The Conservative View of Eureka

Gerard Henderson today makes a cogent case that the Coalition is making a mistake in distancing themselves from the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Eureka. 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. Indeed, the founder of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies, used to describe Eureka as an "earnest attempt at democratic government". It’s a pity his heirs don’t see it that way.

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4 Responses to The Conservative View of Eureka

  1. Mark Bahnisch says:

    Readers of this blog might be interested in a long analytical post I’ve just written at Troppo on the historical and cultural significance of the Eureka Legend. Included in my post is a critique of the section from Imagining Australia discussed here.

    The post is at

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    I don’t agree with its conclusions, but the piece is definitely worth reading.

  3. Mark Bahnisch says:

    Andrew, thanks. I’d be very pleased if you wanted to defend your thesis on the comments thread of my post.

  4. “I argued yesterday on Michael Duffy’s Counterpoint program that Eureka was fundamentally a revolt by self-employed small businessmen against unjust taxation.”

    I think I have seen your opinion on this in the past, and IIRC wrote on it several years ago on k5. I disagree with it by the way, unjust taxation was one of the issues, but the wider issue was government tyranny, especially through the vehicles of government that the miners came in day to day contact with, constables, judges and tax officers. Given that the Chartism was also wanting England and the colonies to catch up the enlightenment (which had happened in the US), it was in my opinion a wider dissaffection aimed at tyrannical and despotic government. The political claims of the Ballaraat Reform League point to that;

    1. no taxation without representation
    2. male suffrage
    3. no property requirements for the assembly/council
    4. payment of representatives
    5. shorter duration of parliament

    They are chartist claims and really, are nothing more than a requirement to catch up with what went on in the US 80 years before. Eureka was the most dramatic event in that process of increasing the peoples access to democracy, but it was more than just a tax revolt.

    Like the Boston Tea Party, it would not have achieved its aims if there wasnt a larger social/political popular movement along with it. If Sam Adams hadnt of been riling up the Bostonians and established the town hall meetings network, the Boston tea-party would never have turned out like it did.

    One of the issues I have with the so-called “Culture Wars” is how it attempts to trivialize, illegitimize or discredit any gains or claims the people have made to increased participation in democracy. Howard not going to the Eureka celebrations is part of that. But avoiding it, he is not giving it legitimacy.

    The “Culture Wars” are very much aimed at the government having a monopoly on Australian history, and through this monopoly on the narrative of Australian history they are seeking to define wider principles, such as “justice” and “democracy” with an almost totalitarian air.

    The Aboriginal people have been targetted in the “Culture Wars”, as the govenment lost control of the definition of justice, people started to define it. Couldnt have that. So we get the “Culture Wars” in return. This would be the same way that Hotham viewed the world – Government legitimacy comes through the ruling/idle elites. Eureka broke that.

    I can see why a modern government that seeks a complete monopoly on violence, justice and history would be sympathetic with Hotham, rather than Lawlor entwining Australian liberty with the southern cross, or a “rabble” of miners defining justice as something other than the tyranny of government.

    The same issue with the triumphalism of federalism. It is almost totalitarian, that definition of the greatest form of government Australia could get, and we should be thankful. Like we the state, rather than we the people. When in fact the “bearded men” were flat out incompetent, Griffiths in particular.

    The enlightenment gave us the US Republic, where power was embodied in the people, clean seperation of powers and explicit political/constitutional rights. The Australian Constitution had none of these. It was under a monarchy, the formal power of the executive is embedded in the legislative and no bill of rights. Australia remains unenlightened and 238 behind constitutional innovation. It is like the enlightenment never happened according to Australian history.

    The government indulging itself in the “Culture Wars” are an example of everything that is wrong with the political system in Australia. We have abundance of state and scarcity of democracy. It should be the other way around. The value of Eureka was that it took some of the abundance of state, and gave it to the people side of the ledger. For that the authoritarian conservatives, such as Howard and Henderson, will never be able forgive Lalor and the miners.

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