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 resource users”.

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”.