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Talking about the history of the Eureka Flag at Ballarat Fine Art Gallery  - 2011 Eureka CommemorationIn the wee hours of Saturday morning, December 3rd, some 40 people gathered in the dark at the monument in Eureka park in Ballarat. For the last 10 years people have gathered at the monument for a dawn vigil to remember those who died one morning 157 years ago fighting to defend basic rights and liberties.

It is a moving ceremony, held in the dark, in the quiet of night and as dawn slowly lightens the sky. If the clouds are in abeyance you can clearly see the southern cross in the sky, that iconic southern constellation that became a symbol for freedom, for rights and liberties and the demand for universal suffrage.

Related: photos by Takver |

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Eureka Dawn Vigil

Joe Toscano from the Anarchist Media Institute takes the microphone and starts the event. He paints a word picture of the events of Eureka that lead up to the slaughter that happened where we stand. Although dark, the lighting is magical with candle lanterns made by travelling activist Graeme Dunstan that adorn bamboo poles along with stylized banners of the Eureka flag. Graeme travels around the east coast of Australia with his trusty van, peacebus.com, adding a measure of lantern and banner flair to protests. For a few years around the time of the Eureka sesquicentenary Graeme Dunstan organised the highly successful Dawn Lantern walk as part of the annual commemoration.

This morning there is a small fire in the middle of the circle. The event is being broadcast live to air and streamed on the internet on Melbourne Community radio 3CR. After Joe finishes his introduction, the microphone is passed around the circle. Each person has an opportunity to explain the relevance and meaning of the spirit of Eureka to their own life. Each person is listened to respectfully.

Near the end of the circle a West Papuan says a few words. He holds in his hands the Morning Star flag – the flag of West Papua which is illegal to fly in his home country. The West Papuans can identify directly with the spirit of Eureka because they have been fighting Indonesia for freedom and independence, their rights and liberty to determine their own future since 1967. They surely deserve our respect and support in their struggle for independence.

Starting in 2002, this is the tenth year the dawn vigil has taken place, organised by the Reclaim the radical Spirit of the Eureka Rebellion group. The 150th anniversary in 2004, the sesquicentenary, drew thousands of people to Eureka Park, but now it is just 40-50 people who turn up at 4am every December 3. For the first time the police turned up at the dawn vigil. A squad car cruised slowly up Eureka street with a spotlight shining into the park, before turning into Stawell street and stopping. The police officers come walking over to the circle of people. I am on the outer edge and they ask me what is happening. I look at them and say “It’s December 3, the Eureka anniversary”. They are content with that explanation. One of them tells me they are investigating a noise complaint and they walk back to their squad car.

Noise complaint? You have got to be joking! We are hardly a noisy gathering. Trucks driving up Eureka Street make more noise than the Dawn vigil does.

About two thirds of the way through the vigil, we all walk around the side of the monument to an effigy of Rupert Murdoch. Graeme Dunstan has meticulously built this out of cardboard. Beneath the bust it says “Rupert Murdoch Lord of Lies” and above his head it says “Greedy Corporate Pirate and War Criminal”.

“Burning an effigy of Rupert Murdoch may seem to have nothing to do with the Eureka Rebellion, ” says Dr Toscano. “Yet it is intricately linked with the unfolding of the Eureka story and our theme for the Reclaim the Radical Traditions of Eureka commemorations this year.”

“A free independent press, the antithesis of the role the Murdoch Press plays in Australia and the rest of the world today, played a pivotal role in the Eureka Rebellion and its aftermath in Melbourne,” he said in a media statement.

A match is lit and Rupert burns and people watch transfixed by the fire under the light of the lanterns.

Some more commentary by Joe and an open mic for anyone who wants to speak. The heavens have lightened now. The fighting 157 years ago was over in 20 minutes but was followed by the Victorian police scouring the site and up to 3 kilometres away butchering the wounded and burning tents and firing at bystanders. It was dangerous to be anywhere on the diggings that morning largely due to the rampage of the police.

At 6am the circle breaks, the live broadcast finished. Eureka Hall is opened for people to make breakfast. Some cook sausages on the barbecue outside. Some retire to the motel opposite or the Eureka caravan park to catch a nap before the next stage of the commemoration.

March to Bakery Hill

People gather again at 9.30am outside Eureka Hall with an array of hand held banners, and stylized Eureka banners on bamboo poles. This is the long march. It will take some four and a half hours visiting at length 4 sites. One kid rides a scooter, and a few people ride bicycles – they know it’s a long way.

The first stop is Bakery Hill, the site of monster mass meetings in November 1854. Bakery Hill is located in the middle of a roundabout near the Ballarat mall. McDonalds is opposite. At one stage some 30 or so years ago this site was slated to be developed by McDonalds. The Builders Labourers Federation came forward to blackban the development which saved the site. Mcdonalds had to slightly change their development plans.

At Bakery Hill the Anarchist Media Institute gives out Eureka Australia medals to people nominated through the year whose activism embodies the spirit of the Eureka rebellion and the Eureka oath. Often the awards are given to unsung heros or heroines who have spent their lives campaigning for social justice, human rights, or improvement of working conditions. This year was no different. One of the people awarded an EAM was local historian with Ballarat Heritage Services Clare Gervasoni. She is one of the authors of The Eureka Encyclopedia published in 2004 – an amazing collection of historical and genealogical information about the people of Eureka.

After 10 years absence the police want to protect us

After the awards, the march continues through the Ballarat mall then up Sturt Street to the Ballarat Town Hall. It seems at this stage we again came to the notice of the constabulary. We have always marched on the road occupying one lane with a vehicle – usually Peacebus – behind us. Today was no different. Quite a few people toot their horns in acknowledgement. Marching up Sturt Street we had one squad car behind peacbus which was behind us, and two squad cars occupying the next lane, reducing traffic flow to one lane. Who was holding up traffic? Not us.

The police demanded to know why we didn’t apply for a permit to march. They wanted to know what we are going to do. It is all very demanding with no historical understanding. There is some tension. Graeme Dunstan makes an impromptu speech how the police in 1854 butchered the diggers in the hours after the battle had ceased. How the Victorian Police have still not apologised to the people of Victoria for their rampant butchery at Eureka in 1854.

The police retreated slightly but were adamant that they needed to accompany us to ensure our safety, even though we had been marching this route quite safely for several years without their attention.

Ballarat Council ignores Eureka anniversary

There was no-one from Council to meet us at Town Hall, to raise the Eureka Flag as a small symbol of official respect to the diggers who lost their lives for the rights and liberties we enjoy in Ballarat, or Victoria, indeed around Australia. It was pretty much what was expected. Instead of an open policy of community engagement with the previous mayor we have a city locked down into what’s best for business. Ballarat City Council are quick to use the Eureka brand to attract the tourist buck and to differentiate the city from a hundred others in Australia, while being miserly with showing some symbolic respect to those who died 157 years ago. The Eureka flag has never flown from the top mast on the Ballarat City Hall.

Under the previous mayor, councillor Judy Verlin, there was a notable thawing of official community engagement with events commemorating Eureka by a variety of groups. There were symbolic flag raising ceremonies outside the Ballarat Town Hall on December 3rd in 2009 and 2010 which Councillor Verlin officiatied at. The Current Mayor is councilor Craig Fletcher. He is listed on the council website as being on the Eureka Commemorative Advisory Committee, but we didn’t see him at all on December 3, the Eureka anniversary.

An impromptu flag on the flagpole, then we headed off to the old Ballarat cemetery along with our 3 car police escort. Graeme Dunstan kept up a constant banter over his PA system on peacebus. Occasionally we would be treated to a folk song by Viola – she belted out some real gems which made the marching that much less tedious.

Redcoats and radicals at the cemetery

All we needed was to meet some modern day redcoats. And as it happened, just inside the cemetery entrance was a squad of British redcoats all dressed for their little re-enactment. The Ballarat Courier photographer was energetic snapping away at the two groups coming together. But he had missed all the action from the dawn vigil, Bakery Hill and the tensions with police. Maybe next year? The Ballarat Courier has assidiously avoided reporting the commemorative events organised by the Reclaim the radical spirit of the Eureka Rebellion group over the last ten years.

In stark contrast, John Manning was a fearless reporter for the Ballarat Times at the time of the Eureka Stockade. He was in the stockade when it was stormed. As a reporter in the midst of a battle, this should make him Australia’s first war correspondent. Manning was charged with 12 others with high treason. They were all acquitted by Melbourne juries in 1855, after vigorous campaigns by Melbourne’s newspapers.

At the cemetery more speeches were made at the Diggers memorial which sits atop a communal grave. Flowers were lain on the grave and two minutes silence was observed. The redcoats had marched through to the soldiers memorial. The sound of gunshot echoing in the cemetery was their way of paying respect to the soldiers that died that day in 1854. Both soldiers and diggers were just workers at either end of the bayonet. The British infantry had many Irish soldiers – often it was the only work they could get.

Eureka Flag

The last stop on the long march was at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, where the Eureka Flag presently resides. It has just come back to Ballarat after restoration work done in Adelaide. The Flag has it’s own room with subdued lighting – it occupies the whole of one wall. One notices the size of the flag, and then the bits missing – the bits cut out of the flag. For many years the flag was kept in a cabinet and only shown to distinguished visitors. Sometimes a visitor would also be given a small piece cut from the flag. It has really been only the last decade with the purchase of the Doudiet paintings of the Eureka events that confirmed once and for all that this is the original Eureka flag.

There has been constant debates over the flag’s ownership and where it should be displayed – in the Ballarat Gallery – part of the police encampment, or the Eureka Stockade Centre in Eureka Park. The Stockade Centre is currently being redeveloped with major reconstruction, evidently to build a new ‘Democracy Centre’. I understand that when completed the Gallery will then ‘loan’ the flag to the new Eureka Stockade Centre.

The police patiently waited outside the gallery while we looked through the Eureka collection. They were still with us when we came back out. At some stage on the march back to Eureka Park we lost our police escort. Or maybe they realised we really were peaceful and mostly harmless. By the time people got back to Eureka Park about 2pm we were pretty famished. Ready for a barbecue/picnic and a good lie down. But the day wasn’t over.

Eureka Dinner

The last few years a Eureka dinner has been held on the evening of December 3. The venue for dinner and the talk was the Eureka Stockade Hotel who did a wonderful job with the meals and drinks. My only complaint was the bloody music amplification was too loud to talk to the person sitting next to you. I’m sorry, next time can we have someone playing at a slightly lower more respectful volume? So we can actually talk and listen to people at our table. Maybe some acoustic performer? I don’t think I was the only one pissed off with the volume either.

Last year the guest speaker was local historian Dorothy Wickham, who had copies of her recent book, Women of the Diggings Ballarat 1854. This year the guest speaker was historian Clare Gervasoni, who also worked on the Eureka Encyclopedia, who gave an interesting talk on the role of foreigners at Eureka.

Ballarat East up in arms over Eureka Pool

I’d like to say here endeth the story. And it does for the Eureka Comemmorations. I have been attending Eureka events for 10 years and my family have often had recourse to make use of the Eureka Pool, owned by Ballarat Council but managed by the McKenzie family for the last 39 years. The management of the pool recently went for tender, and the tender was awarded to the YMCA. Issues have been raised over some of the tender requirements and whether it was a fair tendering process. But the East Ballarat neighborhood is outraged that a community facility that was well run by a local family for some 39 years has been unceremonially dumped. Even if the tender process was fair and even to all parties, the decision lacks heart.

Of course council will claim it is just the competitive tendering process driving the best deal for ratepayers. But what happens in the whole process is genuine community considerations and welfare are ignored for a heavily monetary based decision that ignores so many other factors.

In Melbourne we found the competitive tendering process often drove out the small players in favour of larger corporate leisure management businesses or large buraecratized community organisations like the YMCA. The process often resulted in wages for pool staff and lifeguards being driven down. The peeople who work and staff our pools are generally local people, and the competitive tendering process tends to drive down wages as one of the most prominent costs.

Well done Ballarat City Council for driving down working conditions and alienating a local community. In just over a week the Eureka Pool Ballarat facebook page has gathered over 7,000 members. There is also a petition being circulated including an online version at GoPetition. On Sunday about 40 people gathered at the Eureka Hall to protest the decision of Ballarat City Council. Read a report in the Courier

Beware Ballarat City Councilors, the diggers lost at Eureka, but within six months all their demands had been met. The Eureka Pool belongs to the community.

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