AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - EUREKA 150
The sneak attack on the Eureka stockade on 3
December 1854 has loomed as a mighty peak in the consciousness of
settler Australians because of the level plain of our other conflicts.
Nonetheless, history wars have raged for possession of our own little
rebellion. While the Communist Party sponsored a Eureka Youth League,
the founder of the Liberal Party, R. G. Menzies, was praising the
Ballarat “revolution” as “a fierce desire to achieve true
Parliamentary government and true popular control of public finance”.
From the same year, 1946, Aboriginal strikers around Port Hedland gave
rise to the phrase “Black Eureka”. In the 1970s, publicists for
mining corporations painted the Eureka diggers as tax avoiders,
precursors of their own more creative accountants.
These contests seem set to continue. The
Bracks ALP government is spending $2m. on cultural events centered on
Ballarat. Militant unionists who have booked a train to take them there
will be supporting one of the best known wearers of the Eureka flag,
imprisoned Metals Union activist, Craig Johnston. The Institute of
Public Affairs is sponsoring a Eureka Forum on 3 December to enfilade
environmentalists who “undermine the legitimate property rights of
Since the centenary, scholarly disputants
over the causes of Eureka have framed the daily doings around Bakery
Hill with the twin economic crises confronting the colonial
administrators. Overlooking this analysis, the otherwise splendid
musical Eureka! has followed
Irish chauvinists by interpreting the rebellion as an anti-British
protest. It is truer to say that the resistance was by mounted by
self-employed miners against the Melbourne traders, supported by
squatters, who shaped the colony’s budget.
Those propertied interests hoped that a
licence fee of a pound a month, or eight pounds for the year, would
solve two of their problems. First, that revenue would shift the cost of
government away from their property. The importers who dominated the
Legislative Council opposed an export tax on gold for fear of creating a
precedent for the imposition of a duty on their imports. Merchants were
already having enough trouble moving the stocks that had flooded the
colony without the price increase from a tariff. The leader of the
squatters, W. F. Splatt, asked: “Shall we tax ourselves?” Because
the answer was “No”, the Victorian authorities for 1854-55 proposed
a £1m. deficit, which was blowing out towards twice that figure.
Secondly, the Councillors needed a
licence fee high enough to restore their access to labour. Gold had
lured workingmen, leaving shops and sheep runs without manpower. When
workers condescended to make themselves available, they did so on their
own conditions. A stiff fee meant that unsuccessful miners would have to
work for cash wages to raise their licence money. In addition, any
return of servants to their masters would also check the cost of labour.
Hence, the government’s decision in
September 1854 to conduct licence hunts twice a week instead of once a
month was not an administrative blunder. Rather, it was both a fiscal
reform and a labour discipline.
The political legacy from three years of
agitation across the goldfields was mixed. Almost universal male
suffrage for the lower house did not secure popular sovereignty. Even
before the rebellion, the architects of reaction had accepted that
neither a Bunyip Aristocracy, like the one conservatives proposed for
New South Wales, nor an appointed upper house, which the northern Colony
got, would protect Victoria’s propertied classes from a populace
determined to break-up the big estates. Instead, a partially elected
Upper House with powers equal to the Lower House, and with no mechanism
for the resolving deadlocks, would protect the big property-owners. The
drafters of Victoria’s constitution pre-empted the radicals with an
electoral system which required candidates for the Legislative Council
to possess £5000 in freehold property, and electors £1000. Universal
suffrage did not arrive in Victoria until 1950. Even then, much of the
Council’s power to reject legislation without fear of being forced to
face reelection persisted.
No doubt the Southern Cross will be
carried over into the design for any flag in an Australian republic.
Tradition demands that the Eureka flag be preserved for those in
opposition to the heirs and successors of those whom the Bulletin
dubbed Victoria’s “House of Landlords”.