Bringing Fire to the Remembrance of Rebellion
A report of the Commemoration of the 156th anniversary of the Eureka rebellion, Ballarat, 3 December 2010
Dawn at the Eureka memorial in Ballarat and the sky was lightening as fire rose behind the cardboard bust of Prime Minster Julia Gillard, Widow Maker. As effigy, she looked startled that anyone should be taking offense at the lies ballooning from her mouth.
May she hear this wake up call.
Endless war means endless widows and there is no win to be had for any leader who promotes endless war; just steady and certain erosion of credibility and confidence.
The burning took place as part of the commemorations of the 156th anniversary of the Eureka rebellion and in association with Dr Joe Toscano's Reclaim the Radical Spirit of Eureka ceremony.
At 4 am some 30 Eureka stalwarts had assembled for the ceremony but only a few broke away from its go-around talk to witness the burning and just a handful of friends stood beside me watched the widow maker turn to embers.
As effigy burnings go (and they are a particular art form of mine), it was a beautiful both in form and execution, my best yet.
The ribbon slogan overhead "End the Lies! End the Wars! End the US Alliance" was first to go. But the head and facial features stayed in position wreathed in flames till near the end when they collapsed into embers to which the West Papuans present moved close to warm themselves against the morning chill.
To sculpt the cardboard and prepare the event had taken me three days of intense effort. From ignition to embers, four minutes.
Why? my friends wanted to know. Effigy burning is nothing if not controversial.
My Stand Fast comrades for example wanted no association with it. "Not a good idea," Willy Bach had emailed from Honduras. "It would send the wrong message and could bring us into ridicule instead of well-earned respect".
War resister and Baptist pastor, Simon Moyle's response to the media release was a challenge: "Graeme - genuine question - how does this embody resistance - or nonviolence?"
There were two motivations behind the burning.
One was to do something dramatic to mark the 156th anniversary of the Eureka rebellion. I have been working on the Eureka rebellion commemorations in Ballarat in one way or another since 1998.
Of late I have been supporting Dr Joe Toscano's Reclaim the Radical Tradition of the Eureka Rebellion project. This assembles at the Eureka Stockade Memorial before dawn on 3rd December, the day of the subjugation of the Stockade by the Queen's Redcoats.
In the past the official commemorations organised by the Ballarat City Council and the Eureka Stockade Memorial Association (ESMA) took place around "Eureka Sunday", the nearest Sunday after the 3rd December, because it is significant that the dawn attack in 1854 took place on a Sunday. Furthermore weekend events were thought more likely to attract crowds
Ten years ago Dr Joe was surprised to find the 3rd December uncelebrated in Ballarat and so he colonised it from Melbourne and created a ritual observance which has been evolving nicely over the past ten years. Among other things Dr Joe is a broadcaster on Radio 3CR and this year he was broadcasting live from the Eureka Stockade memorial.
Dr Joe's dawn commemoration is basically a go-around of people standing in a circle on damp grass in chill pre-dawn air saying what Eureka means to them personally with Dr Joe adding contextualising comments about the time and conditions on that fatal dawn of 1854. With flags and lanterns i have been contributing to what Dr Joe refers to as the "atmospherics".
As an events dramaturge of sorts i have been wanting to do more and in particular with fire because i understand fire to be a key element in social transformation often forgotten, ignored or denied out of fear.
Seems to me fire has not only been removed or diminished from our homes and our workplaces, but it has also been removed from our understanding of social change. The consensus on change is that cool talk, reasoned debate, is the only way and hot heads raising the temperature of public discourse is a no-no.
In these times, in the tyranny of apathy, to evoke fire is to evoke fear and visions of bush fires and burning witches, of forces out of control. Out of control of whom?
Fire has other meanings. To be alive is to be warm with metabolic fire. Life force is fire and everything human made, from food to medicine to motor cars involves fire. I reckon fire is core to transformation and change makers are just wind bags unless they engage fire. Fire in the belly.
But maybe fire is only for brave hearts warm with pumping blood. Engaging fire is not without risks. Prometheus was the Titan who stole fire from Zeus the sky god, gave it to mortals and was punished for it, tied to a rock while daily an eagle ate his liver. But human kind, which he fashioned from clay, were the beneficiaries.
The Eureka rebellion was fiery. In these cooled times it is difficult to imagine how immediately present fire was. Smoke from the open campfires where diggers cooked and kept warm would have hung in the dawn sky of the Eureka diggings. Sitting around camp fires sharing food and grog, would have been how the diggers shared news of the conflict and argued about courses of action.
In a show of distain for the corruption of the legal process that had acquitted publican James Bentley of manslaughter, Peter Lalor called an evening meeting of diggers to assemble outside his hotel. It was destroyed by fire, an action that is considered the moment when public dissent became rebellion.
Within the Stockade a blacksmith forge had been set up to beat iron into pikes to defend the perimeter. And of course there was the fire and smoke of gunpowder on that bloody dawn.
So how to evoke fire in association with the remembrance of the Eureka rebellion?
In 2008 i was moved to burn an effigy of the former Chief Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Keelty. Keelty has been PM Howard's front man in the winding back of the hard won rights and liberties of Australians. At the time, Howard had been brought down, but Keelty was holding onto office.
In November 2008 when it had become evident that the Clarke Inquiry was a whitewash, i protested outside the AFP HQ calling for his resignation. In mid spruik and in answer to my own rhetorical question "what next?", i had a vision of creating Keelty burnings as an Australian equivalent of Guy Fawkes.
Then and there i resolved that Eureka dawn at the Eureka Stockade Memorial was the time and place to start. And so it came to pass. I made sure the image of Keelty burning got to the AFP, a graphic way of letting him know how low his public credibility had become.
On 6 May 2009 Mick announced his retirement. Since this was 2 years before the end of his contract and he had demonstrated his power to deflect criticism (the Clarke Inquiry only mentioned him twice and blamed all AFP mismanagement on an underling) and since there was no evidence of him being pushed by the Rudd government and its Howard hugging, civil liberties contracting agenda, one assumes Mick had lost heart, maybe under pressure from his AFP colleagues.
Who knows the influence of his Eureka effigy burning? Sympathetic magic works in its own way and its own time. And maybe it does not work at all - all illusion and delusion. But since no-one else in the nation was visible in speaking or acting out against Mick at the time, I am happy to take full responsibility.
Come Eureka season 2010, PM Julia Gillard had become my target.
Again the decision was made mid spruik; this time while speaking in support of the Swan Island Nine outside the Geelong Magistrates court on 29 November.
There was an anger and bitterness in my voice that surprised me such that i had to consciously soften my tone. After I realised there was a Rumpelstiltskin stomping about in my chest and he had been there for days wanting to be heard.
My anger was the "business as usual" attitude of PM Gillard as she promised the Parliament 10 years more war in Afghanistan; anger too at the 'so what?' AUSMIN surrender of Australian army bases to US 'joint' command.Ê
While my friends were in the courthouse, outside in a state of agitation i began plotting an effigy burning for Eureka dawn just three days away.
Till then i had been undecided about what to do for the Eureka 156 celebration, but having given voice to that anger, i committed myself to acting it out. As art.
This then my other motivation for burning the Julia Gillard, Widow Maker effigy.
As with my response to the whitewash of Mick Keelty, sometimes fiery passions possess me. Like claws of some great bird digging into my brain and dragging me along. And i don't know whether it is inspired prophesy or rampant ego, the truth of God or the deceit of the Devil (to use the metaphor from Nikos Kazantzakis' Last Temptation of Christ) doing the possessing.
The Buddha advises restraint of all passions but there is a Zorba the Greek in me that knows there is more truth, authenticity and life force in becoming the fire.
And my aim? To create an image of fiery dissent, a rebel image associated with the Eureka rebel spirit which resonates deep in the Australian psyche, an image of PM Julia Gillard in flames as a widow maker.
It was about visually and viscerally linking Julia Gillard and her unquestioning support for endless war with widow making. I want to make it difficult as i can for her to be blandly self-assured when she fronts the next soldier funeral and conspires in a media beat up of the death as a noble sacrifice.
My view of Julia is that she like a school prefect made good; a girl who, through raw ambition, feminine charm, astute cultivation of friends and much natural wit and public speaking talent, ascended rapidly through the addled ALP machine into national leadership. She has said and done all the right things but, as Mark Latham has pointed out, she is a Labor leader without an Labor ideology.
At heart, I suspect, she knows she is a confidence trickster flying by the seat of her pants.
My intention was to create an image that would shake that confidence to the core.
Psychological warfare and a diamond bullet, i suppose, and in that sense violent. But to my way of thinking violent in the way an electric fence is: a marker of limits which, when run up against, shock.
After the burning and after the go-around talk at the Memorial had finished, i was sitting in my van weary and wondering what it all meant to put so much effort into such an unwitnessed event, when Dr Joe came to me to say next year he would integrate any burning i produced into his event, saying he now understood my need to do the burn in dawn light rather than waiting for the talk to finish and the sky was bright.
Good one. Solidarity indeed. One of the four principles of the Eureka rebellion "Direct Action, Solidarity, Direct Democracy and Internationalism" by which Dr Joe explains its success as radical change maker.
My admiration for the man and his story telling of Australian radical traditions of grows and grows. What's more i enjoy the camaraderie of the event.
This year the commemoration was attended by Jacob Rumbiak, West Papuan independence leader and his comrades. He sat at the Peacebus.com table and accepted tea and talked about his armed resistance, his capture and torture by the Indonesians, his non violent resistance and his exile. And the progress being made despite the total ignorance of Australians and the arms length attitude of successive Australian governments.
At 9.30 am we assembled for a march to the Bakery Hill, a parade of flags and banners and Peacebus.com bringing up the rear with PA. Long time anarchist activist Viola Wilkins joined me in the passenger seat and took the mike and sang Digger songs as we paraded down Sturt street.
At Bakery Hill I set up banners and got Dr Joe's PA working so that his presentation of this years Eureka Medals could be heard above the traffic rounding the round about.
The work of Eureka historian, Dr Dorothy Wickham, and local anarchist activist John Lawrence were recognised with cast bronze medals with an eight pointed Eureka star in relief.
From Bakery Hill to Ballarat Town Hall where Mayor Julie Verlin with the assistance of the youngest Eureka marcher, 8 year old Tarryn, daughter of John aka Takver, hoisted the Eureka flag on a pole opposite the statue of Queen Victoria and under her marble nose and led by Dr Joe, we repeated the Eureka oath again.
Back at Bakery Hill it had been a sweet moment when Tarryn had taught Jacob Rumbiak the Oath and we all followed. "We swear by the Southern Cross that we will stand together truly and fight to defend our rights and liberties."
On we went in the annual Eureka Long March up Sturt Street, into Doveton Street and then up the hill to the Old Ballarat Cemetery, the marchers toiling with flag poles on shoulders and Peacebus.com bringing up the rear with song, a duet now with Viola Wilkins and Jessica Harrison on board.
Along the way Dr Joe took the mike and walking beside, spoke about the meaning of Eureka spirit.
His eloquence and the sight of the throng of Eureka and anarchist flags drew people from business houses along the way onto the pavement to watch and listen and many a honk and cheer came from passing traffic.
At the Cemetery i rigged the flags around the cast iron rail of the diggers grave and Dr Joe spoke again and Jacob Rumbiak expressing gratitude for being enlightened about the radical spirit of Eureka and expressing his solidarity. And we with him. What a hero; what a saint!
At the soldiers grave we reflected on the spin in the epitaph; the "misguided" diggers who took up arms for constitutional government which was on its way, thanks to the wisdom and goodwill of the rich! Oh yeah?
The discussion turned to the so called "convict stain" stigma of colonial times and how the Eureka rebellion had brought forth a new sprit of egalitarianism, the "fair go".
Here i found voice: "Eureka spirit is not to be found in the graves. It is not to be found in the blood. Being a child of Eureka, a direct descendant of a Stockader, means fuck all. Eureka spirit is to be found at the barricades and up against police lines, wherever the fight to defend rights and liberties is taking place."
And from across the Diggers Grave I challenged Dr Joe: "When will WikiLeak hero Julian Assange be awarded a Eureka medal?"
"Due process," replied Joe. Nominations and that sort of thing for next year.
I suggested a special award. "He might be dead by next year."
At the Grave Jessica Harrison introduced me to a unionist from the Bass Coast, Phil and his father Steve both discovering the Eureka story for the first time and I was amazed and delighted to learn the connection was me.
His face shining with a smile he shook my hand as if i was a celebrity and presented me with a Tshirt he had printed up from a design of mine - a Eureka Southern Cross superimposed on the slogan "Dump Desal/Dump Brumby".
Jessica Harrison is an anarchist activist of energy and perseverance and i met her for the first time at Eureka Dawn 2008. After I supported her in a GM-free action at a Rudd community cabinet in Geelong and went on to visit her in Wonthaggi and help out on the No Desal campaign that was ramping up there.
The ALP government's commitment to the hugely expensive and unnecessary desalination plant was water privatisation by stealth, neo liberalism at its worst.
At the time i had predicted to the local action group, Watershed Victoria, that Premier Brumby's determination to ignore citizen opposition would bring him and the ALP government down. I had said as much on my blog and with Eureka on my mind, designed posted the slogan and Southern Cross to my blog.
Web searching for information about resistance to the desal plant, Phil had found it and not only downloaded it to Tshirt but also followed up researching the radical spirit of Eureka.
The Saturday before Eureka voters had driven the ALP government from office. For two years the controversy of the desal commitment had bled Premier Brumby of credibility including a major scandal in the week before the election about Thiess, the contractor, having police cooperation to do surveillance on his employees.
Brumby thought he govern by spin but grassroots organisers and opinion makers across the state of Victoria were pissed off with the his lies and the arrogance of the ALP machine.
If we must have a neo-liberal privatising government, the voters seemed to say, it may as well be that of the Liberal party, the corporate super rich.
In defeat Brumby had resigned leadership of the Victorian ALP and less than a fortnight after the election, people were asking who was Brumby? The Tshirt would soon be a historical curio, but i was happy to wear it that day.
Dr Joe led a small party of flag bearers back to the Eureka Hall on foot. But Peacebus.com drove back and set up table and chairs in the park and served tea and shared food. The Eureka flags and lanterns around the Memorial leaned in the wind and looked lovely.
The day was ours. The Eureka Memorial Park was ours. Ballarat was ours. We were Eureka spirit made flesh.
When Joe arrived, his face red and radiant from the effort, he was chuffed. It had been the best ever celebration of Eureka: great story telling, great ambience, official acknowledgement from the Mayor and media recognition too.
He was heard to say that all his life's desires were in place that day and that for him it was a good day to die.
The final act of the day was a piece of theatre called Radio Villa presented by two young Italian men. While we sat about in chairs on the grass, the Memorial as a backdrop, with dialogue and sound they told the extraordinary story of an extraordinary Italian and Eureka rebel, Raphael Carboni.
As the play finished with a roll of thunder and a sudden rain squall. A salute and a scattering.
Commemorating the radical spirit of Eureka we had had a great day. People had come from afar (Melbourne, Brisbane, Wonthaggi) to be there. It was an event with a future celebrating the past.
By contrast the official Ballarat organised Eureka commemorations go from sickness to death. Local government managerial incompetence and defunding was the cause.
For example the never popular Eureka Centre is now mothballed and surrounded my mesh fencing pending renovations for which there is little enthusiasm or haste.
The Eureka Dawn Walk, which i turned into a mass lantern events 1998-2004 and which once drew hundreds, is now defunct.
The Eureka Luncheon in the Old Colonist Club, a key fund raiser for ESMA, an event once graced by the presence of long time Eureka supporter Gough Whitlam (his ALP government was elected to office on 3 December 1972) and an occasion of discourse by distinguished historians, this year was cancelled for want of a speaker.
Strange. For although many local businesses have "Eureka" in their names and the Eureka Stockade and Ballarat as birth place of Australian democracy remains central to Ballarat's tourism pitch, for Ballarat residents Eureka dawn is a non event.
Seems there is something about celebrating rebellion, which is inherently beyond the managerialism of government.
Rebellion comes from the people and can only be remembered with any authenticity and fervour by the people.
I cannot commend too highly participation in Dr Joe Toscano's annual 3 December reclaimation of the radical Spirit of Eureka Rebellion. It gives deep insight into Australia's radical political traditions and the company is great. An affirming experience for anyone agitating for change in this land and in these times.
10 December 2010