchical birthrights. Today we can achieve their legacy at the ballot box rather than the stockade. The diggers helped speed the introduction of representative democracy in Victoria. Eureka 150 is a chance to reflect on what they gave, and the promise that remains - an Australian Republic with an Australian head of state - one of us.

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About the Author

Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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