Australia on Trial (Malcolm McDonald, Lisa Matthews and Ana Kokkinos, 2011) is a 3 x 54-minute drama series recreating three historic trials that throw light on aspects of Australia during colonial times.
The three high-profile and controversial court cases raised major issues of national identity in the developing colonial nation. Each of the cases caused a sensation at the time and attracted enormous public interest. Each triggered social and political debate about subjects at the very heart of Australian society: democracy and justice, the identity and behaviour of Australia's men, and attitudes towards women and Indigenous people – themes and concerns that are still relevant to modern-day Australia.
Each of the three episodes covers a separate trial. Episode 1, The Eureka 13, recreates the 1855 trial of the Eureka 13 – the case of thirteen 'diggers' detained six weeks after the Eureka uprising and ordered to stand trial in Melbourne for treason. The ensuing court case would fuel public demand for popular democracy and perhaps led to major changes in the Victorian constitution.
In Episode 2, Outrage at Mount Rennie, we witness the 1886 trial of eleven Sydney 'larrikins' charged with the gang rape of a sixteen-year-old orphan, Mary Jane Hicks. This horrific crime came at a time of changes to industrialisation and urbanisation in Sydney, leading to unemployment. The court case put Australian youth, masculinity and violence towards women under the spotlight as never before.
In Episode 3, Massacre at Myall Creek, we see the trials in 1838 of a group of settlers involved in the killing of about thirty unarmed Aborigines in northern NSW. The massacre was sadly indicative of some white people's aggressive attitudes towards Indigenous people in the region and raised major questions about the settlers' relationship with Aboriginals in general.
Drawing extensively on actual court transcripts and journalism from the time, each episode recreates not only the trial itself but also the highly charged public and political debate surrounding it. As well as witnessing the drama and intensity of the courtroom, we see flashbacks of the circumstances of each alleged crime and hear from key characters to see the 'bigger picture' surrounding each case.
Modern historical observer Michael Cathcart is the 'eyes and ears' of the viewer, contextualising events and providing commentary at key junctures to highlight not just what was at stake for the defendants, but also for the colony and the emerging nation state at large. Ultimately, his aim is to show us that whether it is the nineteenth century or the twenty-first, Australians have been asking themselves the same question: What sort of society do we wish to live in?
Australia on Trial is a resource that can be used in middle- and upper-secondary classrooms in:
- HISTORY: aspects of Australian colonial history (frontier conflict, gold, urbanisation); critically evaluating modern representations of history
- SOCIETY AND ENVIRONMENT/ENGLISH: themes of justice, punishment, masculinity, race, national identity
- LEGAL STUDIES: the nature of the criminal trial system
- MEDIA: the dramatised documentary format.