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ACM Home arrow Resources arrow Articles of Interest arrow Eureka - Releasing The Spirit of Democracy Republicans Fail To Steal Eureka

Eureka - Releasing The Spirit of Democracy Republicans Fail To Steal Eureka Print E-mail
Written by Diana Melleuish   
Tuesday, 10 August 2004

Diana Melleuish is ACM’s Publications and Research Officer

December 3rd 2004 marks the sesquicentenary (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 do we in Australians for Constitutional Monarchy interpret its significance? It was in an attempt to answer these questions and also to address concerns expressed by many of our supporters that the whole Eureka commemoration was being taken over by republicans, that I ventured from the comparatively secure and familiar ACM Head Office in Kent Street, Sydney into the midst of the Eureka 150 Democracy Conference held at the University of Ballarat from 25th – 27th November (as one conference speaker ejaculated over lunch on the first day when we said we had come for the conference from NSW: “NSW – what on earth are you doing here?).

We hadn’t been in Ballarat very long before we began to realize that not only had the republicans moved in to appropriate the Eureka myth but so had the Labor Party. The Ballarat Courier on the front page of its Friday 26th November edition pictured a smug and self-confident looking Mr Latham standing under the Eureka Flag at the official opening of the Conference the previous evening which we had missed because of our late arrival in Ballarat – (in its next edition on the Saturday the newspaper was to feature on its front page an angry looking Gough Whitlam also at the Conference – but more about Mr Whitlam later). 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 .- but the Ballarat Courier on its front page reported the substance of the Opposition Leader’s speech as an attack on the Prime Minister for his failure to recognize the 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 programme).

On Friday morning early we all assembled on the University campus for the beginning of the Conference sessions. The welcoming address by the University Vice Chancellor thanked the original aboriginal owners of the land on which the University was situated and contained a gratuitous and irrelevant attack on American foreign policy. This was followed by a welcome to the Land by a Community Leader on behalf of the traditional (aboriginal) landholders which was in turn followed by the official opening of the Conference by the Victorian Labor Premier Mr Bracks who told us that Eureka was “the epicenter 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.. Mr Bracks then went on to bathe his own government with the spirit of Eureka referring to his recent ‘reform’ of the Victorian Legislative Council by introducing election by proportional representation and removal of the Council’s right to block supply There was general applause from the audience for this attempt to ensure the dominance of the executive arm of government over a Legislative Council now fully democratic unlike in 1854.

The first highlight of the morning was the address which followed 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 gave an inspiring address which 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 and was careful to distance himself from the use of violence in pursuit of liberty and national self-determination. 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 ( cf the sovereign in our constitution?) but would have limited constitutional powers whereas political power would be reserved for the Prime Minister (constitutional monarchists 1, republicans Nil).

Morning tea followed and the ‘democratic’ spirit of the Conference was in evidence. Special guests including the Premier and the Federal Opposition leader were whisked away to a private room while we lesser attendees were left in the foyer; however someone must have lost the key to the executive washroom because an immaculately suited Mr Latham wearing an Eureka badge pushed past us on his way to the public toilets.

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. I didn’t feel the need to take a blood pressure tablet before Professor Blainey’s speech – it would have been wasted - for the eminently qualified historian, 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, as 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 Eureka was in Professor Blainey’s words “a convergence of unfortunate events”.

The 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” (which he contrasted with the cosmopolitan nature of the diggings) and which had ignored the fundamental rights and civil liberties of the people.

Luncheon followed and the launch of a new book by the Rome based Australian author Mr Desmond O’Grady on the life of Raffaello Carboni, the Italian ‘digger’ and rebellion sympathizer. Did I need to take a blood pressure tablet? Signor Carboni has generally been regarded as an advocate of a republic at the time of Eureka (Thomas Keneally has written the foreword to the most recent edition of Carboni’s account of the Eureka Stockade). No worries. Mr O’Grady’s programme notes stated that Mr Carboni was “scornful of the Chartists and contemptuous of Republicanism”. In fact as Mr O’Grady told us when launching his book, Carboni had described republicans as “thumb sucking babes”. (Constitutional monarchists 2, .Republicans Nil). Later that afternoon during his paper on Carboni, Mr O’Grady again downplayed the significance of republicanism which supposedly resulted from Eureka claiming that the Crimean War particularly the battle of Sebastopol had put a “kibosh” on republicanism because nobody in the colonies wanted to be so disloyal as to advocate a separation from the British Crown when the British were under threat abroad. Carboni, said Mr O’Grady, was a great admirer of England which he regarded as a safe haven for European exiles following the 1848 revolutions and when he (Carboni) was acquitted of high treason in the Eureka trials, he gladly attributed this to the virtues of British justice.

The republicans were to even the score during the afternoon. The session in which my husband was to give his paper was entitled “’Talk’ about Democracy”. It was chaired by Mr Peter Consandine from the Republican Party of Australia who was under the impression that the title of the session was “Talk about a Republic”. He curtailed the amount of time given to the paper presenters taking up a substantial amount of the session time advocating the benefits of a directly elected president even suggesting that from now on, we should change the name of the colour ‘royal’ blue (colour of the Eureka flag) to ‘Eureka’ blue.

The last session I attended that afternoon was given by Mr Ken Mansell whose thesis was that the Australian Constitution of 1901 “places severe constraints on the practice of democracy”. The Federation of 1901 represents the forces of privilege and conservatism – only Labor has made social advances in Australia - the true birthplace of democracy was Eureka and if we wish to continue the legacy of Eureka, we must usher in the republic as “let’s face it; Eureka is a celebration of republicanism”. Mr Mansell concluded by deploring the fact that one can go into public places and community halls in rural Victoria and still see pictures of the Queen on the wall. “Let’s get the Queen off the wall” concluded Mr Mansell. Nobody demurred (Constitutional Monarchists 2, Republicans 1).

Friday evening was the official Conference dinner ($120 a ticket – very democratic) and this was surely to be the highlight of the Conference. Drinks and canapés on the terrace – a jolly argument between myself and Mr Consandine from the Republican Party of Australia – “We’ve already got an Australian Head of State” – “Rubbish everyone knows the Queen is the Head of State” – “You’ll get done like a dog’s dinner if you go for a direct election model – Greg Craven says so” – “Greg Craven’s just a conservative – he’s practically a monarchist”.

Then into the dining room for the main part of the evening’s proceedings. First up an address by Mary Delahunty MP, Minister for Eureka 150, Planning, Women’s Affairs and the Arts, whose topic was advertised as ‘Australian Identity, Citizenship and Democracy’. This must surely relate to our concerns as constitutional monarchists. Ms Delahunty’s address was so brief and the sound system so bad that I don’t think she had anything to say on the advertised topic. The highlight of the evening’s entertainment followed. Guest speaker the Hon Gough Whitlam AC QC was to be interviewed by ABC journalist Geraldine Doogue.

Almost the first question Ms Doogue asked the ‘elder statesman’ as she termed him was “Well from Eureka in 1854 to the republic referendum in 1999 we haven’t come very far have we?” (General laughter). “The 1999 result must have been disconcerting to you as a republican?” “Well I was never a republican until 11th November 1975” (More general laughter and applause). The former prime minister then informed us that had the Queen been in the country at the time, the dismissal would never have occurred (!!). He then went on to express the conviction that Australian elections for both houses of parliament should occur at the same time and that we should have fixed term parliaments. This would be along the same lines as the American system where all the elections take place the first Tuesday in November. Mr Whitlam with characteristic modesty, was then to inform us that he was a constitutional expert – in fact he claimed to have been “the best lawyer ever to have been Prime Minister of this country”. This seemed to me to be an extraordinary claim considering he doesn’t seem to be aware that the Governor-General would deal with an Australian constitutional crisis whether or not the Queen was in the country or not. He also seemed to be unaware that, despite the aberration of the recent constitutional amendment in NSW, fixed term elections and responsible government are totally incompatible unless one is prepared to accept that the legislature has no right to hold the executive accountable.

At the end of Mr Whitlam’s speech every person in the room except your ACM correspondent, her husband and two people at our table who were no doubt concerned at our solitary predicament, rose and gave the ‘elder statesman’ a standing ovation.

The interview with Mr Whitlam was followed by an address by ‘Sir Murray Rivers QC’ on the subject “The Risk of Democracy”. This address had been a prime inducement to me to pay the $120 for the dinner – I assumed it might say something about checks and balances and would therefore be relevant to us at ACM. However my suspicions were aroused when the Master of Ceremonies informed us that ‘Sir Murray’ was the only judge in Victoria’s history to have had every single judgement he had made overturned on appeal. (I have met several judges through my association with ACM and I cannot imagine any of them being as incompetent as that). ‘Sir Murray’ took to the podium and proceeded to spend the next 10 to 15 minutes lampooning the Howard Government for everything from not attending the Conference to the Tampa affair, anti-terrorist laws and media manipulation to win the election. There was general laughter and merriment from everyone in the room except from your correspondent and her husband who were squirming in their seats at the assumption that everyone in the room was an opponent of the Coalition government.

When ‘Sir Murray’s’ speech ended we were asked to put our hands together for a comedian Mr Brian somebody or other – (other people at our table apparently recognized him but couldn’t recall his surname). We had the distinct feeling of being at a Labor Party conference rather than at an academic one. At the end of the evening, in the eyes of your correspondent, the Eureka conference score was constitutional monarchists and republicans 2 all.

Saturday morning’s conference programme included an address by the Rt Hon Dr Marjorie ‘Mo’ Mowlam, UK politician and former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Although this session would no doubt have been interesting, I decided it would have little bearing on Eureka and the republican question and headed off to the Eureka Centre itself – the centre on the site of the Eureka Stockade which hosts a commemorative display relating to the events of 1854. It was the Centre which had hosted Thursday evening’s cocktail party addressed by Mr Mark Latham.

The Centre uses multimedia displays to set the unfolding of the Eureka story in its proper context. It was informative, interesting and most importantly totally disinterested and objective in its presentation. A highly enjoyable hour and a half was spent there and I thoroughly recommend a visit to Ballarat to spend time at the Eureka Centre (and of course at Sovereign Hill itself which I have visited on previous occasions). My visit to the Centre as had previous visits to Sovereign Hill, left me feeling proud of my Australian history and heritage.

It was, however, with some trepidation, that I headed back to the Conference for the late morning session. Second speaker for the session was advertised as one Mr Greg Barns (that well known former head of the Australian Republican Movement) whose topic was listed as “Revisiting the Constitution”. Well, I thought, I am in for the inevitable – a platform for Mr Barns’ republican manifesto. Too my immense surprise, after beginning by thanking the traditional owners of the land, 20 minutes of Mr Barns’ speech passed and not one mention of the republic. No, what Mr Barns was in fact proposing was a Bill of Rights the same as Canada has. Mr Barns has just returned from Canada full of praise for Canada’s commitment to human rights, and to its liberal and progressive values. Canada is a multicultural society committed to human rights and equality he said. Unlike Australia, Canada is a serious democracy which takes human rights seriously. A bill of rights, in Mr Barns’ opinion, is essential for any democracy. Australia doesn’t have one because its Constitution is totally outmoded created as it was as a document of “political conservatism”. We will never be a “serious democracy” until like Canada we have one concluded Mr Barns.

At this stage I knew we were one up on the republicans. Of course Mr Barns didn’t mention the republic in the context of his discussion of Canada and its wonderful bill of rights because Canada is a constitutional monarchy and has every intention of remaining so. Yet Canada is a “serious democracy” and a “progressive” and “pluralist” one at that. How galling that the constitutional monarchy of Canada is held up for emulation while its southern neighbour, the republic is an object of criticism to Mr Barns.

Saturday lunch (during we were introduced to a young man the ‘only’ supporter of the Liberal Party at the Conference) ended our sojourn at the Eureka 150 Democracy Conference. I had to begin the long trip back home to NSW to prepare this your ACM newsletter. Saturday afternoon at the Conference was to have hosted a Youth Hypothetical on the future of democracy (at which the young man we met at lunch was no doubt to be the token Liberal). I would have loved to have stayed to hear what our young people had to say about democracy. But instead I am left to reflect on the relevance of Eureka to our constitutional debate. What was the legacy of Eureka? Why had the republicans and the Labor Party tried to appropriate it? Was their attempt valid? Could Professor John Molony, author of a book on Eureka, really get away with claiming as he has done in the Age of Saturday 27th November (2004) that:

The Charter (of Bakery Hill) proclaims the freedom of the people to choose a republic as the form of government through which to exercise their sovereign power. The diggers died to affirm that right of choice.

Sunday, December 3, 1854, was the dawn of an Australian republic, but the diggers have pledged us to complete the work. When that day of fulfillment comes they trust us to fly their standard, the Southern Cross, as the symbol of our national integrity?

After attending the Eureka conference – after listening to Geoffrey Blainey, Desmond O’Grady, and even to Gough Whitlam and Greg Barns - I am even more convinced that we constitutional monarchists are supporting the best form of government Australia could have and that the legacy of Eureka is the democratic, peaceful and stable society we have become. It was tragic that 35 people lost their lives that day – as Geoffrey Blainey has demonstrated there was no need. Ultimately I concluded that the resolution to the question of how we should regard Eureka lies in the advertisement for the commemorative coin released by the Perth Mint which depicts the coin sleeve. On the left hand side of the sleeve is a painting (now at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery home of the Eureka Flag) depicting the encounter between the diggers and the redcoats on that fateful day. On the right hand side of the coin sleeve is the obverse side of the coin showing the head of our Queen.

The men who endorsed the principles and objects of “Ballaarat (sic) Reform League on Bakery Hill on November 11th 1854 which stated:

That it is not the wish of the League to effect an immediate separation of this colony from the parent country….but that if Queen Victoria continues to act upon the ill advice of dishonest ministers and insists upon indirectly dictating obnoxious laws for the colony, under the assumed authority of the Royal prerogative, the Reform League will endeavour to supersede such Royal prerogative by asserting that of the people, which is the most royal of all prerogatives, as the people are the only legitimate source of all political power.

simply did not understand - as with others who had flirted with republican principles in the 1850s (even Henry Parkes in the 1850s had done so) - that democracy and self-government were perfectly compatible with remaining under the Crown. We understand that now as did our Founding Fathers in 1901. The commitment that the diggers of Eureka had to democracy in 1854 remains with us today – but we know that we can have our democracy within the framework of a system of constitutional monarchy which provides the checks and balances to protect those “rights and liberties” so eagerly defended under the Southern Cross on that Eureka day in December 1854.

 
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