Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Sydney Harbour Bridge - a mixed symbol

Photo: Thousands walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

History is written by the victors. I was reminded of this during the week by disparaging comments by historians on Sydney radio that the the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was opposed only by a few winging country members of parliament.

Today the Bridge has iconic status because of its design, so thousands turned out to celebrate its opening. Yet the reality is that the Bridge was fiercely opposed by those who believed, correctly, that it was another diversion of money to the city. Debate was fierce. Those supporting the Bridge always had the numbers, but it was still a near run thing.

The initial bill to build the Bridge was introduced by Labor Premier James Dooley but not proceeded with because of the problems facing his Government. Then at the State elections in March 1922 the proposed Bridge was a major issue, igniting Sydney-country divides.

Following the election Nationalist leader Fuller became Premier but faced an uncertain position because of the balance of power position held by the Progressive (later Country then National Party). In formal terms, the Nationalists did in fact have a majority in the house, but tensions inside the Party created a degree of uncertainty.

Neither Fuller nor the Progressives would agree to a formal coalition arrangement. Fuller knew that the conservative wing of the Progressives would not support his defeat, so felt that he was in the box seat. For their part, the Progressives used every technique they could to make the Government's life miserable without actually defeating them.

All this played out over the Sydney Harbour Bridge bill reintroduced by Fuller to the house in August 1922. Recognising the problems he faced even in his own Party, Fuller made it a non-party measure. Labor adopted a similar position, notwithstanding its previous support for the bill.

The house promptly divided into Sydney members versus the rest.

County member after country member attacked the bill on the grounds that necessary country public works had been deferred for years because of lack of funds yet now 5.5 to 6 million pounds could be found for a work that would benefit Sydney alone.

Those supporting the bill always had the numbers, but it was a fierce battle. At one point, after a session lasting more than seventeen hours, a tired Premier was forced to complain that "it seems that the House has determined that this bill is not to pass." (NSWPD, vol 89, 25 October 1922, p3026).

While exact votes varied from division to division, the vote on the bill's third reading was typical of the general pattern.

Of the 39 members voting for the bill 32 came from Sydney, only seven from the rest of the state including five minsters. By contrast, of the 30 votes against, 27 were from non metro areas as compared to only three (including Jack Lang) from Sydney.

Of the New England members, 13 including all three Labor members from Newcastle voted against, two (both minsters) for. In Party terms, Nationalist supporters voted 29 for to six against, whereas Labor voted ten for and sixteen against, the Progressives none for and five against.

All this is hardly a few winging country members.

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