A couple of years ago I was at a meeting of the directors of Ausflag - devoted to Australia having a flag of our own, free of the flag of another nation - sifting through many worthy submissions from our fellow citizens of what a modern Australian flag should look like. Most of them were fabulous, even if dominated by an array of kangaroos, boomerangs and, yes, maybe even a Holden car. The obvious point struck me: what chance would Australia ever salute one of these flags, ahead of the one we've had for over a hundred years?
What a pity, I thought, we don't have our own version of the Americans' legendary Betsy Ross story, that country's purported maker of the first "Stars and Stripes" flag, during their Revolutionary War. (Cue their anthem: "And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there!")
The Eureka flag, then, as an option?
Of course, I rejected that out of hand. It was too heavily associated with the militant left wing of the union movement, and on the other hand with nutters on Cronulla Beach ludicrously brandishing it as a symbol of white supremacy. Another problem was the widespread view of Eureka, well summated to me by a famous Labor cabinet minister - let's call him Bob Carr - that the whole thing was little more than "a local tax revolt''.
But I began working on a book about it anyway, and have since been stunned at what an inspiring episode in our history it was. For, far more than a mere tax revolt, it was the first full flowering of the democratic movement that had been abroad in Europe for two decades. In Europe, it was crushed. Here, it bloomed regardless of the bloodshed.
December 3 is the 158th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade.
Because of what happened at Eureka - 25 diggers going to their graves in a fight for their rights - Australia was at the forefront of democratic reform around the world for the next two generations - and the transformation was so sudden that less than a year after being pursued as a criminal, the rebel leader Peter Lalor was being sworn in to Victoria's Legislative Council. He had not changed - his new homeland had.
As to particular resonance of the story for the 21st century, it was - as Mark Latham pointed out during the sesquicentenary - one of this country's first great moments of multiculturalism.
In the words of the greatest contemporary chronicler of events, Raffaello Carboni, as he reflected on the gathering of native-born Australians, Irish, Swedes, Germans, black and white Americans, Canadians, Italians, French and Jamaicans acting as one for the greater good: "We were of all nations and colours." For the diggers had come together, "irrespective of nationality, religion or colour to salute the Southern Cross as a refuge of all the oppressed from all countries on Earth".
The surprising thing, as Gerard Henderson has pointed out in these very pages, is that the conservative side of politics in general, at least in the modern era, has not embraced Eureka strongly - given that one way of looking at it is that the whole uprising was in fact a collection of small businessmen/entrepreneurs rising against iniquitous over-regulation that was stifling their creation of wealth. Right up the Libs' alley!
"Obviously, Australian nationalism can never be reduced to just one legend, but Eureka offers great potential to a nation floundering for a national story."
And their idea that I love most of all: "Our rather limp citizenship oath could be revitalised with a fragment of the bold Eureka oath: 'We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and to defend our rights and liberties.' And when we become a republic - as we surely some day must - what better flag to choose than the Eureka flag?"
The Eureka rebels were good people, fighting for a great cause, laying the very foundation stones on which modern Australia has been built.
And I salute their flag.
Today, 158 years since their battle, it is time for us to reclaim the Eureka flag back from the hard left of the union movement and the nutter rednecks of the right. A good start would be to further pursue now the federal parliamentarian Andrew Leigh's call last week for Australians to fly the Eureka flag over their homes and businesses every December 3.