Friday, April 30, 2010

New England - a community of regions

In another comment Newcastle's Heritage Problems, Greg wrote:

All this confirms the depth of feeling that is running throughout the north against the Sydney centric government in Macquarie Street. The challenge will be to harness that and create a genuine sense of "New England" as more than just some vague, ill defined region in the north of the state, but rather a community of regions with shared history and common purpose.

The idea that Greg put forward of New England as a community of regions is a very important one. To show this, I thought that I would explore the concept within a framework set by New England's history.

In some ways, the concept of regional identity at a sub-state level is a shadowy one, formed within institutional and cultural structures that operate centrally whether from Brisbane, Sydney or, increasingly, Canberra. These determine what will be taught, heard and delivered. Further, in electoral politics and in delivering services, all Governments use administrative boundaries that vary with time. These, too, affect the way people think and feel.

All this can make it difficult to determine specific regional identities. Clearly they exist, but what do they mean?

This issue was a central concern in High Lean Country, the recently published history of the New England Tablelands and Western Slopes. Subtitled Land, People and Memory in New England, the various writers explore aspects of New England history including thought and writing through to present times.

The book ends on a somewhat uncomfortable note. In the epilogue, 'a high lean country/full of old stories', Iain Davidson asks the question whether New England can survive as a concept in a different world.

Noting that a region's identity depends on shared identities, on the importance of common icons, Ian suggests that that there was a time when David Drummond's vision of the unifying power of education might have achieved greater unity within New England through the proselytising power of the Armidale Teachers' College and the University of New England, adding and perhaps it did. However, times change and Ian is pessimistic about the future.

For reasons that I will outline in a moment, I have a somewhat different view to Ian. However, for the moment, the book illustrates the difficulties associated with the establishment and maintenance of regional identity. If the more narrowly defined New England is struggling, what does this say about the broader New England?

Within Eastern Australia, there are four broader areas at sub-state level that have had a persistent sense of broader identity - North Queensland, Central Queensland, New England and the Riverina. Not coincidentally, these are also the areas that have had persistent separation movements, seeking self-government. A key distinguishing feature of all four is size and distance from the state capital.

New England is the most geographically diverse of the four. It has its own hierarchy of regions, each with a somewhat different history. Yet despite that diversity, despite rivalries between and within regions, despite the cultural and demographic changes of the second half of the twentieth century, New England has retained an identity. Even now, if you look at the overlapping and ever changing combination of boundaries of NSW agencies, New England keeps peeping through the mists. 

Further, the two great geographical axis that have dominated New England's history - east-west and north-south - are still there as they were in Aboriginal times. The present area health services reflect the two north-south axes, the New England independents the easy-west axis. It is no coincidence that it is only in New England that the independent movement established a clearly defined geographic footprint.  To understand this, we need to look at geography.

The New England or Northern Tablelands, the largest tablelands in Australia, dominates New England geography. In geographic terms, New England consists of the Tablelands and the surrounding river valleys. This provides a fundamental if sometimes ill-defined unity.

Pretty obviously, there was no such thing as New England in Aboriginal times. New England is a European construct. Indeed, the name New England itself originally applied just to the Tablelands - the whole area in the first European period was called the Northern Districts, Northern Provinces or just the North. It wasn't until the 1932 Maitland New State Convention that the name New England was adopted for the whole of the North. From that point, people spoke of "the New England" to distinguish the Tablelands from the broader North.

In Aboriginal times, the Tablelands was a marchland area between west and east. To the west lay the extensive territories of the powerful Kamilaroi language group, one of a series of related riverine languages. Here geography facilitated north-south movements. To the east and south were a number of large language groups whose territories broadly reflected river valleys and extended into the Tablelands' river headwaters. The smaller Tablelands language groups sat between the two.

Aboriginal patterns of seasonal movement and human interaction were both north-south and east west. Today, Armidale has one of the most diverse Aboriginal populations in NSW because of the presence of people from Tablelands, coastal and western language groups all of whose original language boundaries were on or near the city.

With the arrival of the Europeans, settlement came in two broad streams, one inland from the Hunter Valley and then to the coast, the second along the coast and then inland. This created two sets of linkages.

From the entrepot centre of Maitland in the south with its nearby port at Morpeth, a stream of human and economic connections ran north. A second stream ran along the coast to the emerging northern river ports and then inland. I say human as well as economic connections because locational and family connections meant that many people had family or personal connections with other parts of the North.

Because of geography, the coastal strip from Taree to the Hunter Valley had fewer inland linkages. Here the orientation was more to Sydney. This explains why new state support was always lower in the Manning as compared to the river valleys further north.

The coming of the Great Northern Railway reinforced the north-south axis at the expense of the east-west one, but otherwise left the pattern unchanged. Initially the railway benefited Newcastle at the expense of Maitland, making Newcastle the economic hub for the inland-north south axis. However, the opening of the line to Sydney with freight rates set so as to attract Northern trade from Newcastle to Sydney, quickly reduced Newcastle's power. This led to continuing resentments.

The growth first of mining and then of industry in the lower Hunter Hunter introduced a new element with very different cultural, social and ultimately political attitudes from those developing elsewhere in the Hunter or further north. This became Labor Party heartland, whereas the Progressive/Country Party became dominant further north.

Progressive/Country Party dominance combined with the identification of that Party with the emerging New State Movement facilitated cooperative action further north, as well as the emergence of a Northern or New England identity.  However, the divisions between Country and Labor Party, together with identification of Country Party and New State Movement as linked identities, was to be disastrous at the 1967 plebiscite. Drawing from the lessons of the 1930s when the Country Party and the New State Movements merged to form the United Country Party, the New England Movement formed after the Second World War was non-party political, but was not able to overcome the past.

Localism has always been pronounced in New England. The emergence of the towns created town merchant classes whose future was bound up with that of their town. Town fought town for trade and facilities. Attempts, for example, to gain east-west rail links failed because of rivalry over routes. No-one could agree. At the same time, the growth of farming in the second half of the nineteenth century introduced a range of different groups into New England serving different markets and different interests.

Unlike other areas such as Victoria where the Country Party remained a farmer party, the New England Progressive/Country Party was able to combine different farming and grazing interests across Northern New South Wales into a single party. At the same time, regional development campaigns launched by Earle Page focused on the Northern Rivers but then spread west along the east-west axis, creating the soil for the re-birth of new state agitation. This actually captured and combined town interests, providing a base for common agitation for development.

Much later, the creation first of the Armidale Teachers' College and then the New England University College reinforced the process because it bought together students from all over New England, while providing a coherent regional development focus.

Localism remained important, as did broader regional divides, yet the unity existed. When I was an undergraduate at New England I didn't worry about the sense of regional identity in the way Iain did later in High Lean Country. It just was.

My family was involved in New England development, I was a fairly fanatical new stater, I had close friends from all over New England and not just the Tablelands, and while I did visit Sydney from time to time, my personal playgrounds were all over New England. I have tried to capture some of this in my writing, however imperfectly.

Today the links that bind have declined. Even the regions in within New England have become fragmented. The once great Northern Rivers is increasingly subdivided into Richmond-Tweed with the Clarence, the big river, allocated to the Mid-North Coast. The once great Hunter Valley is increasingly treated for statistical purposes as Newcastle/Lower Hunter and the rest. Newcastle itself is classified for planning purposes as part of Greater Sydney. Yet the underlying unity imposed by geography is still there, still drives.

Finishing now by returning to Greg's point. New England is indeed a community of regions, as well as localities.

You cannot write a proper history of the Tablelands without referring to the Hunter and North Coast. You cannot write a history of the North Coast without referring to the Tablelands. The Universities of Newcastle and New England combine in a joint medical school that directly reflects one of the old north-south axis. You can't understand the rise of the New England independents if you do not understand history and the east-west axis. You cannot look at the history of any Aboriginal language group within New England without reference to adjoining language groups. And so it goes on.

The strength in Greg's idea of New England as a community of regions lies in the fact that it provides a framework for analytical purposes. You can look at the Hunter as a region with its own history and problems. You can then look at it as part of a broader identity. I think that this is helpful because it reveals new issues and approaches. In turn, this helps us manage if not overcome problems of localism and narrow regionalism.  


Greg said...

Jim, this was a very interesting and insightful piece. Hopefully, there will emerge a shared identity and unity of purpose that will benefit us all in our ultimate goal of self government.

yudiarta said...

Your post is very good, indifferent to the progress of the nation and loves the history and culture of the nation, I salute for your thoughts.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Greg, Jim.