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Riot or Revolution (2005)

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clip Gold tax education content clip 1, 2

This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

In Victoria in the 1850s the introduction of a gold license was extremely unpopular. Although many diggers wanted it abolished immediately, the question of the license could not be separated from more complex questions about government revenue and taxation policy. The new Governor, Charles Hotham, was planning to review and reform these areas but he needed time and time was running out. He also felt strongly that existing laws, however unpopular, needed to be strongly enforced.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows scenes and events leading up to the Eureka Stockade conflict in 1854. A series of images of the time, sound effects, music and an actor playing Governor Hotham accompany a narration that explains the colony’s taxation system, and describes efforts to introduce a miner’s licence. An interview with historian Geoffrey Blainey is included, in which he reflects on the Victorian Government’s lack of experience in running a gold field in the 1850s.

Educational value points

  • This clip is from the 2005 documentary Riot or Revolution, which looks at the events leading up to the Eureka Stockade conflict on the Ballarat gold fields in Victoria on 3 December 1854. The title, Riot or Revolution, draws attention to the disparity of views about the incident when 500 armed gold miners known as ‘Diggers’ fought a battle with government forces over the imposition of a miner’s licence. Twenty-two Diggers and 5 troopers were killed in only the second armed rebellion in Australia’s history. It has been said that the Eureka rebellion was a key event in the development of Australia’s democracy because the Diggers stood together to fight for their ‘rights and liberties’, especially the abolition of the property qualification for Members of the Chamber of Representatives.
  • At the time of the Eureka Stockade, all gold miners in Victoria were required to purchase a gold miner’s licence. In the 1850s, there was no income tax and so the licence was seen by the miners as an unjust tax on their labour. The licence fee payable whether gold had been found or not, and if caught without a licence a miner was forced to pay the large fine of £10 or be chained to a log until the fine was paid. The frustration of the miners grew as the frequency of the licence checks increased and was compounded by the fact that the Diggers had no say because they had no representation in Parliament in Melbourne.
  • Difficulties associated with the rapid increase in population due to the gold rush are described in the clip. Between 1850 and 1860 Australia’s population trebled from 405,356 to 1,145,585, and included people from the USA, Britain, Europe, and 40,000 people from China. This dramatic increase was fuelled by the allure of gold. Sir Charles Hotham (1806–55) became Governor of Victoria in June 1854 at a time when there were 25,000 Diggers on the Ballarat gold fields. Collecting taxes and policing this mobile group was highly problematic for successive governors of the colony.
  • Squatters and merchants and their roles in Victorian colonial politics are described in the clip. Before the discovery of gold in 1851 more than 80,000 people lived in Victoria, many on well-established grazing properties. When Governor Charles La Trobe (1801–75), the first Governor of Victoria, tried to introduce an export duty on gold itself in the early 1850s, thereby taxing only successful miners, graziers opposed the move fearing that it would lead to an export duty on other goods. Merchants had grown wealthy supplying the fledgling colony with goods, and that powerful group opposed La Trobe’s initiative and the export duty was defeated in Parliament.
  • An interview with Australian historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey is included. One of Australia’s foremost and most controversial historical authorities, Geoffrey Blainey has written more than 30 books, including The Tyranny of Distance, Triumph of the Nomads and A Short History of the World.
  • The excerpt provides a contemporary historian’s perspective on the issue of taxation and management of the Ballarat gold fields in the 1850s. Geoffrey Blainey observes that there were no models or precedents the colonial government could use to help it make workable laws and enforce them. This reflection gives the film an added dimension when contrasted with the words of the protagonists of the time and the other historical texts used in the film.
  • Riot or Revolution is the work of Melbourne documentary filmmaker Don Parham. One of Australia’s most established and well-regarded filmmakers, Parham has written, produced and directed ten documentary films for Australian television. Many of his films focus on contemporary Australian social and political issues. In Riot or Revolution Parham tackles the issue of whether the Eureka Stockade uprising was a riot by a group of law breakers or the revolutionary actions of workers seeking to 'defend their rights and liberties’. The film is largely constructed around the actual words and pictures that people at the time created in order to record their lives and tell the story of the Eureka Stockade.
  • Primary source material is used creatively in Riot or Revolution to present a range of historical perspectives. Don Parham’s films are notable for the way they examine social issues and events from a range of perspectives. Riot or Revolution is constructed around eyewitness accounts from the time. Contemporary actors in period costumes and settings use the words of historical figures to produce a lively and engaging documentary. The film is further enriched by the extensive use of colonial art of the day and the use of narration to explain events as they unfolded. The result is history grounded in original texts. Blainey represents a 'secondary’ source.
  • Work by colonial artist Samuel Thomas Gill (1818–80) is included. A noted portrait and watercolour artist, Gill came to the Ballarat gold fields in 1852 intending to dig for gold. Instead, he began recording life on the gold fields through his sketches and watercolour paintings. The film uses a number of these images as backgrounds in the monologues delivered by the actors, and the camera lingers on the images for the sense of photorealism they bring to the film as the narration builds the story.

This clip starts approximately 20 minutes into the documentary.

We are shown illustrations of a landscape scene of a port, men working in a minefields and a congregation of squatters. This is intermittently cut into a reenactment of an actor playing Governor Hotham accompany a narration. We hear sound effects of mean talking and chamber music under the narration. There is a portrait of La Trobe against a Union Jack, we then see illustration of men debating in parliament and diggers and policemen in mining camps. There is a graphic of a newspaper clipping that reads, ‘Abolition License Tax, Great Open Air Meeting, To the Public of Bendigo, Meeting, On Saturday next, August 26.

Narrator Most government revenue was raised through indirect taxes, primarily import duties. There were no taxes on income. The gold licence was a new kind of tax, a direct tax on people’s labour – and they didn’t like it. On his trip to the Bendigo gold fields, Hotham addressed a crowd of 8,000 diggers, calling for it to be abolished.

Actor playing Governor Hotham You ask me to do a very serious thing – to do away with a large portion of public revenue. We must all pay something, and I will endeavour to make the taxes as light as possible. I will give the subject every consideration. But, having made up my mind as to what is right. I am just the boy to stick to it.

Narrator The previous governor, Charles La Trobe, had tried to introduce an export duty on gold. Only successful miners would have paid the tax. Seeing it as the thin edge of the wedge, the squatters and merchants killed it off. With protest growing, La Trobe halved the licence fee. The cost became £2 for three months – about the price for a pair of digger’s boots.

Interview with Geoffrey Blainey.

Geoffrey Blainey The world had very little experience of running a large-scale free goldfield. California was the first on any scale in the whole world, and that was only found in 1848. Then came the Australian goldfields in 1851. It was still a very new and very difficult administrative task. They had no precedence to learn from.

Narrator This was the system Hotham inherited. He knew it needed fixing, but that would take time, and time was running out. Increasing numbers of diggers were avoiding the licence, exacerbating colony’s financial problems. And for Hotham, an even bigger issue was at stake.

Renactment of Govern Hotham played by an actor delivering speech behind an official office desk.

Actor playing Governor Hotham So long as a law, however obnoxious and unpopular it may be, remains in force, obedience must be rendered or government is at an end.

Narrator After Hotham’s tour of the goldfields, expectations were raised that he would abolish the licence. He did the opposite, ordering licence checks up from once a month to twice a week.

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