There is a fascinating blue going on at the moment between the right-wing think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, and the left-wing union, the CFMEU, over who has dibs as heirs to the spirit and saga of the mighty Eureka Stockade. As you'll recall, the whole conflagration took place in Ballarat, in the last gasp of 1854, when a multitude of miners took arms against a sea of trouble and an iniquitous British regime, to build a stockade and raise a flag, only to be stormed by the Redcoats, and have a couple of dozen killed for their trouble, while another dozen were placed on trial for treason.
The catalyst for this latest squabble turns on the IPA releasing a video last week, maintaining the essence of the rebellion was an uprising against an excessive mining licence fee, while the CFMEU says the IPA has wasted its money on a propaganda exercise to "suck up to their monarchist mates and Donald Trump", and that, in fact, the essence of the fight for Eureka was worker's rights, and the whole thing in fact lies at the very heart of the birth of the labour movement.
The Eureka flag.The right-wing think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, and the mining union, the CFMEU, are at loggerheads over the spirit and saga of Eureka.
Hooray! It is an invigorating, inspiring debate to have, and my first point, as one who penned a weighty tome six years ago, entitled Eureka, The Unfinished Revolution, is that it is terrific that the right wing of politics is at last getting interested in the rebellion, as there really is a lot of inspiration in it for the right – even if it is late to the party. Back in 2004, not a single member of the Howard government attended the 150th anniversary commemorations, and John Howard refused to fly the flag over the national Parliament. And yet, there is so much for the LNP mob in the yarn.
Let's hear it for the entrepreneurs! Up with individual liberty! Down with big government! Boooo to the iniquitous mining tax!
A contemporary sketch by Charles Doudiet shows the Eureka rebels swearing allegiance to the flag of the Southern Cross at Bakery Hill in Ballarat. Photo: Courtesy of Ballarat Fine Art Gallery
None of which is to say the CFMEU is remotely wrong in its claims. For the beauty of the whole saga is that it is so comprehensive, fought on so many levels, that there is inspiration for all if you just look into a little more deeply.
First and foremost, it was a triumph for democracy as the miners took the view that, a la the American Revolution, there be "no taxation without representation", and many of the specific reforms demanded by the rebels were ushered in around Australia over the next few years. Eureka happened too late in the piece to directly affect the different constitutions of the colonies but as Geoffrey Blainey has noted, "the first Parliament that met under Victoria's new constitution was alert to the democratic spirit of the goldfields, and passed laws enabling each adult man in Victoria to vote at elections, to vote by secret ballot and to stand for the Legislative Assembly." The other colonies quickly followed suit.
You believe in multiculturalism? Well, listen to the contemporary account of Raffaello Carboni, an Italian, detailing the moment that the rebel leader, the Irishman Peter Lalor, stood on the stump before the throng to get the rebellion underway, gazing out on a sea of rebels coming from so many lands, men and women of all religions and ethnicities. Tell 'em, Raffaello.
"The earnestness of so many faces of all kinds of shape and colour; the motley heads of all sorts of size and hair; the shagginess of so many beards of all lengths and thicknesses; the vividness of double the number of eyes electrified by the magnetism of the southern cross; was one of those grand sights, such as are recorded only in the history of 'the Crusaders in Palestine'."
The original Eureka Flag now on display in Ballarat. Photo: Adam Trafford
And hear the account of Lalor himself, as he asks the throng to raise their right hand towards the mighty Eureka flag, now bravely flying in the breeze.
"I looked around me," he would recount. "I saw brave and honest men, who had come thousands of miles to labour for independence. I knew that hundreds were in great poverty, who would possess wealth and happiness if allowed to cultivate the wilderness that surrounded us. The grievances under which we had long suffered, and the brutal attack of the day, flashed across my mind; and with the burning feelings of an injured man, I mounted the stump and proclaimed 'Liberty'."
Ah, say it after me: Rah!
Eureka also stood, of course, for egalitarianism, for mateship and the virtues of Australian justice as those 13 miners tried for treason were all found innocent. The Indigenous angle is also covered, with a strong oral history maintaining that the local Aboriginal people put aside their grievances over lost land, to look after the children of fallen miners and wailing wives until the storm passed.
For we republicans the inspiration is obvious as there was even a Declaration of Independence that was read out to the cheering miners. (Yes, as opposed to the copper-plate writing and inspirational phraseology of Thomas Jefferson, ours was a drunken ramble, penned on the back of some butcher's paper, but it did exist.)
Listen, there is even something in this yarn for the monarchists. Go you, Redcoats! Stick it to those who would revolt against the crown! (I kid you not, over dinner in 2015, my friend Tony Abbott, as prime minister, took at least a quarter of that slant, saying he couldn't agree with me that Eureka was a better and more inclusive national saga than Gallipoli, as he was troubled by the fact that it really was a revolt against the crown.)
For those of us who want a change of flag to the Eureka, let the record also show that despite the claims of the Conservatives that "our Diggers died for the current Australian flag", there is only one case in recorded history of anyone actually dying for an Australian flag, and that is the miner Charles Ross, the father of the Eureka flag, standing at its base, and falling, with sword in hand, as he died defending it!
Let the last word, however, go to Paul Murphy, founder of Eureka's Children, who, a decade ago, was asked what it meant to him.
"Whenever you see the Eureka flag," he said, "whether it's farmers in Mildura, soccer fans or on building sites, it simply means, 'I'm pissed off with whoever's in charge.' It's an act of free expression and I would encourage those supporters to fly it as an act of defiance, with the best wishes of the Eureka descendants."
And so say all of us.