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Activism and Reform, Eureka and Human Rights(2012)

Discrimination Age Discrimination

Activism and Reform, Eureka and Human Rights

The Hon. Susan Ryan AO
Age Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Eureka and Human Rights Friends of Ireland Society Eureka Dinner Lecture

Canberra Irish Club
3 December 2012


I will begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

If you have been attending these lectures over the years, you will probably have heard this quote from Mark Twain. Following his visit to the Victorian Goldfields in 1895, he said of the Eureka Stockade:

‘... It was a revolution – small in size; but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression... It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle...’[1]

I quote Mark Twain because his words are pertinent to human rights – the focus of my presentation this evening.

I see a strong thread of history linking Eureka to the human rights we enjoy today.

I also quote Twain to signal that what happened at Eureka was not just a minor colonial stoush; it was a victory for peoples’ rights that attracted attention around the world at a time, the mid-19th century, when many of today’s democracies were yet to fight for and win their freedoms.

The action at Eureka, of oppressed workers fighting for their rights and ultimately gaining them is not just a colorful bit of the colonial history of Australia. The rights won at Eureka are alive today.

In 2012 our basic human rights still need protection and advocacy, though happily we don’t need to take up arms to defend them these days, at least not in Australia.

I want this evening to make some remarks about how we protect rights today, but first, the history:

Most of you are regular attenders to this Eureka annual address and you will know the plot and the characters, know them better than I do. The subject has attracted work by some of our finest historians, including Professor John Molony whose Eureka, published 1984 is still the stand- out account.

And just few weeks ago the admirable and energetic journalist and commentator Peter Fitzsimons published his version, a comprehensive and accessible one, of Australia’s unique drama of bloody rebellion endured and democracy won.

But for the benefit of our first time visitors who may not have had the chance to read these great tomes, here is a quick outline.

The Eureka Rebellion was an action by gold miners in defence of their rights.

It took place at the Ballarat goldfields in Victoria in December 1854.

It was Australia’s only armed uprising.

Its political purpose:

the miners took this violent action to get rid of the harsh and oppressive terms of the licensing of mining permits that had been imposed on them, and in response to the constant harassment by the police, soldiers and corrupt colonial administrators.

The insults of the outrageous costs and terms of the licenses were aggravated by the lack of political representation for the miners.

In 1854 the new Governor of Victoria, Sir Charles Hotham further restricted their attempts to make a living, harassed them with twice-weekly checks of licenses and brought more and more soldiers to threaten and terrorize them.

An incident at the local pub led to the murder of one of the miners by the publican. No charges were laid.

Incensed by this further evidence of corruption by authorities the miners burned down the hotel.

More soldiers were sent to quell their actions; the miners in protest burnt the offending licenses.

Under the leadership of Peter Lalor, a talented and spirited Irish immigrant, they took up arms and built the Eureka Stockade on the edge of the town, determined now to fight for their rights.

They fought under the beautiful blue flag, the Southern Cross.

Greatly outnumbered by soldiers they lost the battle.

It was a short and bloody one.

22 of them were slaughtered.

They lost the battle but they won the war.

Not long after, all of their demands were met:

They got fairer licensing, so they could make a living,

They achieved political representation. Miners were given eight representatives on the Legislative Council instead of the one promised previously,

They got the right to vote.

Peter Lalor was elected and later became Speaker of the Upper House in the state parliament of Victoria.

Because of these successes, the Eureka Stockade is viewed as the birthplace of Australia's representative democracy.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see the full extent of its impact. Freedom of speech, the right to vote and political equality were basic rights established by Eureka.

My theme tonight is that the revolutionary struggle that characterized the Eureka Stockade was a struggle for human rights.

The miners at the stockade made a stand against oppressive colonial power – a stand for their right to political representation and to natural justice – in the same way that other disenfranchised people all over the world have struggled to have their basic human rights realized, and still do, as they are doing as we speak in Egypt and the Middle East.

It was the most important landmark in the development of human rights in Australia, until 1948.

In that year, the member states of the newly established United Nations secured the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Australia played a key part in this wonderful achievement, reflecting I believe it is fair to assert, the spirit of Eureka and the knowledge and confidence gained by that struggle.

The Universal Declaration was a response to the horrors of
WW II and the Holocaust. Almost miraculously after the carnage and destruction, the barbaric obliteration of the rights and lives of the Jewish people and some other minorities, the surviving world leaders were able to come together in hope and establish the United Nations. They were able to muster the optimism and the spirit to draft an idealistic charter of rights, for all the citizens of the world, the Universal Declaration.

The Declaration articulates a universal right to life, to safety and security of person, to a proper standard of living, to food, shelter, education and health services. It also states our right to dignity, our rights to all basic freedoms including the freedom of speech, of movement, of religion and of culture.

The latter of course are rights that were denied to Irish people on the island of Ireland for some centuries.

At the UN in the work leading up to 1948, Australia under PM Ben Chifley was represented by Foreign Minister HV Evatt.

Evatt is arguably the most important Australian advocate for human rights. Raised by his Irish-Australian mother along with seven brothers, Evatt went on to have a distinguished career as a High Court judge and leader of the parliamentary Labor Party.[2] Evatt’s advocacy for social democracy and civil liberties included representation to Britain for the acceptance of Ireland's independence from the Commonwealth.

Evatt said this of the Stockade: ‘Australian Democracy was born at Eureka’.

His contribution to the noble terms of the Universal Declaration was no doubt informed by his Australian history.

Building on the initial all-embracing statement of the Universal Declaration, several other international instruments to protect rights have been agreed, principally the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

More specific conventions covering the rights of Women, of Children, of the Disabled and Indigenous Rights have followed. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into effect in 1948, about 60 major U.N. human rights instruments have been ratified. Australia has ratified all major conventions.

These are our modern day array of rights instruments. These rights have practical application to all of us in Australia, every day.

Even in the absence of an overarching Bill of Rights, or Human Rights Act in Australia, an array of specific anti-discrimination laws, including the Age Discrimination Act 2004, my special responsibility as Age Discrimination Commissioner, provide targeted legal and other protections to everyone in Australia.

In today’s Australia we enjoy the practical application of universal rights.

We also benefit in Australia from the long human history of struggle for rights. Across the different religions and cultures and nations of the world, individuals and groups, for thousands of years, have made efforts to define and protect people

The writings of Confucius set out principles for ethical behaviour and humane rule. The ancient Greeks developed the rule of law and equal access to courts with juries comprised of peers. The Romans recognized the need to protect individuals from the potential abuses of political authority and set out principles for the rule of law based on notions of the rights of man.

The earliest Islamic teachings valued the sanctity of human life, the right to seek justice and substantive equality. Hebrew and Christian scriptures spoke of the inherent dignity and worth of the person and equality under the law. Britain’s Magna Carta limited, for the first time, the power of the king to raise taxes without the approval of a partially elected parliament - the very principle that was fought for at the Stockade.

The Magna Carta also established the principle of habeas corpus allowing appeal from arbitrary or politically motivated imprisonment.

During the 18th Century, the US Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights articulated the rights of people to be free of an oppressive colonial rule. Soon after, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen followed. Both the American and the French revolutions established the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; freedom of speech, the press and religion; property rights; and the right to a trial by jury.

Human rights have a long tradition – one that crosses cultural, geographic and religious boundaries.

But I must emphasise that the matter of human rights is of more than historical interest.

In Australia in 2012, even with the great inspiration of Eureka, even with all the strengths of our parliamentary democracy, a free press, our tradition of multiculturalism, and our commitment to the major UN rights treaties, we do have need of further enforceable human rights protections.

Protections against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability and age are utilised frequently each year, because violations of such rights persist.

No topic is more distressing or more controversial in our daily discourse that that of the human rights of asylum seekers struggling to reach our shores, and the extent to which their rights under the Refugee Convention are being observed, or neglected.

At the Australian Human Rights Commission, I along with five Commissioner colleagues work daily to inform people of their rights, to advocate non-discrimination in all areas of public life, and advise individuals with complaints of their rights to conciliation, which can and often does result in satisfactory redress.

Of particular concern to me is the widespread evidence that older people in Australia can have their rights to work denied, and as a consequence they lose others rights. Nearly 70 percent of all age discrimination complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission relate to workplace discrimination or discrimination in recruitment processes.

This form of discrimination is particularly destructive as it has severe economic implications for the individual. Older people in poverty are a growing demographic in this country. Losing your job too early is an almost certain path to poverty and ill health, sometimes to homelessness.

To advance the rights of older people it is necessary for me not only to advise them about the complaints process. It is an urgent task for me to get employers large and small, and those who assist them in recruitment to drop their age prejudices and look realistically at what older workers, fit and experienced, can contribute to their business. This is a challenge that goes beyond employers. It goes to all of us. We are all part of the huge demographic change of our times and we must all commit to making these changes the positive experience for humanity they should be.

The massive and relatively sudden increase in longevity to which I refer means that Australians are living on an average of 30 years longer than their grandparents did. Most people in this room will reach their 90’s.

For most of those extra years, most individuals are healthy and able to contribute. It is an unsustainable waste of human capital to consign this growing cohort of Australians to poverty and ill health; two typical consequences of forcing people out of work too early.

It is a challenge for all of us. The challenge is to find new and better ways to provide freedom and opportunity to people throughout their long lives. If we can do that, we can be assured that they will enjoy those basic rights that were won at Eureka and put into international law with the Universal Declaration.

It is a challenge in the spirit of Eureka, but one we can achieve without violence and bloodshed.

In conclusion, I want to emphasise that the right to freedom and equality does not change with age. It applies to us throughout the life cycle, equally to men and women, to people of all races and ethnicities.

A rights respecting society is one that values every human being and guarantees for all the principles of equality and fairness.

In our pursuit of human rights in this 21st century we can continue to draw inspiration from the unlikely but marvellous success of the Ballarat miners at Eureka in the 19th century.

Thank you.


[1] Twain, M., Following the Equator, Road to Ballarat, Chapter XXIV, Classical Bookshelf, 1897. At http://www.classicbookshelf.com/library/mark_twain/following_the_equator/23/ (viewed 5 November 2012).
[2] Bolton. G. C., Evatt, Herbert Vere (Bert) (1894-1965), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. At http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/evatt-herbert-vere-bert-10131 (viewed 29 November 2012).

The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner

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