For diggers who, as Robyn Annear puts it, had had ‘free rein over Victoria’s Crown lands – and their own destinies – for a month’ the introduction of the licensing system must have come as a rude reality-check. But the government’s move to control the digging of gold and impose some form of taxation can hardly have been surprising; few diggers would have thought it unreasonable to contribute to the expense of goldfields administration and the provision of services such as roads and a police force. Further, historian Geoffrey Serle suggests that at a time when the majority of people paid tax without parliamentary representation, most would not even have found the unrepresentative form of the taxation immediately objectionable. When the licence system was first introduced, most complaints focussed not on the fact of the tax, but on the amount of tax diggers were expected to pay. This was exorbitant – whereas a digger (who did not have the vote and owned no land) paid an annual licence fee of £18, a squatter (with the vote and possession of his land) paid £10 annually. Complaints turned to loud protest when the government announced it had decided to double the licence fee from 1 January 1852. This decision was soon revoked.
Although objections to the licence system were voiced from its inception, in the early days – when gold was relatively plentiful and easy to obtain – the majority of the miners readily complied with it. But as the diggings became more difficult to work, the amount of tax, and the fact that it was imposed on both successful and unsuccessful digger alike, became more contentious. Further, the manner in which licences had to be purchased and the way in which the system was enforced, provoked continuous conflict between diggers and officials. There were very few stations at which licences were issued and it usually took hours, sometimes days, of standing in line and dealing with rude, harried clerks to renew them. During licence inspections there was no redress if a licence had been lost or left in a tent (officials would not check their issuing records to see if it had been purchased) and newly arrived diggers commonly complained that they were arrested for not having a licence before they had even pitched a tent.
Despite the criticisms and protest it generated, the licence system was reviewed and renewed by the government at the end of 1851, 1852 and 1853. It was only at the end of 1854, in the wake of Eureka and a review by a royal commission, that it was abandoned.