Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Importance of Reviving New England

At the end of a post on my personal blog, Would you like to hear Gamilaraay spoken?, I said in passing: 

It seems that as life gets more complicated, our desire to cling to our own special pasts increases. My own desire to revive New England is not, after all, as strange as it seems!

This led to a comment from Neil Whitfield on the post:

Very interesting, though I am not really sure, with all due respect, that the parallel drawn at the end is really valid...

This annoyed me because it turned what was, after all, a gentle dig at myself into a substantive issue. I remarked:

The only way that I can interpret your comment is that my desire to revive New England is somehow less important than the restoration of Gamilaraay or, for that matter, Cornish. If so, your are wrong and on so many levels that I do not even know where to begin.

Neil did not mean to upset me. I think his comment stung in part because of a brief email exchange during the week with an old friend on a possible revival of the New England New State Movement, one but not the only expression of New England identity. There I was forced to say that the ideas and concepts that underpinned the various New England movements, even the sense of Northern identity, had been so diminished that people now lacked the very frameworks required to analyse the issues involved. In the absence of this, revival would be a hard, slow, process.

My own biases are clear. Now in responding to Neil, I want to discuss the importance of New England revival at three different levels, personal, historical and public policy.

Definition of New England

By New England revival I mean simply the recreation of a sense of identity and of our own history for what has been variously known over time as the Northern Districts, Northern Provinces, New England or, simply, the North. The continuing use of the word North over more than 200 hundred years signifies the way in which the area has been defined in juxtaposition to Sydney as the capital of NSW.

In geographic terms, we are talking of the New England or Northern Tablelands, Australia's largest Tableland and the river valleys or catchments that extend from it to the east, south and west.

This geographic area extends into what is now Queensland. The creation of Queensland fragmented New England's underlying geographic unity; the northern extensions such as Queensland's granite belt have been excised. Indeed, you will be hard pressed now to find a description of the New England Tablelands that even mentions the Queensland extension. The Tablelands somehow stop at the border.

Even with the Queensland portions excised, New England or the North is a large geographic area. In broad terms, it includes the Hunter Valley, Mid North Coast, Northern Rivers, Northern Tablelands, Western Slopes and part of the Western Plains.

Within this territory, the mental boundaries people attach to the term North or New England have varied.

The term North itself has generally included Newcastle and the Hunter. However, those fighting for self Government have adopted varying boundaries, with the earlier and most recent boundaries excluding the Hunter. This division reflects different histories and social patterns within New England.

I work with the broader boundaries because they better reflect geography and history. Those who are interested in finding out more about geography and the linkages with history might read Sunday Essay - geography, history and our perceptions of our own past and  Geography, history and our perceptions of our own past 2.

New England Revival - Personal

One of the interesting features of the growth of the European Union has been the parallel fragmentation of Europe. A number of previous national entities - Yugoslavia is an example - have broken up.

Within national entities that still survive, regional and people specific movements seeking recognition of their own unique identity have grown in power and influence. We can see this in the UK. It's not just the nationalist movements in Scotland or Wales, but also the conscious revival of languages such as Cornish previously consigned to the scrap heaps of history.

As Europe has got bigger, as previous national constitutional entities have declined in legitimacy, European peoples have come to identify more with features that they see as linked to their own personal pasts. 

We can see this process in Australia. Measured by the number of people involved, the two big history growth areas have been family history followed some way behind by local history. We all want to know our own pasts, we all want things to identify with.

We can also see this in the conscious attempt to re-create Gamilaraay as a living language. This has been driven in part by the efforts of non-Gamillaraay people such as Peter Austin and his colleagues and by the efforts of the NSW Government. However, the still limited success achieved to this point links to the desire of the Kamilaroi to re-establish their identity as a people.

Localism and regionalism are deeply imbued in my writing. I do not write much about "the Aborigines" as an entity. I do write a lot about individual Aboriginal peoples and especially those in New England whom I see in some way as my people.

How could it be otherwise? I am the third generation to have fought for New England development.

In this, not all my family have supported New England self-government. My grandfather was a New England New Stater as am I. My father was not. His experience is instructive.

He arrived in Armidale as the first staff member of the newly created New England University College, the first country university level tertiary institution in Australia whose very existence was due in part to New State agitation.

Like his colleagues, Prof knew that the College had to be better just to survive. Like his colleagues, he absorbed the ethos that the College was there to contribute to New England. He also had strong views on just what a university should be. All this helped make the new institution intensely regional, while also being part of an international academic community.

Towards the end of the war, he and Alan Voisey launched a regional council movement. The belief was that such councils would provide a basis for effective decentralisation and regional development. The new movement grew quite rapidly and, when the Sydney Government would not give the councils the powers they needed to achieve development, the new movement suddenly turned into a revived New England New State Movement.

The irony here is that my father who did not believe in new states as a solution suddenly found himself a key figure in the re-establishment of the New State Movement.

Convinced now that regional councils could not work, my father developed the concept of selective decentralisation, focusing resources on the development of a small number of country centres that might then grow to sufficient size to achieve self-sustaining development.

This work was picked up at the Australian National University and became the basis for the growth centre policies adopted by Gough Whitlam's new Labor Government and, within this, Mr Uren's new mega Department of Urban and Regional Development.

So what began as a New England specific discussion had turned into a major national policy initiative. This failed for reasons beyond the scope of this post. Since then, there has been little real policy at national level dedicated to regional development; the intellectual content required to develop this is no longer there.

To finish this section with three brief points: the views I express are obviously important at a personal level; they are, I think, indicative of a broader trend; and, even at this level, I hope that I have started to indicate why they are important in a broader way.

New England Revival - History

In writing about history, I have tried to make a distinction between history and the past. The past just is, it continues. History, what we write about the past, changes depending not just on new research but on fashion, areas of interest.

All people depend to some degree upon history because of the way it reflects their own past back to them. In my case, Australian history ceased to reflect my own past back to me. It was as though the things that I was interested in had ceased to exist or, alternatively, had become twisted.

Does this matter? Obviously it matters a great deal at a personal level, but does it matter beyond this? I think that it does, and in a number of ways.

The North's sense of self identity, the fact that this was expressed in political and institutional forms, led to a flourish of historical writing. This largely vanished in the decades following the 1967 referendum loss on self-government. Not all this was due to changing local focus and interest, there were broader trends as well. However, the effect was quite pronounced.

Reading High Lean Country, the history of the Northern Tablelands, I was struck by the suggestion that I had mapped what became the archaeological provinces within New England. I was flattered, but I had no intention of achieving this end. My objective was a much simpler one, the establishment of the different geographic zones likely to affect the pattern of Aboriginal life.

At the time I was writing I was part of the burst of interest in local and regional history that followed UNE's development.

Isabel McBryde's pioneering work reflected her belief that you could only understand Aboriginal prehistory if you focused on the local and regional. In writing, she consciously adopted one set of New England new state boundaries and excluded the Hunter. In writing, I consciously adopted a second set and included the Hunter. We can debate boundaries, but the geographic principles remain the same, commonality of interest.

Isabel's synthesis of her work was published in 1974. While some work has continued, I have in mind especially the work of Luke Godwin who corrected some of my own errors, no update synthesis has been published. In some ways with the decline in interest in New England, the work just tapered away.

This is not a limited example. To my knowledge, there has been very little published on the history of the country movements, all the movements including the Country Party concerned with non-metro development, since the 1970s. Movements which had major historic impacts have been relegated to minor and sometimes inaccurate footnotes.

Problems do not end here.

Today Australians are again debating constitutional change. New England New State pressure forced two Royal Commissions in  New South Wales, one at Federal level plus the Federal Parliamentary Constitutional Review Committee that had such an influence on Gough Whitlam's views. This was accompanied by books, pamphlets and magazine articles attempting to articulate constitutional principles. It led to reform of the NSW Legislative Council.

All this has vanished. Bluntly, the current level of discussion on constitutional issues is very mechanistic and low grade. It would be better if we had not forgotten past discussions.

At a personal level, when I said to Jack that the ideas and concepts that underpinned the various New England movements, even the sense of Northern identity, had been so diminished that people now lacked the very frameworks required to analyse the issues involved, I was talking in part of the loss of history. 

My point in all this is that in saying that I want to revive New England in history terms, I am talking not just about ensuring that New England people have access to their own history, but also about recognition of the contribution that that history has made to broader Australian history.

New England Revival - Public Policy

  I have a reasonable degree of expertise in public policy. However, I sometimes struggle to get key principles across, in part because my views have been formed by experiences that are outside the experiences of most Australians. 

The form taken by public policy depends upon institutional structures. It also depends upon the world views adopted by those developing and approving policy and programs. Very few people understand the way these things interact. 

For a variety of reasons, New England or the North has been suffering from the death of a thousand cuts.

Because it is not a state in its own right, it does not have a place at the table. This means that it depends on the NSW share and then on Sydney for its share of the NSW share. This affects everything.

The institutional structures within the North are set by Sydney and change as Sydney perceptions change. This affects every aspect of life, including local perceptions of regional identity.

Then what the North gets in information and cash depends upon Sydney and on the nature of Commonwealth-State relations. This creates further instability.

I do not want to argue these points in detail. I am simply noting them.

I am, I think, the only analyst left at the present time trying to look at the broader New England picture, at patterns across the whole area. This leads me to different conclusions.

As a simple example, I do not expect the new Rudd Government initiatives designed to bridge the gap between indigenous conditions and the broader community to have any impact at all so far as New England's indigenous people are concerned. Unless, of course, they (the people) all move.

I say this for one key reason. There is no linkage between Mr Rudd's policies based on national averages and the New England position.

The single most important thing that New England's Aborigines need is access to work. They share this need with other locals. Without this, every thing else will fall over.  Yet to create work, you have to address issues associated with New England development.

No one talks about this. Why should they? New England in the broader sense has ceased to exist. You cannot even begin to address the issues I talk about if you do not recognise the existence of at least the geographic entity and use it as a basis for analysis.

In theory, this problem might be overcome by a broader regional or country focus. In practice, this suffers from two problems.

The first problem lies in the great variations across non-metro Australia. To manage this, we adopt the type of approaches that I complained about in Saturday Morning Musings - Byzantium, ARIA and Australian public policy. These approaches fail because they ignore the impact of geography.

The second problem lies in the fact, I believe that it is a fact, that we no longer have an effective political voice for regional Australia.

Yes, we have the New England independents - the very existence of the New England independents is a sign of the continuation existence of at least vestigial forms of the old New England - and the National Party. However, both suffer from the absence of new ideas that might force them to articulate new approaches.

Mr Uren's growth centre plans may have failed. However, they did at least draw from an independent New England intellectual tradition dating back for many decades. I know of no equivalent today. Everything is fragmented, bitsy. We have multiple output measures but few positive results. 

I know that I am not alone in feeling this. In fact, I hear complaints all the time. The problem is to know what to do about it.

Here the advantage of the New England tradition is that it operated within a geographical and historical unity that provided a measure of coherence to its ideas. In turn, those ideas could be applied and tested in a broader environment.


My aim in this post is simply to indicate why I think that a revival of New England is important.

It is obviously important to me at a personal level. At this level, I find the extinction of New England quite hard to handle. However, I also believe that it is important at a broader level.

I hope that this post will give you some indication as to why I hold this view.     


Neil said...

Certainly a very well considered response, Jim.

Jim Belshaw said...

I tried to make it so, Neil.

Neil said...

Successfully too.

Not apropos, but I have been meaning to tell you the sidebar link to this blog from Personal Reflections is defective: one too many http://