Friday, July 07, 2006

The past is always present - the Country Party

In my last past I said that I found it interesting the way traditional patterns hold on, just as interesting the way they change suddenly. I took the Labor Party in New England as my first example. This post looks at the Country (now National) Party, the other major political party in twentieth century New England.

Whereas Labor emerged from the industrial movement among working class Australians who saw the need for a party to represent the working class, the Country Party emerged from the industrial movement among farmers and graziers who saw the need for a party to represent country Australia.

Just as New England's history made New England Labor different from that elsewhere, so that history made New England's Country Party different.

New England has been Country Party heartland. For much of the twentieth century, the Party dominated New England's political landscape outside Newcastle and the lower Hunter. The majority of the Party's parliamentary leaders, national as well as state, came from New England. During periods when swings against the Party reduced numbers elsewhere, New England largely held firm. Today the National Party in New England is clearly in trouble, but that trouble comes not just from Labor or Liberal Parties, but also from growing movement to elect independents to Parliament, a movement headquartered in New England.

Part of the reason for the Country Party's relative success in New England lies in demography.

To the south and west of Sydney, Irish Catholic chain migration was an important in early European settlement. By contrast, Scottish and especially Scots Presbyterian chain migration was important in New England's European settlement north of the lower Hunter.

So the Irish Catholic population that played such a role in the development of the Labor Party was significantly weaker in New England, the English and Scots population stronger. This translated into different voting patterns, with the base Labor Party vote weaker in New England as compared to the central west and Riverina.

New England is also different in terms of geography and climate. It is the wettest portion of NSW. The valleys in New England's humid coastal zone are far larger than those in Southern NSW, the immediately nearby tablelands larger and wetter than those in the south.

This facilitated settlement, so that New England's population was both larger and more compact. At the time of Federation, probably one person in four in NSW, one in ten of all Australians, lived in New England.

These differences in geography and demography played themselves out during the formation of the Country Party.

Within rural Australia the wheat farmers and their organisations were by far the most radical farm group. I have spoken previously of the importance of transport costs. The spread of the railways allowed land near the new lines to be opened up for wheat. These new farmers became radicalised as they struggled with recurrent droughts and the vagaries of international markets.

This was most pronounced in the west and south of NSW. Wheat production for export markets came a little later to New England and those taking up land for farming were more likely to be aready established farmers.

In contrast to the wheat growers, the better established graziers and pastoralists and their organisations were more inclined to favour the status quo, less inclined towards radical solutions. This meant that much of the drive for the formation of a new political party to represent country interests came from farmers rather than graziers.

In Victoria where the grazing interests had largely been co-opted into the Melbourne establishment, farmers and farm organisations dominated the new Victorian Country Party. As a result the new party centred on farming areas and was by far the most radical of the newly emerging parties.

The position in New South Wales was different, especially in New England. Unlike Victoria, New England graziers were less absorbed into the Sydney elites, identified far more with their own areas, and were more likely to cooperate with the farming interests. So in NSW the Graziers Association combined with the Farmers and Settlers Association to form the new Country Party. This necessarily made the Party more conservative, something that could and did lead to tensions between its different wings.

There was another difference in New England itself as well linked to the geographical differences discussed earlier, and that is the relative importance of non-wheat farming interests, especially dairying, creating a chain of dairy seats along the coastal zone. So in New England the new Country Party combined the dairy seats long the coast, the grazing seats in the centre, the mixed farming and grazing seats to the west.

I will continue this story in my next post.


Geoff Robinson said...

Interesting that although the graziers are more conservative in style they are more politically pragmatic than the farmers. The graziers can see that the Nationalists have to accept much of Labor's social legislation to win elections. Writing a paper which touches on Frederick Tout the Graziers' leader, a very powerful backroom figure even though his public style was that of a reactionary pure merino.

Jim Belshaw said...

Very interesting, Geoff. I would love to get a copy when you have finished.