The Eureka Stockade: The battle for fairness, even-handedness & democracy
By John Moran, 3 December 2020
The short Battle of the Eureka Stockade on 3 Dec 1854 and the associated events preceding and following it have significant meaning for Australians who understand the importance of collective action to ensuring everyday Australians, especially working people, get a fair go, can live freely and have a voice in our society. On its 166th anniversary, and as we grapple with the social and economic impositions of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is again worth reflecting on the meaning of the Eureka Stockade.
How would you feel if the Government increased your tax at the same time as it closed the local school, cut off the bus or train service and only allowed wealthy people to use the hospital? And to make matters worse it had police officers regularly going door to door checking that you have a receipt to show you had paid the extra tax?
It is not behaviour most Australians would put up with for long. It was similar, unbalanced government policies and heavy-handedness that eventually led to the Battle of the Eureka Stockade on the morning of 3 December 1854. As participant and eyewitness to most of the events associated with Eureka, Raffaello Carboni, said in his classic book, The Eureka Stockade, written a year after the battle:
Was then the obnoxious mode of collecting the tax the sole cause of discontent: or was the tax itself (two pounds for three months) objected to at the same time?
I think the practical miner, who had been hard at work night and day, for the last four or six months, and, after all, had just bottomed a shicer (a mine with no gold), objected to the tax itself, because he could not possibly afford to pay it. And was it not atrocious to confine this man in the lousy lock-up at the (Government) Camp, because he had no luck?
Allow me, now, in return, to put a very important question, of the old Roman stamp, Cui bono that is, Where did our licence money go to?
So, while the story of the Eureka Stockade is very much about a tax and its enforcement, things also reached the extreme point they finally did because the miners did not believe they were getting value for money. They were paying tax, but not getting meaningful services in return.
Instead of the tax coming back in better roads, schools and so forth it was coming back as wages and provisions for soldiers, police and government officials whose primary job was to enforce the licence tax itself. That is, they were paying a tax to pay for people to collect the tax.
Like most decent citizens the vast majority of miners didn’t object to paying their way in society. They objected, if you like, to being ripped off.
They tried everything to get the Victoria Government to listen to reason. All they got in return was more licence hunts by the soldiers and police. In the end diggers on the Eureka Lead built a stockade to protect themselves against these increasingly aggressive hunts and, as they say, the rest is history.
The battle itself, on the diggers’ side, ended up being something of a disorganised, ramshackle affair that led to many unfortunate deaths. However, the events leading up to and following it were anything but disorganised and ramshackle.
They were, in fact, classic examples of what we often describe today as “people power”. They included well-organised democratic actions, which are still in use in various forms today - mass meetings, the drafting of formal political positions and principles, deputations to government officials and juries of the people ultimately controlling the courts.
The battle at the Stockade was simply the central event in a mass of activity – both before and after – on the gold fields and elsewhere aimed at securing reforms that better represented the wishes and aspirations of the general population. That is, democratic reforms.
As stated the battle was a military disaster for the diggers. It was certainly no American or French Revolution, despite some United States and European miners on the Ballarat field pushing for a broader, more ambitious rebellion. However, while they lost the battle the diggers, and their supporters throughout the rest of society, definitely won the war and significant democratic reforms were introduced in the years that followed.
In fact, the British Government seemed to have learnt the lessons of the American Revolution and was quick to meet the democratic demands of the agitated and aspirational Australian colonies, especially after Eureka.
The problem for most ordinary Australians in the 21st century is that many of the things the Eureka diggers and other 19th century democratic reformers achieved are threatened by big business especially big tech, woke tyranny and the pervasive nature of Covid-19 management.
Yes, in many ways we live better and more affluent lives than most of our forebears, but most of that can be attributed to technological advances and the fairness and equity achieved by the reforms these 19th century heroes fought for.
It would be a mistake to take it all for granted.
For example, people are losing their jobs for thinking the wrong way or not holding the right views. In an attempt to contain the Covid pandemic the police are harassing residents and businesses on a daily basis. Does this sound familiar? Instead of “hunting” miners down shafts, the modern “Joes” or “traps” are hunting down Covid breaches. This is often legitimate and is aimed at saving lives, but it is also generally accepted that there is a fine line between safety and tyranny and that care and vigilance are needed in defence of our long-term freedoms.
In 2020 this will hopefully not lead to violent confrontations, especially not events as extreme as those of 3 December 1854 on the Eureka Lead at Ballarat. These are different times in that respect. But, insofar as they are similar, it is worth recalling the oath of allegiance sworn by the miners at Ballarat’s Bakery Hill on 29 November 1854:
We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.
More information on the Eureka Stockade can be found at various online sources, including: Eureka Stockade | National Museum of Australia (nma.gov.au)