The federal government’s building industry watchdog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), has issued new Building Code rules that specifically ban the Eureka Flag from being displayed on building sites. If an employer breaches the code, they become ineligible to compete for government work.
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) National Construction secretary Dave Noonan said on February 5 it showed nothing had changed at the ABCC since former boss Nigel Hadgkiss was forced to resign after breaking the very laws he enforced.
“Former ABCC boss Nigel Hadgkiss acted like a partisan attack dog for the [Malcolm] Turnbull government,” Noonan said. “We can now see that the new leadership of the ABCC is no different.
“It is very clear that the Turnbull government’s ABCC is not about productivity or industry reform. The ABCC is merely a taxpayer-funded vehicle for the Liberal Party’s culture war against unions.
“There are real problems that require the Prime Minister’s attention, like stagnating wage growth and casualisation of the workforce.
“Yet they have gone out of their way to make a specific set of rules for one flag — a flag that represents a struggle for democracy and fairness.”
The changes also include making the display of a single union logo on equipment on a construction site a breach of the code. Union logos were permissible under the previous rules unless they were “voluminous or large scale”. This would mean, for example, that a union sticker on a hard hat would now be a breach of the code.
“At the same time they try to criminalise journalism, they are making rules about putting stickers on hard hats and flying the Eureka Flag. It’s behaviour you would expect under a dictatorship,” Noonan said.
Symbol of democracy
Queensland Electrical Trades Union (ETU) acting secretary Peter Ong also condemned the ABCC decision to ban flying the Eureka Flag on building sites:
“The Eureka standard is a flag that represents so much to so many people; it’s a symbol of democracy and is integral to Australia’s history. We warned the Senate cross-benchers that this was the sort of outcome they could expect if they supported the [reintroduction of the] ABCC, but they [Pauline] Hanson, [Derryn] Hinch, and [Nick] Xenophon voted for this, and they will be held accountable for this outrageous breach of human rights,” Ong said on February 5.
The ETU, together with the CFMEU and other unions and political organisations, have adopted the Eureka Flag as a symbol of unity and democracy.
Ong warned that this latest attack was just the tip of the iceberg, and urged politicians from all sides of politics to stand united and demand the ban be revoked.
Australian Republican Movement (APM) spokesperson, journalist and former rugby player Peter FitzSimons declared on February 6: “Friends, I ask you, does it get any more un-Australian than that — 163 years on from the most inspiring event in our history, of individuals rising against an unfair government, we have a modern government attempting to ban the individual’s right to display the very symbol of that struggle.
“Eureka is not just any symbol. It is the most iconic Australian symbol of the lot, the one that has endured through the ages, the symbol that, to quote my own tome on the subject [Eureka: The Unfinished Revolution], stands for 'justice, multiculturalism, mateship, egalitarianism, democracy, republicanism and the rights of workers’.”
The Eureka Flag, based on the Southern Cross constellation, originated as the emblem of the rebellious gold-miners involved in the Eureka Stockade at Ballarat, Victoria, in 1854. The gold-miners, who hailed from all parts of the globe, rose up in protest at the British colonial authorities’ imposition of a miner’s licence and the harsh methods of the local police in enforcing the system.
After months of civil disobedience, the dispute reached a climax when about 500 miners erected a stockade, from where they burned their licences and armed themselves in preparation for a fight. On December 3, 1854, troopers attacked at dawn, overwhelming the miners, killing 22, with many severely wounded.
Widespread public support for the miners erupted, with the Eureka uprising expressing a mass support among the Victorian population for democratic rights. Within months, all but one of the arrested rebels was acquitted, and in following years the right to vote for men was introduced, along with other reforms.
Karl Marx wrote in 1855 about the revolt at Ballarat, noting that the two most important “questions at issue” were for the abolition of gold prospecting licences, and for the ending of the property qualification for election to parliament:
“Here we see, in essence, motives similar to those which led to the Declaration of Independence of the United States, except that in Australia the conflict is initiated by the workers against the monopolists linked with the colonial bureaucracy.”
One contemporary writer of the time noted: “The concession to democratic government which followed the stockade produced a political framework and an atmosphere which facilitated the development of Australian trade unionism.”
Attack on union rights
It is realistic to say now that the move to ban the Eureka Flag on building sites 184 years later symbolises the escalating attacks on union and democratic rights in this country by governments, employers and the industrial bureaucracy.
The campaign to defend the right of unionists to fly the Eureka Flag from construction cranes and wear Eureka symbols on their work gear is a small, but important, part of the essential movement to defend and extend union rights.
Noonan said: “We’ve known employers to issue a whole lot of new hard hats without stickers on them, and direct the workers to wear them. What happens is, stickers start appearing and it becomes a silly game of cat and mouse.”
However, some employers have threatened to sack workers for wearing a union sticker, Noonan warned.
The war on Eureka seems set to enter a new phase, with Victorian CFMEU secretary John Setka sending a letter to major employer Kane Constructions demanding confirmation that the company would refrain from removing Eureka Flags from its building sites: “We will take any action required to maintain our members' right to freedom of association,” Setka said.
The union is challenging the ABCC’s interpretation of the Building Code rules. Setka wrote: “In fact, the forced removal of an individual’s right to wear union logos or to display a union flag is a blatant attack on freedom of association. It implies one cannot join a union.”
The second Battle of Eureka seems about to begin.