Many think the Eureka Stockade was a battle for workers’ rights. However, this famous rebellion on the Victorian goldfields was really about our right to vote and a revolt against higher taxes.
The Australian Gold Rush didn’t just produce enormous wealth. The Chartists on the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s, and the demands they made after the Eureka Stockade, permanently shifted our political landscape.
It’s true the Australian labour movement did not exist until after Eureka. But many of its supporters claim ideological roots from the stockade events, or claim the union movement was formed on the goldfields. All of this ignores the fact the diggers were independent workers fighting for less regulation and lower taxes, and that Australia’s success as one of the world’s oldest continuous democracies can be traced to them.
In the 19th century, the Victorian government was seeking revenue to fund the colony’s expansion. It imposed a costly miners’ licence on the mostly poor and unsuccessful prospectors – essentially, a mining tax enforced through aggressive harassment by authorities.
In November 1854, Welsh Chartist and gold miner Basson Humffray formed the Ballarat Reform League. The aim was to counter the injustice and official corruption on the goldfields, and the diggers wanted democratic representation. They presented the government with a list of demands, taken directly from the People’s Charter. The charter came from a British movement, formed in 1838, to establish a basic set of principles.
Many of these Chartists ended up in the Australian goldfields, and applied the same principles, claiming “an inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called upon to obey – that taxation without representation is tyranny”.
The Ballarat Reform League demanded universal male suffrage, the abolition of the property qualifications for MPs, payment for MPs, voting by secret ballot, short-term parliaments and equal electoral districts.
Nearly all of these demands were eventually granted in Victoria’s 1856 general election.
A Miner’s Rights permit was introduced, costing only Â£1 a year ($80 today), and the monthly miner’s gold tax was abolished.
The famous leader of the miners, Peter Lalor, who went on to become the member for the new district of Ballarat in 1855, famously told parliament that “if democracy means opposition to a tyrannical press, a tyrannical people or a tyrannical government, then I have ever been, I am still, and will ever remain, a democrat”.
Lalor refused to be guided by a collective of individuals, but was guided by values. He spoke fondly of a society governed by free men and liberal institutions embodied in British constitutional procedures. He was sceptical of both a powerful working class and an overbearing government tyranny.
For unions to claim that they were the owners of the rebellion that founded our democracy is both mischievous and wrong. Eureka should be celebrated as a clear and unwavering revolt against higher taxes and big government.
Watch the video on Australia’s own tea party revolution below.