- The Guardian
- Issue #1988
Next week will be the 167th anniversary of the Eureka Rebellion. The Rebellion is one of Australia’s most romanticised events and is considered by many from both sides of the political aisle, from Chiefly to Menzies, as the birth of Australian democracy. It’s not hard to see why: Eureka led to the establishment of the Electoral Act 1856, granting male colonists suffrage in the lower house of Victorian parliament.
The significance of Eureka has led many to misappropriate the Rebellion for their own causes that are antithetical to its spirit. In order to highlight how this has happened, we must first revisit history.
In brief, Eureka Rebellion was an event – by gold miners – who objected to the expense of a miner’s licence, taxation (via the licence) with representation, and the government’s actions (such as increased police presence) to marginalise the miners. In the weeks leading up to the battle, miners hoisted up the now-famous Eureka flag and pledged their led allegiance to it. Finally, after years of protesting, the miners had had enough. On 3rd December, 1854, at the Eureka Stockade, rebels rose up against the colony of Victoria. The Battle was a swift resounding defeat for the miners, but their struggle and its outcomes have become the stuff of legend.
It is easy to see why the Australian left and labour movement more generally adopted the Eureka Rebellion as its spiritual beginning: it is a story about workers struggling for rights. The flag is a symbolic representation of that affair. The spirit of Eureka is about fearlessly fighting against repression.
This legacy has been hijacked by Australia’s far-right. Australia’s fascist movements have not traditionally used the Eureka flag and instead have used either the Union Jack or the Australian flag as their symbol. This was the case with Eric Campbell’s New Guard – a fascist paramilitary organisation based in Sydney.
Why, then, did Australia’s far-right adopt this symbol as their own? While much of Australia’s far-right embody a lot of neo-nazi ideology, their tactics and approach have changed. The far-right in the anglosphere have cloaked themselves with populist, anti-elitist rhetoric. Thus, the Eureka Rebellion provides today’s far-right with an opportunity to connect their ideas to Australia’s anti-establishment history. The rise of the far-right and their prominent adoption of the Eureka Flag has left many people wanting the labour movement to abandon the symbol.
However, we should never abandon the Eureka flag. As the stockade rebel fought, we too should fight for what is ours. The Eureka flag is more than a commemoration of the Battle of the Eureka stockade. It represents a century’s long struggle for workers who have used it to fight for better pay and conditions. It represents the power of the working class. It represents collectivism in practice.
The Australian government knows this too. This is why the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) under then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull banned the flag from construction sites. As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald this year ABCC Commissioner Stephen McBurney fears that by seeing the symbol, employees will “think they have to pay up and join the CFMMEU if they work on a building site bedecked in its symbols.” This tacitly implies that the ABCC (and the Coalition government) know that this symbol represents collective action. They would love nothing more than to see that solidarity destroyed so they can attack working conditions and pay.
While a small albeit loud minority is trying to distort what Eureka stands for, we know – and the ruling class knows – that it is a symbol of workers’ struggle.