Tuesday saw the 159th anniversary of the Eureka Rebellion, at which 22 miners and 6 soldiers were killed in a clash over political representation and grievances related to taxation and permits (amongst others).
Although the miners ‘lost’ the rebellion, all of their demands were met within a year:
Yet, ere the year was over
Freedom rolled like a flood:
They gave us what we asked for
When we asked for it in blood.
– A Ballad of Eureka
Aside from questions around the use of violence in protest, which is not for discussion here, the ultimate ‘success’ of the rebellion shows the power of a small group of people who tapped into the prevailing wind of public opinion, and were prepared to take action where others were not. In Peter Lalor the rebellion had a figurehead, but this was leadership by a group, and arguably sowed the seeds for democratic government in Australia.
Lalor was feted as a hero of democracy and was, a year later, elected to the Victorian Parliament, but what kind of leader was he?
“We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties”
– The Eureka Oath
However his later decisions to oppose white-male suffrage in Victoria, to attempt to use Chinese miners to break the miners’ strike in Clunes, and to support those seeking to limit improvements in working conditions suggests an opportunism which left many of his supporters feeling betrayed.
No doubt Lalor was courageous and committed, but after the rebellion ended he hid amongst sympathisers, rather than making a stand by joining the 13 others on trial. Lalor appears a contradictory character, more loyal to personal ideals than to any single other cause.
Which do you value more: a leader who follows their own path in the face of opposition, or one who picks an angle and represents it consistently even when they personally disagree?
The Eureka Rebellion was a key moment in Australian history, and a catalyst for an incredible amount of progress towards the open, democratic and relatively equitable society that exists today, but there was still a lot of work to do – it took over 50 years for women to be granted the right to vote in all states, and it wasn’t until the 1960s – over 100 years after Eureka that universal suffrage was introduced, including Indigenous Australians.
True liberty is hard-won, and in most cases requires pressure from below and leadership by and on behalf of the people. Mostly it is social and attitudinal change which makes the impact rather than an isolated incident. We need people like Peter Lalor who are prepared to stand above the crowd and fight for their rights, but we equally need those who stand amongst the crowd, starting conversations, challenging injustice and fighting for the rights of others.
Any thoughts? Disagree? Join the conversation!
(Disclaimer – limits of space, expertise and time dictate that this is not a full picture – if I’ve missed something important, let me know…)