Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Gallipoli, Eureka and Australia’s foundational myths

Last night on the ABC’s Q and A program, the usefulness of Gallipoli as a foundational story of Australia came up repeatedly. Many correctly noted that it is a story which is difficult for migrant Australians or even those born since 1970 to identify with. Everyone knows the strikes against the ANZAC story, they were all male, white, invading a country we had no significant animosity towards, it was a losing effort, and we were forced to undertake it by generals who cared little for our soldiers’ safety. Yet the panel members seemed to both acknowledge this, and see nothing in our history that could replace it. Peter FitzSimons even flat out asked a lady which peacetime heros she would like to replace the ANZACs/soldiers, suggesting only that another fight such as Kokoda could replace it. What surprised me is that no one brought up the story of Eureka, whose appeal is clear in the way Australian organisations from the extreme left through to the far, far right have claimed the flag as their own.

Swearing Allegiance to the Southern Cross By Charles Doudiet


Most should know the basic story. Individual miners during the Gold Rush in Victoria became slowly more outraged and eventually rebelled at the increasing taxation (without representation) on their basic mining rights, along with their inability to vote & restrictions on private property in the face of government and police control. In early November 1854 the miners formed the Ballarat Reform League demanding among other things: full manhood suffrage (though excluding Aborigines), abolition of the property qualifications for members of parliament, payment of members of parliament, voting by secret ballot; short term parliaments; equal electoral districts; abolition of diggers’ and storekeepers’ licenses and reform of administration of the gold fields. All are core Australian values, and some that (such as paying parliamentarians and having secret ballots) ideas that Australia can claim as its own contributions to democratic practice and theory worldwide.

After a number of acts of provocation on both sides, the miners gathered on Bakery hill to protest & concerned about attack formed a stockade. At dawn on 3 December 1854, the military attacked, killing 22 and ending the stockade within minutes. But the colonial government finally recognised the miners concerns and changes began to filter down, protecting their rights and restricting the power of local authorities to infringe on individual rights of the miners.

Compared to Gallipoli, Eureka has something for every Australian. Those involved were fighting for a individual rights to conduct free enterprise (in effect they were self-employed small businesspeople), they banded together in solidarity to demand fair working conditions, they were democratic and seeking fair representation & capable administration, they were a very multicultural and multiracial audience (though the Chinese were absent race relations were decent at Eureka) and many women were strongly involved. It was also an episode thoroughly invested in republicanism, a strain of political thought that stretches back to the Greeks and the Romans and insists on diffused power, encouragement of civic virtues and civic education and which informs much of the practice and values of Australian democracy.

Many have previously advocated for Eureka to take a higher place in our history and national story. H.V Evatt (a hero of our current Prime Minister) said Australian democracy was born at Eureka and Prime Ministers such as diverse as Menzies, Chifley and Whitlam all used it heavily in their speeches. Mark Twain even called it the ‘finest thing in Australian History’. And, even the latest ALP candidate for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, contributed to a 2004 book called Imagining Australia which also calls for its revival as the basic story of Australian identity.

Much work would be required to remind Australians of the story, and to extricate it from its claimed position by militant unionists and racist nationalists. But it represents a story all modern Australians can find much to appreciate and find unity with. It deserves to be remembered and re-enter the national debate.

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  1. While there are claims that Gallipoli was a pivotal historical moment for Australia, surely that isn’t why ANZAC Day still resonates. It’s about recognising the sacrifices made and risks taken by people in military service. Perhaps this means more to ‘old’ Australians who are more likely to have served in the Australian military or are descended from people who did than to recent migrants, but the basic idea has parallels in most cultures.

    Australia Day is the meaningless national holiday because it just marks a political event that did not have as much drama or death as war, has no good ceremonies (a dawn service with the last post, a simple but very powerful piece of music, beats the occasional first fleet re-enactment), and offers no real living connnections with what is being marked, as the veterans do. Eureka would have all the same problems.

  2. Hi Andrew

    I agree that ANZAC day is largely about honouring the role of veterans, as Australia’s own version of November 11 in Europe, and should be kept as a critically important day. I don’t want that to change. However my concern is that for the rest of the year Gallipoli (and that battle almost exclusively) has come to take a wider role as the quintessential expression of Australian identity. I don’t have a problem with military stories being our central story, but I don’t think it can fulfill the role which politicians constantly invoke it for: to bind and unite Australians and give expression to our national values.

    As James Curren noted in his excellent book Power of Speech (2004) ever since the 1960s when we dropped the claim to be ‘British-Australians’ in favour of just being Australian, there has been a struggle to find a unifying story and identity. Not that as a people we don’t know who we are, but having foundational myths helps a country quickly bind in new migrants, helps encourage unity in times of struggle or weed out those who mis-use the countries symbols (as was seen at Cronulla).

    Not only do I think Eureka should take a much larger role, I was also quite surprised that it was not even brought up by the panelists or those discussing it on twitter.

  3. ANZAC Day is much more than the sum of its parts. There is a very real legacy from Gallipoli, much more than the memory of the Australians and New Zealanders who fought so bravely. Most Australians probably know that Turks love Australians, yet few know the whole story. After the war was over, the Turkish commander of the troops at Gallipoli , Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, became the President of Turkey. He declared that ALL soldiers who died at Gallipoli were brothers – meaning that the ANZACs were honorary Turks. While Eureka is a very important historical event, it did not have the impact of Gallipoli.

  4. Here is the full quote I alluded to in the previous post:
    “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives (at Gallipoli battles).. You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.. You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now living in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

  5. Matt C

     /  April 27, 2010

    I do agree that Eureaka should play a greater role. But it has been over-politicised for much of our history. Perhaps there should be a public holiday for it in an attempt to reclaim it for the mainstream.

    But I don’t agree that ANZAC somehow does not resonate with the young or new migrants. Who cares what race they were? I am part Italian but I am still moved by the self-sacrifice and the courage of the ANZACs.

    Every time I attend a dawn service I think deeply about whether I could as bravely respond, and thank God that, as yet, I have not been tested.

  6. Alexander

     /  April 28, 2010

    There’s an additional problem with Eureka, though I like the day. It happened before 1901, before even talk of Federation, while the division into colonies was still on-going. It doesn’t fit with the mainline of talk of Australianness, which is that we mysteriously became a nation on 1 January 1901. Of course, the fact that this was the result of an earlier vote (which indicates a unified nationhood in one sense) and the fact that we were still British and Australian up until the 1960s—and the fact that we remained a colony for some time after 1901—means that Federation was an even more dull political event than could really be imagined.

    But considering almost every other country can claim a date when they “came to be” means that Australia, too weak to find its own way, will follow on along with the rest and find some specific date we can call our own…

    Anyway, my main point is that no matter how awesome Eureka was, it simply doesn’t fit with the established storyline of Australian national history, and we would need to rewrite that as well. (I’d appreciate the increased honesty, but I just can’t see how it’ll happen.)

  7. Russell – I don’t think we need to honour the ANZAC’s less, just bring in other stories to help explain and unite this country. While it was Hawke who kicked off the modern focus on Gallipoli, he had his own story of a new Australia, as did Keating, and the story had its place as a foundational, not fundamental story. Howard however was an odd mix of one who encouraged a multi-cultural, modern Australia but rarely had the words to describe it, and relied on Gallipoli to push a generic ‘mateship & sacrifice’ story, but this country is about so much more than that. We are democratic, multicultural, concerned (primarily) about fair working conditions and representation. None of which, the ANZAC’s (as brave and impressive their feats) can be said to represent or have been fighting for.

    Alex – I don’t think having Eureka before 1901 is a problem. Australians claim all colonial history on the continent as their own, and many other nations from the English with Hastings (1066)/Agincourt (1415), or the Americans revolutionary war all occurred before the nation was constitutionally formed.

    That said, I also think the story of the constitution writers and delegates is a much more inspiring one than has been taught or described. There are some great characters, moments of high tension, bastardry and principle, and as the 2000 add asked ‘what sort of a country forgets the name of its first prime minister’.

    Theres a lot of great stories in Australian history, we do a disservice to ourselves by making Gallipoli try and represent all those ideals, virtues and characteristics we call Australian.