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Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 158

Senator FAULKNER (11:17 PM) —`We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by one another and fight to defend our rights and liberties.' This was the oath of Eureka. Over the past few weeks we have seen the men of the Eureka Stockade turned into puppets for one contemporary cause after another—Labor, Liberal, unionists, entrepreneurs, democrats, radicals, Tories, workers or toffs. It seems the only Australian who does not want a part of the Eureka legend is the Prime Minister. I think he is more comfortable with the stars and stripes than the stars of the Southern Cross. But if the Prime Minister is disinterested in Eureka, he is about the only one. Eureka turns so readily to serve so many ideologies because it contains all of them and is none of them. Of a time before party politics, Eureka has been adopted by political parties across the spectrum.

The Eureka miners were no proto-proletariat wage-earning workers, but nor were they small businessmen and entrepreneurs. Indeed, they saw the businessmen of the goldfields as their enemies, making money off the diggers' labour. When miner James Scobie tried to force his way into Bentley's Hotel to get a drink after hours and died in the ensuing scuffle, the miners saw it as murder. James Bentley's acquittal was one of the two October events that led to the 10,000-strong meeting at Bakery Hill. While they were in modern terms `self-employed'—although I wonder what men who took up arms against a licence fee would make of a BAS statement—they have been heroes to the union movement because they believed in the great truth of unionism: in unity is strength. So `self-employed' does not tell the story of miners gathered 10,000-strong to `swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by one another and fight to defend our rights and liberties'. And `self-employed' is hardly a complete description of the beliefs and politics of men prepared to die for democracy.

Rather than businessmen or workers, the miners were adventurers and gamblers, staking their life savings and their lives on the hope of a rich strike. Many followed the gold fever around the world, which explains the multicultural and multiracial nature of the goldfields and of the men who swore that oath by the Southern Cross. At a time when the term `mixed marriage' meant Catholic and Protestant, the miners had an Italian spokesman and gathered beneath a flag designed by a Canadian. The arrest of a non-English-speaking Armenian on trumped-up assault charges was the other grievance that triggered the Bakery Hill meeting. There was a limit to the miners' brotherhood, though. There were no Chinese miners in the stockade, and a variant of the Eureka flag would fly over the anti-Chinese rioters at Lambing Flats, embroidered `No Chinese'.

Last Friday, a descendant of one of the Eureka miners, Shane Howard, spoke proudly of his great-great-grandfather:

They were not a rabble—they were educated, literate men. And they had a real, true vision for democracy in this country.

Many miners, including the Ballarat Reform League's leaders, were educated and literate. Some had given up professional careers to follow the call of gold. Some were educated by their own unstinting efforts, like so many radicals of the day, and some by the political campaigns on other goldfields in other countries. But the reform league was like any political body: there were plenty of members who were neither devoted to, nor even interested in, altruistically promoting the universal democratic rights of mankind. Quite possibly some of them were among the men who lay dead or dying on the Ballarat goldfield on 3 December 1854. They might have been attracted by the Ballarat Reform League's demands for the abolition of licences, the reform of administration of the goldfields and a change to the laws governing Crown land, to make it easier for diggers to buy it. Lower tax and cheaper land might well be the root causes of most revolutions but they hardly make up a political ideology. There were many at Eureka who saw an opportunity for far-reaching social and political change: Californians and Frenchmen, convinced that the republic was finally coming to Australia, and British miners whose involvement with the Chartist movement—including three leaders of the Ballarat Reform League—contributed democratic demands, including manhood suffrage, abolition of the property qualifications for members of parliament and payment of members of parliament. Working men could never have been elected to parliament without those three reforms. Without them, the Labor Party would never have been possible. Contemporaries understood the significance. The Sydney Morning Herald editorial on 13 December 1854 proclaimed:

Every loyal subject must rejoice in the prompt suppression of the Ballarat insurgents ... The rebels, for such as they were, extended their views beyond the grievances of a class and proposed to establish a new empire! A diggers' empire! We imagine that the distressing consequences of this first appeal to arms will satisfy the working classes that it is not by such measures they can redress their wrongs.

And 50 years later the very same paper greeted the formation of the world's first national labour government here in Australia by calling on the other parties to challenge it at once so that `government by the Labour minority may be rendered impossible from the outset'.

The Sydney Morning Herald did not regard the miners at Eureka as small businessmen in favour of small government. It viewed them as very much part of that dangerously revolutionary body, the working class, which must be excluded from government at all costs. So no matter how hard you try to take the politics, the republicanism, the democratic radicalism and the working-class rights out of Eureka they always find their way back in, just as no matter how hard you try to shoe-horn the miners into the box of proletariat or capitalist they always find their way back out. After all, Peter Lalor swore in the miners beneath the Southern Cross with an oath that still today rings with solidarity and the passion for justice. He went on to be a mine owner who used Chinese workers as strike breakers when his employees sought an eight-hour day. He also went on to vote against manhood suffrage as a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly.

I do not think attempts to adopt and adapt Eureka to different causes will do it or us any lasting harm. We are, after all, acting in the fine tradition of the Eureka miners who chose `Vinegar Hill' for the stockade password that last fatal night—no imported revolutionary slogan for them but the name of the place where convicts seeking freedom were gunned down in 1804. They united both Australia's armed uprisings in one revolutionary thread with that simple decision. They rewrote an escape attempt by convict workers into a precursor of their own struggle. They hung Eureka forever on the memory of the political prisoners transported for their membership of the United Irishmen's Society, a union of Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants seeking a united and independent Ireland.

As we do as they did and write our own Eureka, the caution I would give is that we should not ignore the stockade's darker corners. If we turn a blind eye to the stains upon a past age, we will never learn to recognise the shadows on our own. If we can learn anything from the messy and malleable Eureka legend, it is that history is where we come from but it does not have to dictate what we are. Women's role in politics and activism is no longer limited to stitching the banners men march beneath. Men and women of all backgrounds take their place by right both on the barricades and in the parliament. The spirit of the Eureka oath `to stand truly by one another and fight to defend our rights and liberties' has only broadened with the passage of time. There is room for all of us beneath the Southern Cross.