December 3, 2004 marks the 150th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade. The city of Ballarat in Victoria, home of Eureka, is playing host to commemorative events lasting over a fortnight and which were intended to celebrate what the Victorian Premier Mr Steve Bracks called a “momentous occasion in Australian history”.
Italian author and musician Raffaello Carboni, present at Eureka during the rebellion, wrote a book about it, and American author Mark Twain, who visited Ballarat in the 1890s, described Eureka in the following terms:
It was a revolution - small in size, but great politically: It was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression … it is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle.
And of course most Australians are familiar with the Eureka Flag - the standard of the rebellion.
So what was the significance of Eureka, how does it take its place in the movement towards democratic government in Australia, and how should we interpret its significance? It was in an attempt to answer these questions and to address concerns expressed by many that the whole Eureka commemoration was being taken over by republicans, that I ventured into the midst of the Eureka 150 Democracy Conference held at the University of Ballarat from November 25 to 27, 2004.
We hadn’t been in Ballarat very long before we began to realise that not only had the republicans moved in to appropriate the Eureka myth but so had the Labor Party.
One of the conference co-ordinators told me that I had missed a wonderful speech at the opening. Mr Latham had apparently encapsulated the whole meaning and significance of Eureka. The government according to Mr Latham, had “missed the point” with its refusal to fly the Eureka Flag and the Prime Minister had disappointed the Opposition Leader by failing to attend the conference. The Prime Minister’s failure to attend was to be referred to repeatedly throughout the conference despite the fact that Mr Howard’s letter of support for the conference was printed in the front of the official program.
The welcoming address by the University Vice Chancellor thanked the original Aboriginal owners of the land on which the University was situated This was followed by a “Welcome to the Land” from a Community Leader on behalf of the traditional landholders, which was in turn followed by the official opening of the conference by the Victorian Labor Premier Mr Bracks. He told us that Eureka was “the epicentre of democratic change”, that it was a “national symbol of the right of people to have a say in the way they are governed” and that “democracy wouldn’t have come as quickly nor would it have been as egalitarian” without Eureka.
The first highlight of the morning was the address by Dr Jose Ramos-Horta, international statesman and spokesman for East Timorese liberation, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and now East Timorese Senior Minister for International Co-operation. Dr Ramos-Horta welcomed the spread of democracy throughout the world in the last ten years. He expressed his gratitude to western leaders for their support during the East Timorese struggle for independence.
The session was then opened for questions and I didn’t have to wait long for the republicans to show their hand. The first two questions were asked by audience members who identified themselves as representing the Republican Party of Australia and the Australian Republican Movement respectively. They each asked Dr Ramos-Horta what he thought of constitutional drafting with particular reference to drafting a new republican constitution for Australia. The international diplomat, mindful of the fact that he had been personally invited to the conference by the Labor Premier but also having publicly expressed a deep sense of gratitude to the Prime Minister for his support over the years, sidestepped the question by saying that the East Timorese Constitution, which was intended to be modelled upon the French, was in fact carefully crafted to avoid conflict between the President and the Prime Minister. This would ensure that the President who was immensely popular would be a figurehead only and derive his power from his personal charisma, but would have limited constitutional powers, whereas political power would be reserved for the Prime Minister.
The next session we attended was a panel of speakers on the topic “Eureka: Its many meanings”, with special guest speakers Professor Emeritus Geoffrey Blainey AC, Professor the Hon John Phillips AC QC and Professor Weston Bate OAM. Professor Blainey’s speech while acknowledging the significance of Eureka as one of the only armed rebellions in Australian history, ever so gently deflated the hyperbole to which he had hitherto been subjected. South Australia, he pointed out, had achieved self-government at the same time without the need for violence. And at the time of the rebellion, a new draft constitution for Victoria, drawn up in the colony and containing provision for granting the vote to holders of a miner’s licence, was already in Britain for approval, but had been delayed by the Crimean War. In fact, the British were giving the Australian colonies self-government anyway, Eureka notwithstanding. The whole of the Eureka rebellion was in Professor Blainey’s words “a convergence of unfortunate events”.
My blood pressure began to rise during the address by Emeritus Professor Weston Bate. Having uttered a gratuitous criticism of the Prime Minister for his non-attendance at the conference, Professor Bate attributed blame for the unfortunate events of December 1854 primarily to the government, which was “English” and “exclusive” and which had ignored the fundamental rights and civil liberties of the people.
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