On 18 February, I gave a short speech at the Beechworth Courthouse at the event ‘The Beechworth Principles — Towards a Federal Integrity Commission’ in which Helen Haines MP outlined what she believes should be the ‘core characteristics by which any model for a federal integrity commission can be measured.’ You can read about the Beechworth Principles on her website.
The speech I gave in support of the Beechworth Principles was illustrative of the fact that, since the earliest days of the gold rush, Beechworth has a long (if little known) history of standing up for principles of integrity and political rights. The text that follows is a slightly modified version of the speech I gave, including a few extra details that I was not able to include in the Court House Speech for reasons of brevity. (Apologies for the fact that this material is as yet un-footnoted, but I can assure you it is drawn from primary source materials.)
In 1853, at the height of the gold rush on the Ovens goldfield, a young gold digger at Reid’s Creek named William Guest was shot by police. Guest was an innocent man – his death the result of a flagrant misuse of police power by an inept Assistant Gold Commissioner, Edwin Meyer. The initial reaction to Guest’s shooting was a riot, in which almost 3000 diggers stormed the Assistant Commissioner’s Camp, during which time the policeman responsible for the shooting, Constable Hallet, was almost beaten to death, and in which Assistant Commissioner Meyer was pelted with rocks, shot at, and very nearly lynched.
At two subsequent death inquests in the the shooting of William Guest, held at the Spring Creek Commissioner’s Camp (near where the Beechworth courthouse stands today), local police and government officials suppressed key evidence to cover-up their own mismanagement and corruption.
In response, the gold diggers of the Ovens called for an independent inquiry into the circumstances of William Guest’s shooting and into the conduct of local officials, specifying that the inquiry should be conducted by parties wholly unconnected with those responsible for the shooting — the Gold Commission and the Police.
When Governor LaTrobe made clear that his government would hold a closed inquiry – from which the press was to be barred, and which would be run by the head of the department (Chief Gold Commissioner William Wright) about which the diggers were complaining – the diggers realised that they would not receive a fair hearing.
Led by Dr John Owens, the diggers resolutely refused to accept that their government — to which they paid taxes in the form of a gold license fee, but for which they were not able to vote — could respond to serious breaches of public trust by conducting closed inquiries into itself. At a public meeting held on Spring Creek, Dr Owens said:
‘We pay our license fee month after month, trusting to the integrity of the Government: bred to respect the law, we expect to be secured the upright and efficient administration of the law.’
Dissatisfied with the government’s conduct, on 2 April 1853 at Spring Creek, the Beechworth diggers then decided to do something which had not yet been done on any other goldfield in Australia: they decided to petition the government for the right to vote.
Today, when we look at their Petition, we can see embodied in it some timeless values.
Its call for a ‘full and fair’ franchise for people of all backgrounds and races: this spoke to the eternal need for equality between all people, and accountability in government to the people it serves.
Its call to replace the gold license tax with a tax which would be applied fairly across the community as a civic duty: this spoke to the call for fairness for all people.
Its call to dismantle the system of ‘Gold Commissioners’— a body of self-interested public officials who misused their power and public funds to benefit and protect themselves and their friends: this spoke to the need for public officials to act with integrity.
In 1853, Dr Owens warned that ‘if the government tenaciously refused to grant the rights of representation, the consequences would be fatal’.
This prophecy was borne out at the Eureka Rebellion, near Ballarat, in December 1854. However, thankfully, by that time, the key tenets of the ‘Beechworth Petition’ — notions of equality, accountability, fairness and integrity — were already coming to underpin what we comprehend today as values fundamental to the Australian democratic process.
Beechworth has a proud history of taking the principles of political representation seriously. In 1853 Dr Owens asked the people of Beechworth and the people of Australia:
‘Do you know what the word representation means? Of course you do! It means that if those who by wealth, or station or authority, are placed over you, do wrong, you have the power of compelling them to do right.’
Today, our heritage precinct in Beechworth – which features magnificent public buildings like the court house and post office beside the far more modest offices built for government officials – stands as a reminder written in stone. That the people do not serve the government; the government serves the people.
To this short speech, I would like to add the following contextual comments, explaining why I think the Ovens Petition was Beechworth’s finest hour.
The ‘Ovens Petition’ was finally submitted to the Victorian Legislative Council on 16 September 1853. The initial public meetings (in February, March and April) on the Ovens diggings had been led by Dr John Owens, whom the Ovens diggers had elected the ‘Diggers’ Representative’. In late April, Owens moved to Melbourne where he continued to advocate for the interests of the Ovens diggers, spreading their call for a ‘full and fair franchise’, and advocating not for a mere reduction in the gold license fee, but its compete abolition.
Meanwhile, in what was about to become the newly proclaimed town of Beechworth, the Chartist George Black took charge of the Ovens movement, organising the final public ‘Monster Meeting’ of thousands of diggers, which garnered support for the petition in its final form. George Black was the principal speaker at large public meetings held on the Spring Creek diggings in August 1853. Understanding the influence of both men — John Owens and George Black — is critical to comprehending the influence of the Ovens Petition on the Ballarat Reform League, and its role in the Eureka Rebellion.
John Owens had warned that ‘if the government tenaciously refused to grant the rights of representation, the consequences would be fatal.’ Unfortunately, the politicians and officials of the day did not heed his advice. In fact, political agitations on the goldfields proliferated. George Black moved from the Ovens diggings to Ballarat, where he acquired the reactionary newspaper The Digger’s Advocate, and where he became a founding member of the Ballarat Reform League. The Ballarat Reform League’s Charter fully adopted the stance established by the Ovens petitioners. The Reform League, like the Ovens Petitioners, had initially also held fast to the principle that political issues should be fought through ‘moral force’ and not physical force. However, in the wake of a heavily-armed police license raid on 30 November, 1854, the leadership of Reform League switched to Peter Lalor. Lalor also had been on the Ovens diggings around the time of the riot that took place at the time of the shooting of William Guest, and so he knew of and may have even witnessed the terrifying power of open resistance to the authorities.
The violence of the resulting Eureka Rebellion (December 1854) ran counter to one of the key tenets of the Ovens petitioners: that they ‘approved of “revolutionary principles”, but [were] of the opinion that they should be worked out by moral and not physical force.’ Although the sensational events of Eureka Stockade would become celebrated in history, these events can now be seen as an aberration in the Australian political landscape. It was, in fact, the Ovens Petitioners who gave Australia its preferred mode of grass-roots political activism. In the words of George Black, ‘express your will in the firm and determined manner, [and] you will accomplish your objects and obtain your rights: there is no need of force and of arms, for reason, mind, intelligence, are all-sufficient for the attainment of your rights.’
In the wake of the Eureka Rebellion, the government rapidly convened a Goldfields Commission (which sat for the first time on 14 December 1854). Their recommendations mirrored those put forward in the Ovens Petition of August 1853. On 27 March 1855, the Commission recommended the replacement of the gold license tax with an export duty on gold; the introduction of the Miner’s Right, which gave the holder the right to vote; and the abolition of the system of Gold Commissioners. All measures were quickly adopted by the Government. In two years the Ovens Petitioners had been largely vindicated, and although not all Victorian men would be able to vote until 1856, their efforts had irrevocably changed the political landscape of Australia.
Beechworth might be the first place in Australia in which people actively petitioned for the right to vote. If this could be firmly established, it would surely make Beechworth if not the birthplace of Australian democracy, then most certainly its place of conception.
In addition, the adherence of the Ovens Petitioners to non-violent political activism — the belief that ‘there is no need of force and of arms; for reason, mind, intelligence, are all-sufficient for the attainment of your rights’ — created a legacy of peaceful protest in the Australian political landscape which has since emerged in events such as the Women’s Suffrage Petition (‘Monster Petition’) of 1891, the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam of 1969, and the protests against the Franklin dam in 1982.
The calls of the Ovens Petitions for democratic rights and government accountability, as well as their legacy of peaceful protest conducted within constitutional means; continue to hold cultural currency in Australia. This history deserves to be celebrated with intense pride.
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