Contributed by Joe Montero
Sunday 3 December marked the anniversary of the Eureka Stockade rebellion in the Victorian gold fields at Ballarat.
The diggers had risen against the mining licence fee and the brutality of the troopers. But it was also about much more than this. Theirs was a battle for freedom from rule by a privileged few. The Australian colonies, especially Victoria, were then under the tight grip of a newly emerged landed gentry (the Squattocracy), operating in alliance with the colonial administration. Eureka was a battle for equality and freedom from the power of the privileged.
Much of the population that had flooded in to search for gold and those who had grown up in the colonies had little taste for the rigid class system of Europe. There were strong democratic and republican strands to the rebellion. These aspects and the preparedness to stand together in common cause were symbolised in the Southern Cross flag that was raised in the stockade. The symbol continues to play this role today.
The troopers struck in 1854 at 6.20 am, 163 years ago. Defenders of the stockade were killed accused leaders caught and still alive were put on trial. The population stood on the side of the defendants. Melbourne, where the trials were held, witnessed most of its population rally in front of the court. The prospect of massive and armed rebellion was on the cards. The authorities were ultimately forced to back down.
A new sense of what it is to be Australian began to form. The ensuing political wave brought about the end of property qualifications to vote. The leader of the Eureka Rebellion was elected into the Victorian parliament and became the premier. The wave kept on and was at the centre of the movement to self-government in the early Twentieth Century.
Two contradictory traditions have come to play over the years. One is the narrowness and xenophobic view of the world that stems from that section of society that ordered the attack on the Eureka stockade. The other is the alternative that was forged by the defenders of the stockade.
The Eureka rebellion was instrumental in rise of a new radicalism. It influenced the rise of the trade union movement. After the gold rush, most of the diggers sought jobs in the new industries that were springing up. The new workforce brought its sense of justice, sticking together and disdain for the toffs. The Eureka flag has flown at major union battles in the years since.
On the back of this impetus, combined with new influences coming in from abroad such as chartist, republican and socialist interpretations of the time, gains were made in the workplace that were the envy of the rest of the world. Australians achieved the first eight-hour day in 1856. The gains of economic growth were more evenly distributed, when compared to other countries.
Eureka also represents the coming together of people from many nations and different cultures. English, Irish, Italians and other Europeans,Americans (including former slaves), Canada, China, India and other places. This where Australia first emerged as a multicultural society and became a shining example to the whole world.
Eureka began a journey that continues today, for it cannot be truly said that the vision began in Ballarat has been truly won. Advances have been made, but there remains a lot to achieve.
The diggers fought to empower every citizen, whether at work or at home. The right to work together as the decisive force to create a better future has not been won. Experience has shown that this requires more than the right to vote and be ruled over by a caste in the service of big money. Political power needs to be in the hands of the population and this requires the growth of the institutions that will ensure it.
The Diggers found that they had to take matters into their own hands to make a difference. This is the legacy they left us and we should honour this by finding ways to continue what they began.
The diggers’ oath was, “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties”.