All Commentary
Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Australia’s Violent Enforcement of Lockdowns Sparks Memories of the Eureka Rebellion

Just as the general public turned against the excesses of Australia's police state in 1854, the same is happening today.

Image screenshot from 7NEWS Australia

2020 is looking eerily similar to 1854 for the people of Victoria, Australia’s second most populous state. This footage reveals a little of the current scene, with Aussies protesting against draconian lockdowns, and police in riot gear arresting them in large numbers. More on this below.

Eureka Then

First let us wind the clock back 170 years… Australia is not yet an independent nation, Victoria is still a British colony. Established as penal colonies for convicts under the guard of British soldiers, the Australian settlements were government projects from the outset. Historian Robert Hughes described the convict experience as producing “an attitude to authority in which private resentment mingled with ostensible resignation.”

But the ‘gold rush’ of the mid-1800s brings in a new aspirational class of workers, including Americans, Irish, British Chartists, and people involved in various European revolutions. The Australian diggings were notably more lawful and organized than those in California. People were well behaved and generally unarmed—they just wanted to get on with digging in the hope of striking it rich. It would take an especially egregious assault by those in power to drive these otherwise lawful men into rebellion.

Government at this time consists of an appointed Governor and a legislative council containing some appointees and some elected members, but voting is mostly limited to landowners—so miners are not represented. With urban employers and wealthy landowners worried about a labor shortage and an exodus of workers to the diggings, the colonial government comes up with a scheme to coerce the entrepreneurial miners back into structured employment.

Their scheme was a ‘license fee’ similar to a poll tax, initially set at 30 shillings a month. Miners were forced to pay it whether or not they found gold. As gold became harder to find, the license fee became increasingly burdensome and resented.

The police were not neutral law enforcers, but would engage in “digger hunts” with accusations of extorting money, taking bribes, and imprisoning people without due process. Diggers were often asked for their licenses several times in one day. As testified by Peter Lalor “the diggers were subjected to the most unheard of insults and cruelties in the collection of this tax, being in many instances chained to logs if they could not produce their license.”

The miners moreover had no neutral court of law to appeal to if they were unjustly treated—their cases would be heard by the taxation administrators who were themselves “parties to the case.” Miners tried sending delegations to appeal to Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe regarding the fees, but to no avail.

On October 17, 1854, some 5,000 miners gathered over what they felt was an injustice, as a hotel owner and friend of the local magistrate was said to have bribed his way out of a murder charge. In an unfortunate spill-over of fury, the Eureka Hotel was burned down. This was the catalyst for what was to become a more organized resistance movement.

On November 11, the Ballarat Reform League was formed under the direction of Chartist John Basson Humffray. Their demands were the release of three miners charged with the Eureka Hotel fire, and a Chartist inspired program of “no taxation without representation.”

But when delegates tried to negotiate with the Victorian government, Governor Charles Hotham felt affronted by the fact that they made “demands” rather than the traditional “petition.” As a rebuff to their apparent insolence, he instead sent 150 soldiers to Ballarat to bolster the police presence.

Then (as now) the situation was moving from petty despotism to organized tyranny. Authorities threatened to use the riot act to essentially ban gatherings of twelve people or more.

On November 29, as the miners hear Hotham’s response, they collectively decide to burn their licenses in outright defiance. The police respond with an even more aggressive “digger hunt” the next morning. From this point, to use an Australian expression, it was on.

The land we now know as Australia had previously seen a coup d’etat by the military, and scattered uprisings by Aborigines, Convicts, and Outlaws, which had all been swiftly quelled by those in power. There had never been a George Washington-type character or a popular uprising. But on November 30 that year, the miners at Ballarat came the closest.

Led by Irish immigrant Peter Lalor the miners hoisted their own Southern Cross flag and made a pledge: “We swear by the Southern Cross, to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”

With Lalor elected as a pseudo-military leader, the miners built a ‘stockade’ (a crude fort) and started engaging in military drills. But not for long. Almost immediately, on Sunday December 3 (when the predominantly Catholic Irish would be at Mass) government troops attacked and quickly obliterated their makeshift fort, killing 22 diggers and five soldiers.

The police arrested and detained 113 of the miners while many others went into hiding. Eventually 13 were taken to Melbourne to stand trial for high treason, including John Joseph—an African American man from Baltimore. The trials were held in the capital rather than Ballarat to avoid any local attachments.

The Rebels Win Public Sympathy

The miners must have known that they never stood a chance militarily. But the real battleground, both then and now, lay with public opinion. People in the capital were initially fearful of a full-blown rebellion, but news of the government’s heavy-handedness and of the miners’ courageous stand against such brutal treatment, gradually started to win the sympathy of the general public.

Large crowds would gather outside courtrooms, with juries frequently taking less than an hour to throw out the case. Given that the accused probably were guilty of what they were charged with, it was a form of jury nullification of unjust laws. Anybody interested from a legal point of view can read about the trials here.

In the end, the accused were released and a general amnesty declared for those still in hiding, including Lalor. The license fee was removed, replaced by an export duty and a nominal £1 per year miner’s right. Half the police on the goldfields were sacked and one warden replaced the multitude of gold commissioners.

The Victorian Legislative Council was expanded to include eight members elected by diggers who held a miner’s right. One of these elected members was Peter Lalor who had survived the stockade as an amputee after being shot in the shoulder.

Former Justice of the High Court Michael Kirby states:

Eureka stands as a warning to indifferent politicians, judges and other officials. In the ultimate, the law is not obeyed because it is made in this or that way or even because it is declared in courts of the highest authority. In the end it depends upon the community’s acceptance of it.

Eureka Now

This brings us to the present day.

At time of writing, the state of Victoria is facing perhaps the developed world’s most oppressive and mean-spirited overreaction from the government in response the COVID virus. Police in riot gear are forcefully clearing out farmers markets, harassing elderly women for sitting on a park bench, snatching infants in strollers from fathers, and fining people for catching a bus without a ‘work permit.’ In the modern town of Ballarat, a pregnant woman in her pajamas is handcuffed and arrested in her own home over a Facebook post promoting a peaceful protest, in a town not even under the severest level of lockdown. She was charged with ‘incitement’ similar to a terrorism charge, and could face 15 years in jail. People are being threatened with fines for merely ‘liking’ a Facebook post.

Meanwhile parliament has voted to suspend itself, giving dictatorial powers to the Premier under a so called “state of emergency”. The people are under an 9:00 p.m. curfew, and are only allowed out of their homes to exercise for two hours a day in their local neighborhood. Comparisons to dystopian novels can sound trite, but are fitting in this case.

Readers might be thinking that ‘the virus’ must be pretty bad in Victoria to elicit such an authoritarian response. Guess again. At time of writing there are 12 people in ICU in the entire state—check the latest figures here if you like. What makes Victoria different is the impossible threshold set by the Premier—as though viruses can be made to obey human laws.

The Premier has iterated that the lockdowns will remain in place until there are no new cases for 14 consecutive days. The number of new COVID cases is reported every day almost like a taunt to the public, while every other statistic—like suicides, business closures, bankruptcies, cancelled weddings, undiagnosed cancers, lonely deaths from other causes, etc, etc, is ignored. It is zero tolerance for a virus, or innocent people will be punished in countless other ways in perpetuity.

This excessive level of restriction goes against the advice of doctors, epidemiologists, lawyers, legal experts, the World Health Organization, and even Federal government medical officers. The modelling that provoked it has been shown to be wrong. Public policy experts have made the seemingly obvious point that a pandemic requires different responses from different sections of the public using dispersed knowledge, so any ‘one rule for all’ response is doomed to fail.

And since any reported case means prolonged lockdown and suffering for everybody, people are increasingly reluctant to report infections or admit to having left their homes. As a result, contact tracing is failing in Victoria, while working well in other states.

Of course, the Premier has his paid staff of experts who naturally say that the emperor has clothes on this. But even his own chief medical officer backed away from the Premier’s most excessive dictates, leaving him grasping for scapegoats. Apparently people will only sell so much of their soul.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive… those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” Perhaps the Premier really believes he is doing good by doing evil. Or perhaps he is just doubling down on past mistakes to save face. But with so little intellectual support, it is hard to see this as anything other than a ruthless social experiment to see just how compliant Australian people can be.

So Where Does the Public Stand?

Politics always divides and this present case is no exception. Those supporting the Premier are generally those with a more comfortable work-from-home existence. The ‘pajama class panickers’ as they are sometimes called, just want a strong leader to ‘do something’ that seems like it might work, even if it doesn’t, having no concept of the cost—since the cost of their perceived protection generally falls onto others.

Worse, there are some who, Gillette ads notwithstanding, seem to think that violence against women is totally fine when it is carried out by ‘law enforcers.’ They cheer and gloat when people are arrested for simply living their life, because it apparently ‘serves them right.’ Some elements of the media are quick to smear any protesters as crazy conspiracy theorists, while the brother of the pregnant Facebooker mentioned above has reportedly received death threats for trying to raise funds for her legal defense.

But on the brighter side, just as the general public turned against the excesses of the police state in 1854, the same is happening today. When the government, in the name of saving lives, criminalizes actually living your life, people start to realize what libertarians have been saying for a long time: the state is them not us. The state is not on the side of peaceful individuals that make up society, and there is no aspect of your life that they won’t step on to show you who is boss.

States can usually rely on corporate CEOs and celebrities to tow the politically correct line—but thankfully not in this case. Business leaders are pointing out absurdities—like how municipal workers can work in groups but private contractors are prohibited from even mowing a lawn by themselves.

Those with a public voice are lambasting the Premier, like this football player whose father (also a famous footballer) died alone, saying “I lost my 78-year-old father, Premier… He wasn’t dying from this, he was dying from the isolation and the loneliness.” The general public is realizing it has a voice, that the medical experts (besides courtiers on the Premier’s payroll) are on our side, and the tyrants in charge are increasingly fumbling for excuses.

What Can Be Done?

It would be nice if the police could have some backbone at this time—to say to their bosses, “We are not doing this anymore. We refuse to be degraded in this way, being sent to war against the people we are supposed to protect.” But that is unlikely.

More realistically, in the Australian political system, State Premiers can be ousted within days without parliament even sitting, if their own party room turns against them and calls a ‘spill.’ A deputy leader or cabinet minister who was ‘fully on board’ with the agenda five minutes ago, can suddenly come out as being diametrically opposed to it, and take the top job.

That is the most plausible way out of this nightmare for the people of Victoria. Viruses are not going away, but Premiers can be sent packing pretty easily. The backbenchers of the ruling Labor party need to fear for their own re-election more than they crave the favor of their failed leader.

All that is required is enough of a groundswell of support for peaceful coexistence with sensible, contextually appropriate safeguards, and the removal of support bullies and thugs. Resolute Victorians stood up to tyranny at least once before, and will stand up once again.

  • Mark Hornshaw is a lecturer in Economics, Entrepreneurship and Management at The University of Notre Dame Australia.

  • Dr. Zachary Gorman is a professional historian and an Adjunct Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs. He has been published widely on the history of Australian classical liberalism, including a 2018 biography of New South Wales Premier Sir Joseph Carruthers.