The roots of Australian democracy sprang from its penal history

Researchers aim to demonstrate the importance of collective convict protest

Most Australians are familiar with the events of the Eureka Stockade, a rebellion against colonial rule by Ballarat gold miners in 1854 that led to male colonists gaining the vote in Victoria. It is often identified with the birth of democracy in Australia.

However, the evolution of Australian democracy has deeper roots in convict activism dating back to the establishment of penal colonies with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. It is this period up to 1850 that is the focus of a new research project.

Michael Quinlan, an emeritus professor of industrial relations at UNSW Business School, is part of a global research team that has received an Australian Research Council Linkage grant to research the extent and character of convict activism in Australia’s colonial past, and the way in which this has shaped our modern democracy.

“This trans-national digital history project aims to demonstrate the importance of collective convict protest to the early development of democracy in colonial Australia,” Quinlan says.

The project will draw on large digital databases that record individual Tasmanian convicts and as well as Quinlan’s own database on worker mobilisation in Australia, which records many instances of collective action by convicts prior to the Eureka Stockade.

Quinlan’s work will build on his recent book, The Origins of Worker Mobilisation, and he says “we can process this data much more efficiently, discovering some new trends. It's quite clear that many of these convicts were sent out from the UK after having been involved in industrial and political dissent. Once in Australia they began agitating for representation and worker's rights far earlier than had previously been believed.”

They brought ideas of worker rights and citizenship that they then sought to implement in the colonies.

The collaboration between academics and public institutions holding collections of records will help to generate new knowledge about Australian convict history, and to document for the first time the extent and character of convict activism 1788-1850. He says the project hopes to offer fresh perspectives on the role of ‘political’ transportees in the mobilisation of the wider convict and free population for reform.

Quinlan says the outcomes of the project would extend well beyond published research to include public exhibitions, and using new digital formats and video, so the wider community could engage with its results. 

“The involvement of Hobart-based production company Roar Films as a partner is particularly important in this regard.”


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy