Earlier this year, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) issued a directive that under the national construction code, building sites will not be allowed to display ‘images generally attributed to, or associated with an organisation, such as the iconic symbol of the five white stars and white cross on the Eureka Stockade flag.’ It’s an extraordinary directive, politically motivated by the Turnbull Government to attack the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), which has traditionally used the Eureka flag as its symbol of solidarity and workers’ rights. In banning the flag’s display, the ABCC is using a fixed interpretation of the flag’s meaning: one that poses a threat to the absolute authority of corporations and management over building sites. This seems like a good time to remember what the flag meant at its inception, and that its contemporary meaning is in fact deeply contested.
The first recorded reference to the flag came in the Ballarat Times of 24 November 1854, when an article alerted readers to the monster meeting of the Ballarat Reform League. This was a new political organisation of aggrieved diggers and their supporters that demanded the abolition of the corrupt Gold Commission system of administration, the abolition of the tax on miners and storekeepers, and ‘a thorough and organised agitation of the gold fields and towns’, implying the desire for local autonomy in administration. The League also adopted the English Chartist movement’s Charter of democratic principles: full and fair parliamentary representation, manhood suffrage, no property qualifications for members of parliament, payment of members of parliament and short-term parliaments. At this meeting, where the result of the League’s deputation to present the Charter to Governor Hotham would be explained, it was announced that ‘the Australian [Eureka] flag shall triumphantly wave, a symbol of Liberty’.
The flag was first hoisted at the Bakery Hill meeting on 29 November 1854, when the diggers heard that the Governor had rejected their demands, and the meeting resolved to take further action. The Ballarat Times recorded that ‘there is no flag in old Europe half so beautiful as the Southern Cross of the Ballarat miners’.
Contemporaries saw it as a flag of insurrection, ‘the national flag of Australia for all future time’. Peter Lalor, Irish leader of the diggers, made his men swear an oath to ‘stand truly by each other’ under the flag, and ‘to fight to defend our rights and liberties’. After this the flag acquired special meaning for men of many nations who were prepared to die for the Southern Cross, which they saw as uniting them as citizens of a new republic.
In December 1854, the government’s forces attacked the Eureka Stockade – the headquarters of the protesting diggers – and about thirty people were killed, and over 100 taken prisoner. Thirteen men were selected to stand trial in Melbourne for the capital charge of treason. At the trials, the flag was the most important piece of the Crown’s evidence for the charge that the diggers ‘maliciously and traitorously did raise upon a pole a certain flag as a standard and collect round the said standard and did then solemnly swear to defend each other with the intention of levying war against our said Lady the Queen’.
The first man tried was John Joseph. He was a black American former slave who was singled out and scapegoated by the Crown. He was found not guilty by the trial’s jury, and later hoisted onto the shoulders of a celebrating crowd in Melbourne’s streets, feted as a hero. Indeed the different ethnic backgrounds of the men tried demonstrates that the Eureka Stockade was a part of an international struggle for democratic rights. How bizarre, then, that later it came to be associated with white supremacism.
The flag itself had been seen only briefly in public – first raised on Bakery Hill on 29 November 1854, and last seen flying over the Eureka Stockade, on the morning of 3 December 1854. It then disappeared into the hands of the King family in the Wimmera district until they lent it to the Art Gallery of Ballarat in 1895. They formalised this gift in 2001. In 2006, the flag was added to the Victorian Heritage Register as an item of state significance, and there have been several unsuccessful attempts by Ballarat MHRs (both Liberal and Labor) to have the flag made an official flag under the Australian Flags Act.
Throughout its more than 160-year history, the Eureka flag has been accorded many meanings: political, economic and cultural. It has been used by groups ranging from the far-right Australia First Party to the Communist Eureka Youth League. It has been used as a symbol to inspire the Melbourne Victory Soccer Club, by countless commercial enterprises and by the Australian republican movement.
The early years of the 1890s saw the rise of the labour movement in Australia, with a number of trade union-led strikes taking place. Derivatives of the original Eureka flag began to appear, banners for trade union solidarity and protest against capitalists who would not negotiate a fair deal. The protesting shearers at Barcaldine, Queensland, in April 1891, were reported to have flown a flag over their camp, and Henry Lawson wrote his famous poem ‘Blood on the Wattle’ about this incident. This poem, more than anything else, has, I believe, been responsible for the trade union movement’s love affair with the flag.
Many others have also used the flag, their motivations at times being more difficult to understand. For years the Minerals Council of Australia used to celebrate the Eureka anniversary at its headquarters in Canberra, draping the foyer of their building with Eureka flags. This provided a spectacular foil to the trade unions, but the Council venerated Eureka because the miners had objected to an unfair gold licence, which they saw as an unwarranted intrusion upon free enterprise.
The enduring importance of the flag was expressed in a full page advertisement taken out in the National Times on 30 March 1980, when a widely representative group of citizens called for the Eureka flag, ‘symbolising the aspirations of Australians for a just and humane society’, to be used as the national symbol. By the 1990s, the design of the flag had gained wide acceptance, incorporated into the emblems of the City of Ballarat and Federation University.
And when the Football Federation of Australia tried to ban Melbourne Victory from using the Eureka flag in 2008 there was an outcry from Victory fans, and the ban was quickly overturned.
The meaning of the flag that can’t be disputed is its link to the early struggle for democracy in Australia. The ABCC’s ban on flying the flag at building sites is an affront to this symbol of democracy. The ban needs to be revoked, and soon, at the insistence of the public, politicians, and the custodians of the beautiful historic flag, which can be viewed at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka in Ballarat.
Header image: the original Eureka flag / wiki