Monday, March 23, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Can we stop New England’s decline?

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 4 March 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line.

In November 2006, the then Premier of NSW announced a new 10-year plan for NSW, I examined it in detail against needs across the broader New England as I saw them.

I concluded that even if everyone of the myriad performance targets were to be met, the plan would do little to address New England's core needs.

In February 2007, Professor Vinson released his study into national economic and social disadvantage. Nearly all the most socially disadvantaged towns and villages in NSW identified by professor Vinson are located in the broader New England.

It is now March 2009. As part of some contract work that I am doing, I have been looking at demographic data for regional NSW -local government area (LGA) after LGA, town after town, locality after locality; from Baryugil to Balranald, Walcha to Walgett, Moree to Murrin Bridge, Leeton to Lightning Ridge, Tingha to Tenterfield.

I grew depressed as the statistics painted the continuing relative decline of New England and, more broadly, regional NSW.

Looking back, I grew up within a world defined by the history and mythology of the fights for country development. Success seemed possible simply because we had already achieved considerable results.

The three defining pillars in that lost world of mine were the New England New State Movement, the Country Party and the University of New England.

The New England New State Movement provided a vehicle uniting often competing interests across the broader New England. Its very existence forced Governments and political parties to pay attention not just to New England but, more broadly, to questions of regional development.

The Country Party had been forged in the fight for better services for the bush. Just one of the movements spawned by the needs of country people - the CWA was another - the Country Party and its leadership were still directly connected to the passions and causes that had created the Party.

I am not suggesting that people from other parties did not support and work for country development. The ALP’s Bill McCarthy is a local example. I am suggesting, however, that the Country Party’s existence and focus did force other parties to respond to country needs.

The University of New England was created to be the Sydney University – the lead university - of the new New England State. It was both international and intensely regional.

Not all UNE staff supported either the Country Party or the New England New State Movement, UNE provided many of core ALP supporters, but there was a powerful commitment across the institution regardless of party to regional development and university extension. UNE provided many of the intellectual bullets in a continuing debate.

In combination, these three pillars made New England difficult to ignore.

Today, the New State Movement has gone, lost in the despair, infighting and political turmoil that followed the loss of the 1967 plebiscite.

The Country Party has become the National Party. Cut off from its historic roots through the professionalisation that has happened to all political parties as well as the dominant needs of coalition, the Party struggles to escape from a trap set by its now perceived role as the conservative regional wing of the anti-Labor forces.

The New England independents, in many ways the inheritors of the New England populist tradition, have cut a swathe through the National’s traditional New England heartland. However, I feel that they have yet to articulate a coherent alternative regional development philosophy.

The University of New England, too, has suffered from a loss of vision as to its role. In some ways its regional role has shrunk to what is now called New England North West. While individuals still carry the flame, the regional passions that used to inspire the place have, I think, greatly diminished.

The causes of New England's economic and political decline are systemic and deeply embedded in our past. In the absence of more radical change, the interaction between my pillars could not halt the decline. However, the decline has accelerated with their decline.

Can all this be turned around? To some extent at least I believe that it can. I will look at this in my next column.

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