Friday marks the 150th anniversary of the Eureka Rebellion. For all I know, this might be big news in Victoria, but I suspect the current debate over the cultural and political significance of this event is not being widely heeded. But it’s worth taking a look at.
Let’s start with our old friend Gerard Henderson. Hendo at least acknowledges that (between elections) the Left normally have more fun than the Right. And he wants John Howard to have some fun. Why – has the PM been looking a bit dour lately? I suppose I should restrain my inclination to poke fun at Gerry, as this week, for once, he does appear to have a serious point.
Hendo thinks Howard is letting the side down in the never-ending “culture wars”… “After all, the 150 or so miners in the stockade on December 3, 1854, were what would today be described as small business types or independent contractors.” Gerry points out that none were communists (it would have been odd if they had been), cites Doc Evatt as saying in 1940 that “Australian democracy was born at Eureka” and laments the fact that the legend was misappropriated by the CPA.
Henderson’s broader point is that the Social Democratic Left, as well as the Communist Left have been successful in turning the symbolism of Australian history to their ends. Note that Gerry is not running a Windschuttle line here – that nasty sloppy postmodernists distort history. Henderson is correct to think that national identity is always contested, that it is a site of political contestation, and that history is a big stake in this context.
ELSEWHERE: Michael J. Thompson has an excellently argued and clearly-written article on the American tradition of social liberalism (picking up on a point made towards the end of this post) at the online journal Logos.
Tim Dunlop at Road to Surfdom joins the debate, and makes the very good point that John Howard would never honour any event involving a rebellion against authority. Cameron Riley, in a comment at Andrew Leigh’s blog, makes a cogent case that the Eureka Diggers were Chartists.
JUST IN: Robert Corr has some worthwhile thoughts on the debate at Kick & Scream.
Australia should re-elevate Eureka to its previous position as a central legend of Australian nationalism, standing for those distinctly Australian values – egalitarianism, mateship, fairness – together with democracy, freedom, republicanism and multiculturalism.
Stuart MacIntyre and Anna Clark’s book The History Wars traces the history of the contest over which values Australian history can be read as embodying. Brian Fitzpatrick, Russel Ward in The Australian Legend, Bob Gollan in Radical and Working Class Politics, Manning Clark and Humphrey McQueen all contributed to a “radical nationalist” spin on the Australian story. Ward argued that the experience of bush labourers, shearers, gold-diggers, bushrangers and convicts contributed to a “national ethos that was practical, laconic, suspicious of authority, impatient with affectation, sympathetic to the underdog”. From the labourist NSW Right, Bede Nairn also retold Australian and Labour history in Civilising Capitalism, a book Hendo is no doubt thinking of in his allusion to Social Democrats.
Fitzpatrick wrote, “The Australian people have made heroes of none, and raised no idols, except perhaps an outlaw, Ned Kelly, and Carbine, a horse.”
The politics of the history wars, and the culture wars, and in particular arguments over the violence or otherwise of Indigenous disposession and the nationalism vs. Empire theme that PJK and his speechwriter Don Watson made infamous in the early 1990s, have been about an attempt to re-orient this radical nationalist view of history, and reappropriate symbols such as “mateship”.
Contrary to Hendo, Howard has been a master of this art. Even the debate over the Preamble to the Constitution, though it was a massive electoral failure, contributed here.
Chris Sheil has an excellent review of Judith Brett’s chapter in Robert Manne’s The Howard Years. Brett argues Howard has been immensely successful in reframing symbols like “mateship” and the Anzac Legend in an individualist not a collectivist direction.
Howard also buttressed his ‘assimilationist nationalism’ by mining the Australian Legend (see Russel Ward). Underpinned by a renewing 1980s nationalism (The Man from Snowy River, Drizabones, akubras, country music revivalism, outback tourism), Howard attached the Liberals to a rhetoric of mateship, the fair go, Gallipoli, Bradman, egalitarianism etc etc, developing a symbolic repertoire that reconnected his party with ordinary Australian experience. Brett adds a Howardian emphasis on ‘volunteerism’ to this mix, which I find unconvincing, but she also makes the salient point that Jack’s capacity to seize and refashion this nationalist rhetoric was also a function of the way in which Labor in government had let it go.
Contrary to many assessments, Howard in some ways is an exceptionally clever political leader in articulating a vision and a national story. Much more so than poor old PJK. So Hendo is right to think that he needs to put his stamp on the Eureka Stockade.
Andrew Leigh, an ANU economist, and one of the authors of Imagining Australia, echoes Hendo in a recent post at the blog associated with the book. Leigh writes:
I argued yesterday on Michael Duffy’s Counterpoint program that Eureka was fundamentally a revolt by self-employed small businessmen against unjust taxation. In this sense, it is similar to the Boston Tea Party (1773) and the batle at Lexington (1775) that began the US Revolutionary War. Like Eureka, these revolts were unsuccessful, but we remember them not for what they achieved, but for the values that the participants were fighting for. Moreover, as Henderson points out, one of the key fighters in Eureka, Peter Lalor, finished his career as a conservative politician.
In a sense, the Imagining Australia transvaluation of the Eureka values represents a Costello liberalism as opposed to a Howard conservatism. “Freedom” and “Democracy” sit better with a sort of Paul Kelly-esque vision than Howard’s “relaxed and comfortable” conservatism. There’s also a hint of social democracy in the attempt to link these values with fundamentally collectivist values such as “egalitarianism, mateship, fairness”.
There are also two contradictions, or at least points of tension, here.
If, as Leigh suggests, we are to envision the Eureka Rebellion in tandem with the Boston Tea Party, what we are talking about are the universal Enlightenment values of Liberalism. Leigh’s distinctly Australian values sit uneasily with an interpretation of the Eureka diggers as representing “revolt of independent free enterprise against burdensome taxation”. It would be far more consistent to analyse how Australia’s particular compromise between the two Liberal values of equality and liberty (not forgetting fraternity or solidarity) resulted in a distinctive species of social Liberalism where the State and organised interests have always played a large role in securing freedoms (often understood in an apolitical sense as the right to live one’s own life undisturbed).
This brings me to the second point. The abyss confronting anyone seeking to understand history is the dangerous slide between seeing events in their historical context and seeing them through the lens of our present pre-occupations. History speaks to us, but not with a clear voice.
I hesitate to say it, but some of the conceptual confusion in the Imagining Australia article may come from an insufficient awareness of the course of Australian history and the stakes of the struggles against colonial bunyip aristocracies so many years ago. The Eureka diggers, not communists as Hendo notes, might better be understood within their historical context as fighting for liberal democracy. The meaning of republicanism in the 1850s was also very different – very much inflected by the Irish and British situation. And I think that looking at “ethnic diversity” on the goldfields does not show that “multiculturalism” was a value at Eureka – this concept being an invention of recent decades. It’s fair enough to try to read the Eureka events as demonstrating the importance of “ethnic diversity”, but it does violence to history to isolate this factor and impose a late modern category on it.
Which brings me to my final point – the greatest violence to history is done by seeing the Eureka diggers as either “small business types or independent contractors” (Henderson) or “self-employed small businessmen” (Leigh). Australia was still in the grips of the Masters and Servants Acts in 1854, the class structure was very different, and “freedom to contract” didn’t really exist for wage labourers in the modern capitalist system. Nor was the colonial economy comparable to today’s differentiated capitalism – there wasn’t much “big business” around for the dichotomy Leigh implicitly appeals to to make much sense. Far from being “independent contractors” or “small businessmen”, most of the Diggers were workers fleeing a deeply unjust employment regime in search of dignity as well as economic gain. So, I think, freedom meant something very different in 1854.
Hendo, I suspect, is just being polemical, but Leigh, I am sure, is well intentioned, but I think needs to reflect more deeply on the historical specificity of the Eureka events.
That’s not to say there’s not something we can take from this particular symbol for our understanding of what Australian values might be here and now in 2004. But I think a better starting point would be the continued vitality of the Australian tradition of social Liberalism.