Eureka!

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.

Liam Hogan nails the meaning of multiculturalism at Cut Price Commentariat.

Elsewhere, the authors of Imagining Australia: Ideas for Our Future, in an opinion piece in the SMH suggest:

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.

Chris wrote:

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.

Yes, but.

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.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Interesting post, Mark. I agree with you that, in context, the Eureka diggers are best understood as fighting for liberal democracy. It’s easy to forget that, in Britain (of which Victoria was a colony) even the middle class had only succeeded in their fight for parliamentary representation in the 1830’s. And of course that was only for men.

I also agree with your point that “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”. Historian Clare Wright made a similar point in her interview with Rob Sitch (standing in for Margaret Throsby) on ABC ClassicFM last week (Clare is writing about the involvement of women in the Eureka Stockade). If you have an hour to spare, you can listen to the interview here http://www.abc.net.au/classic/throsby/audio/throsby_24112004_2856.ram (real player audio) or here http://www.abc.net.au/classic/throsby/audio/throsby_24112004.asx (windows media player).

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks, Alex, do you know if there’s a transcript? I’m currently labouring under the limitations of a dial up connection which makes listening to audio files a pain.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

They don’t seem to do transcripts of the interviews. You can purchase the interviews on CD/cassette.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Cheers.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

I think Gerry is on the right track.
There is as much evidence that the rebellion was against high taxes as anything else.

The right should try to claim the event!

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

I was born in Ballarat, and was vaguely aware as a kid that something apparently of some significance called Eureka had happened in the general vicinity. The only monument at the location was a flagpole, and four cast iron cannons (presumably capured in the Crimean War), generally pretty dull and uninteresting I recall.

In fact for a long time; the only feature that reminded the residents of Ballarat of their history was the portrait of the one armed Peter Lalor installed above the Peter Lalor Hotel.

This ambivalence to the Eureka rebellion in Ballarat continues to this day, and to be honest,I think the reason for this is that it was a damp squib of a rebellion. It was no Engish Civil War, no American Revolution with Mel Gibson starring as Paul Revere. The stockade was a crudely erected barrier, less substantial than your average suburban picket fence, The Miners were completely unprepared, and underarmed, the Soldiers swift and brutal in their victory, and it was all over before it had even got off the ground. It was a classic Australian botched job, and as far as armed rebellions go, a bloody embarrassment.

I was discussion with a friend who still lives in Ballarat, what its implications are; what it means. We talked about Gough, and the Unions all putting their interpretation on events, and in the end we decided that it means nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Having said that though, the Original Eureka Flag is cool. Very cool. Currently on display at the Ballarat Fine Art gallery, and possibly one day to be shifted to the original site, this piece of tattered blue linen is an absolute must see if you ever go to Ballarat. I might take my own advice, and go have another look at it, it might help me decide if Eureka really did mean nothing.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’ve heard 5 or 6 discussions on this debate on the ABC. There does seem to be a bit of traction in the Clare Wright/Andrew Leigh view that Eureka should be recast as a foundational Australian story, but not as THE story to replace Gallipoli. The Counterpoint session was interesting. It seemed to me that Leigh made his point but didn’t win the argument. I think it was John Hirst that said Eureka had nix to do with the development of democracy in Australia in the sense that it had no influence to speak of. It had no impact on what happened in the other colonies. Even in Victoria it probably didn’t advance democracy in any particular way.

btw the Counterpoint item is found at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/counterpoint/ at present. They usually do a transcript on one item only and it’s not yet clear which will get the treatment for the 29 November program.

Andrew Leigh
2022 years ago

Mark, terrific post. Three quick responses.

* You say that “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).”
I agree that we ought to do this (indeed, I’m eager for the day when the Liberal Party rediscovers itself as the party of Deakinite Liberalism). But I’m not sure that such an analysis prevents us adopting Eureka as a national legend.

* You also say that the diggers weren’t fighting precisely for the sorts of things that we might want to remember them for. But this needn’t stop us gaining value from a legend. The Magna Carta wasn’t a document giving universal rights and freedoms to all – it was a deal struck between crown and nobles. But we remember it because it moved us closer to the values that are important today. If you keep at it enough, most legends have feet of clay. I’m sure if I was transported back to 1854, I’d find plenty to argue about with Lalor et al. But they can still give us inspiration today.

* Brian, I think John Hirst was too quick in our interview to dismiss the role that Eureka played in the shift to democracy. Sure, we’d be a democracy today with or without Eureka, but there are direct links. For eg, Henry Chapman, the barrister who successfully defended the Eureka rebels, first proposed the idea of the secret ballot, adopted by the Victorian Parliament in 1856. The secret ballot is still known across the world as the “Australian ballot”.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks, Andrew, I wouldn’t mind Deakinite Liberalism making a comeback myself.

I take your point, but what I think is important is that any interpretation we place on a legend is consistent with the events themselves – to a degree – and that we recognise that real events involving real people (and in this case, real violence) occurred and are respected for their own specificity.

I’m not certain either that the Eureka Legend will bear the weight you wish to place on it. Magna Carta is somewhat different – in two ways:

1. It’s part of a consistent narrative – the Whig theory of history, if you like and each interpretive move over time builds on the previous one;

2. Consequentially, it’s far more of a living tradition rather than what we’re talking about here – which is effectively what Hobsbawm and Ranger would call an instance of “invented tradition” – http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0521437733/qid=1101864214/sr=1-4/ref=sr_1_4/104-1898580-8448769?v=glance&s=books

Andrew Leigh
2022 years ago

Mark, if we’re talking about legends that won’t bear the weight we put on them, let’s start with Anzac – a small, failed campaign in a mostly pointless war to maintain the increasingly dysfunctional idea of balance of power at the heart of Europe. Anzac is important in its own way, but utterly unable to bear all that we’ve loaded up on it in recent years. Eureka is far better equipped to be our central national legend.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’d agree about Anzac, Andrew, but the difference is that the legend itself has had many years of reinforcement as it were. Kind of similar to the point I was making about Magna Carta – it’s already there, whether we like it or not, or whether we think it’s a plausible or desirable interpretation of a historical event.

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

I think if we’re comparing the significance of historical events on the growth of our national identity, the 1983 America’s cup win has had a far more significant impact on our self image, our national confidence and our foreign policy, than Eureka has on our internal political structure.

I agree Mark. People are wishing to have Eureka bear more weight than it can reasonably sustain.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Australians shouldn’t get too keen on embracing Anzac as a symbol of *national* identity. After all, NZ is in there too.

harry
harry
2022 years ago

Internationally speaking we probably owe more to Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee for our national identity than to ANZAC day. And who outside of Australia has heard of Eureka?

I wonder what the Chinese community of Australia think of Eureka – that would be a really interesting view.

From an advancing democracy and equality perspective surely the women’s vote is more important, far reaching and effective than Eureka.
But we have very few historical hooks to hang our hats on, so of course Eureka will be billed as bigger than it is.
I am suprised that the Cyclone Tracy evacuation doesn’t receive more attention with respect to mateship, pitching in and doing the right thing because we’re just a damned nice bunch of chaps really.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

Many of our most defining moments have come from defeats – Eureka, Gallipoli, Bodyline right through to The Dismissal. The sympathies have been with the side routed, and subsequent changes have ensured that these events would not be repeated.

I thought the most important aftermath of Eureka was the jury dismissal of charges of Insurrection against Lalor and co. Although Hotham and co had acted appallingly, the charges against Lalor were lawful under the statutes of the time. That a jury was not prepared to comvict Lalor says a great deal about our concept of fairness.

It sent a strong message to the Executive and Legislature: there were limits to the imposition of power.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well said, Don – a mesage that’s worth re-sending today…

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

This from the Oz’s Strewth (Nick Leys) column raised a bit of bilious laughter.

“NEW federal parliamentary Speaker David Hawker had his first run-in with speaker wannabe Bronwyn Bishop yesterday – over the Eureka flag, of all things. Hawker decided to allow the flag to be unfurled in the house and agreed it could be flown in the foyer as part of ceremonies commemorating the 1854 rebellion over gold licences by aggrieved miners demanding the introduction of parliamentary democracy.
PM John Howard had earlier refused to allow the flag to be flown over the federal parliament, so he may demur over the Speaker’s decision. Bronnie certainly did, jumping to her feet and expressing her displeasure. “No, absolutely not,” she said, shaking her head in disgust and leaving the chamber. It obviously wouldn’t have happened if she had the chair.”

I’m sure there will be more Bronnyisms to come, luckily no-one seriously thinks she is PM material any more except maybe Dennis Fitzgerald. But as a Bulldogs fan I have only one thing to say to the bugger who stole all our SuperLeague players, “Thanks for Willie Tonga, Willie Tonga”

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yikes! Bizarre to think that under the rickety reign of Dr Hewson, she was taken seriously as a leadership contender…

In other flag news, Rob Corr reports that the Aboriginal Flag is also verboten at Parliament House.

http://www.robertcorr.net/blog/2004/12/02/keep-on-walking/#comments

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Brian, just checked that link you provided for the transcript of the Counterpoint programme and it doesn’t look like they provided one for ‘Eureka!’.
I think people can download the audio file, though…

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

TV watchers will have seen the segment on the Eureka celebrations on the 7:30 report tonight.

Most of you probably missed the Radio National segment on Bush Telegraph today. It featured Dr Jennifer Marohasy, “employed by the ‘think tank’, the Institute of Public Affairs which is using tomorrow’s 150th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade to stage what it calls the Inaugural Eureka Forum in the stockade’s home-town of Ballarat in Victoria.”

It is a case of the right grabbing the Eureka story for itself. Marohasy was spouting deregulation, small business enterprise, small government. She is well known for being critical of environmentalists and had a box-on with Prof Quiggin on his site at one stage about whether the Murray was as bad as every-one makes out.

They put her up against Don Henry of the ACF on this occasion, but Marohasy took up most of the word-space. At the end, when asked, she said she would have definitely been on the side of the diggers and anti the regulators. Don Henry cheekily declared he would probably have been with the regulators, so he could make the miners clean up their mess.

The segment is at http://www.abc.net.au/rural/telegraph/stories/s1256537.htm but no transcript.

Good fun, but serious really.

trackback
2022 years ago

You don’t smell so good yourself

I love debating national symbols, mainly because any such discussion tends to show how uncomfortable conservatives, especially of the the Howard variety, are with actual Australian history. The whole Windschuttle saga over the dispossession of the Abor…

trackback
2022 years ago

You don’t smell so good yourself

I love debating national symbols, mainly because any such discussion tends to show how uncomfortable conservatives, especially of the the Howard variety, are with actual Australian history. The whole Windschuttle saga over the dispossession of the Abor…

trackback
2022 years ago

You don’t smell so good yourself

I love debating national symbols, mainly because any such discussion tends to show how uncomfortable conservatives, especially of the the Howard variety, are with actual Australian history. The whole Windschuttle saga over the dispossession of the Abor…

trackback
2022 years ago

You don’t smell so good yourself

I love debating national symbols, mainly because any such discussion tends to show how uncomfortable conservatives, especially of the the Howard variety, are with actual Australian history. The whole Windschuttle saga over the dispossession of the Abor…

trackback
2022 years ago

Looking backwards, moving forwards

Reading the various bloggers’ opinions about Eureka has been interesting. I have been quite sympathetic to the Leigh-Henderson-Yobbo point of view: that it was a revolt by (in modern terms) small businessmen, independent contractors and other aspirati…

Tim, Anderson
14 years ago

Spare a thought for the Bentley family whose Hotel was destroyed by the miners. The miner’s oath to defend our rights and liberties did not seem to extend to the property of an english publican!

Maybe James Bentley was set up for the murder of a miner killed in a claim jumping dispute? Perhaps other sly grog sellers resented the English convict Bentley who had made good and spent 30,000 pound to build a relatively palatial hotel in a tent city?

http://www.hereticpress.com/Dogstar/History/Bentley.html

Tim