Remembering birth of our democracy

Sunday marks the 163rd anniversary of the Battle at the Eureka Stockade, a seminal event in Australia’s history that took place right here in Ballarat. Let us take a moment to remember, because it should matter to all of us.

In 1854, diggers on the Ballarat goldfields were forced to take up arms against an often corrupt administration. The Battle at the Eureka Stockade is the only organised civil insurrection to have occurred in Australia.

At that time, the people on the goldfields simply wanted taxation with representation – to have a say in how they were governed. The facts are simple: Eureka was the birthplace of the Australian spirit – that spirit of fairness and a fair go for all that we hold dear today. Or do we? Eureka has been characterised in many ways – a revolution, a struggle for a principle, a stand against injustice and oppression. The government of the day was contemptuous of the diggers’ aspirations and deaf to their demands. It was determined to hold them back.

As the diggers had no voice and felt no sense of justice, they were compelled to take action. So they raised their flag – the flag of the Southern Cross – and swore to fight to uphold their rights and liberties. They fought courageously against overwhelming odds. The battle was a slaughter. These were good men fighting for an honourable and just cause, and the justice system validated their actions – juries acquitted every one of the 13 men charged with treason. The corrupt goldfields officials were removed, the gold licence system was revoked and parliamentary reforms were implemented. It was the birth of our democracy that we enjoy today.

The rebellion was the most serious challenge to government authority in Australia’s history. Its quick but bloody suppression meant there was a swift return of law and order. However, within six months of the battle, key reforms demanded by the diggers through their plan – the Ballarat Reform League Charter – were introduced. They included: a full and fair representation in parliament; universal suffrage; no property qualification of members for the Legislative Council; payment of parliamentarians and; short durations of parliament.

These rights have been enshrined in every constitution of Australia’s states and territories, as well as in the Commonwealth constitution created in 1901. Ballarat can rightfully claim to be the birthplace of Australian democracy – the birthplace of the Australian spirit.  This is why Eureka matters! For the past year, Ballarat council has been looking at the future of MADE – the Museum of Australia Democracy at Eureka. Why? Because former councils, when given $10 million, botched it. The former councils didn’t care, nor did they see Eureka as significant to the country.

The current one-sided debate on the relevance of Eureka is a disgrace – to the memory of those killed at Eureka and the men, women and children who gave us the democracy born at the stockade. There’s a wealth of in-depth reports from national and international organisations to corroborate the importance and significance of Eureka, and how a revamped Eureka Centre should operate. We did remember. In its previous incarnation as the Eureka Centre, the facility had the support of all state and territory parliaments to fly the Eureka flag from the top of their respective parliament houses.

Councillors, I now seek your unanimous support to reinvigorate “the Eureka Centre” as a place of remembrance, commemoration and celebration, and that the precinct becomes a place of pilgrimage for true believers in democracy.

Ron Egeberg is a Ballarat civil celebrant.