Saturday, October 20, 2007

Why I remain a New England New Stater 7 - the case of the big river

Note to readers: This post is one in a series using personal examples to illustrate why I continue to support both agitation for New England self-government and self-government itself. Agitation, because its very existence forces forces the Sydney Government to consider New England interests. Self-government, because there are some things that we cannot achieve without this.

Once upon a time there was a big river. Rising in what is now called the New England Tablelands, it wound its way from the mountains to the sea.

To the area's original Aboriginal inhabitants, it was a great resource, giving them access to riverine and maritime resources. The European invaders attracted by land and resources such as timber were also struck by its size - they called it the big river. They founded towns and villages along its length. Grafton, the valley's capital, became a major inland port and one of the four biggest towns in New England.

Early on the valley's people became unhappy. They complained that all the revenue from land sales -a major source of revenue - was spent in the colonial capital of Sydney. They launched an independence movement to establish a new colonial government in Northern NSW. This died down, although they did extract some concessions.

Inland, the new Great Northern Railway snaked its way north, attracting freight. Worried, Grafton's civic leaders agitated for a railway to service the valley's hinterland. This agitation failed many times.

Federation and the new century saw local discontents reach another head.

Following the decision of the Sydney Government to stop the ferry service that linked the two parts of Grafton across the river, a local doctor launched a protest campaign that quickly turned into a new independence campaign for the North. War intervened, but then the campaign resumed centered on the North Coast Development League. This quickly created a sister league inland, laying the base for sustained agitation throughout much of the twentieth century for Northern independence within the Federation.

In 1967 the valley voted for independence from NSW. The overall vote was no because a sustained anti-campaign by the Labor Party led to a very strong no vote in its Newcastle stronghold.

The independence movement went into decline. As it did, so did the valley. What was not properly recognised at the time was that the very existence of the separation movement with its broader linkages was central to political recognition.

Today the river still flows. But the valley itself is much diminished.

Now counted as part of the Mid North Coast instead of the major element in what was called the Northern Rivers, squeezed between the growth of Coffs Harbour in the south and Richmond in the north, the valley has become a postscript.

I find this sad.

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