Sunday, May 16, 2010

New State arguments 1 - introduction

In discussing the renewed calls for state government in North Queensland, I said in part:
I can understand why some delegates at the NQLGA meeting suggested that more detail was required to give the idea (of self government) credibility. It's not that the information and arguments are not there. It's just that all the detail of past arguments has been lost in historical terms.
Then in a comment on Belshaw's World - scoping New England’s environmental wars Mark wrote:
I think back when I was a young apprentice and I once heard an old toolmaker speak about the failed referendum over the proposed "New State".
I'm glad that I stumbled across your blog Mr Belshaw. The more that do read, the more I'm sure will see that there can be an alternative to what we have now.
It is now 47 years since the loss of the New England New State plebiscite and the effective collapse of the New England New State Movement in the sometimes bitter in-fighting that followed. By the time that Mark was born, that loss was 12 years in the past. By the time that my eldest daughter was born, that loss was 20 years in the past. You can see why I say that the detail of past arguments has been lost in historical terms.
I have begun outlining some of the history of the Movement to help bring this part of our history alive.

However, there is a broader issue.

Creation of new states involves a mix of constitutional, technical, political and public policy issues. It also involves imagination, the act of imagining what might be done and done in new ways in a new constitutional arrangement freed from the trammels of the past.

In 1915 in Grafton, a public meeting was called to protest the decision by the Holman Government to remove the free steam ferry Helen that had linked Grafton and South Grafton. Attended by around 250 people, the meeting unanimously carried a motion suggesting that the time had now come for the North to consider separation, either alone or in connection with the southern portion of Queensland. While it would be still be a little while before sustained new state agitation emerged, that meeting marked the effective start of twentieth century new state agitation.

Over the 52 years between the Helen incident and the plebiscite, the arguments for and against new states were fought out.

While often dismissed by the metropolitan press, we sometimes forget that papers like the Sydney Morning Herald are just as parochial as their country cousins, the new state supporters had sufficient firepower to challenge opponents on an intellectual as well as political level. Their support came not just from local or regional activists, but also from city based academics, professionals and writers, as well as staff from the newly created New England University College and then University of New England.

Wearing my historian's hat, I am not a great believer in the lessons of history as such. However, I do believe that those who forget the past are inclined to repeat the mistakes of the past. In this context, I can't help noticing how discussions on issues such as constitutional change or regional development over the last thirty years have consistently ignored previous discussions.

Things change.

Since 1967 economic and demographic change, together with changes in the balance of power between Commonwealth and States, means that some of the things that a New England State might have done in 1967 are no longer possible. The power is no longer there, while the barriers to effective regional development have grown.

To my mind, this does not invalidate the idea of new states in general nor of self-government for New England in particular. However, it does mean that past arguments have to be tempered in light of the changes since.

Taking all this into account, I thought that it might be interesting and helpful if I explored past discussions on  the constitutional, technical, political and public policy issues associated with new states. Some of it's pretty dry stuff, but it will go some way towards answering the concerns of some delegates at the NQLGA meeting that more detail was required to give the idea of separation credibility. The detail is there. We have just forgotten!

Other posts in this series: 


Greg said...

Jim, the advantages of self-government seem so self-evident.

The raw deal that the north consistently gets from the capital certainly has been well documented so I won't go into that here. Suffice to say that it is obvious that we would be better off raising our own revenue and spending those funds as we see fit in our regions rather than being at the mercy of Macquarie Street.

That stated, the obvious point of statehood is self-identity. There is no doubt that we in the north have a distinct and separate identity to Sydney and that needs to be recognised. The question is whether we have enough of a shared identity to have that unity of purpose needed to take our place at the national table.

The Hunter, the Manning, Hastings and the Northern Tablelands certainly have a common enough identity. Whether the Hunter and the Northern Rivers have that same sense of common identity, I don't know. The closer you get physically to Qld. the less the sense of shared identity with the regions further south and indeed there is anecdotal evidence that many people of the Northern Rivers believe that they would be better off as part of Qld. Maybe they have a point.

I can well understand that the people of the New England regions further north might not be happy replacing Sydney as the gorilla in the room with Newcastle. By the same token the people of Newcastle justifiably might not be happy that Newcastle, as the biggest city and economic hub of New England, would be yet again ignored should the capital be say, Armidale.

I see that as the real barrier to New England identity and unity. All regions must see that they will be better off individually and collectively. And we must find a commonality of purpose and that shared identity rather than simply having a common grievance.

Jim Belshaw said...

Greg, you have made some very thoughtful comments that strike at the heart of some of our current problems, as well as the difficulty of gaining a uniform force.

The North's sense of identity has survived because it is dictated by geography and history. Yet it has also become attenuated because existing systems are set to divide. The issues of if and how we might overcome those divides are critical.

Let me take the capital example, something that I will write about. No-one further north would accept the simple substitution of Newcastle for Sydney.In 1967 we would probably have won the plebiscite in Newcastle if we had said Newcastle would be capital, but then lost it further north.

One of the things that we have to address in our thinking is what a management writer called the hard truths. There are a lot of them and especially our own internal divisions.

I will use your comment as a base for a later post.

Greg said...


When there is talk of a new state, inevitably the question must eventually be asked where the capital will be situated and that opens up divisions, rivalries and parochialism. There is just no getting around it, is there?

Armidale is geographically the centre of New England. Newcastle is the largest city and the economic capital. The centre of population would be in the south east north of Newcastle around the mid north coast - perhaps between Forster and Port Macquarie. A reasonable argument could be mounted for each.

However, good regional decisions are rarely made from remote capitals. Which makes me wonder whether a permanent Parliamentary home is even necessary.

Why for instance, could the Parliament not sit in alternate locations - dividing sessions between say Newcastle in the south, Armidale in the tablelands, and Coffs Harbour in the north on a rotating basis?

Also, why do all government departments necessarily have to have their head offices in the state capital? Why not the department of transport say in Newcastle, the department of health in Armidale and so on?

In this age of instant communications and fast travel parliamentary sessions and government departments could be situated anywhere. The only real issue is that we do not replicate a mini NSW where one city or region is totally dominant to the detriment and anger of others. We don't want another Sydney in our midst.

Could you think of any reason that such a model could not work in New England? Could that be a model for the rest of Australia in terms of divulging power back to the regions and away from the city centric state capitals?

Greg said...


Much is made of Australia's "two speed" economy with WA cited as the boom state on the back of mining. Meanwhile an accusing finger is pointed at NSW as being a drag on the national economy.

However, I cannot find any data about how New England fares in the scheme of things. I suspect that it is doing a great deal better than the rest of NSW. Hunter coal is certainly a vital contributor. If NSW looks sick despite having such a strong regional performance in the north then the rest of the state must be in an even poorer shape than the figures show.

Is there any data that shows the relative performance of NSW regions and how that impacts on planning and infrastructure investment for the regions and for NSW as a whole? If it is there then it is hard to find. The statistics all seem to be compiled on a state by state basis without regard to relative diversity of state economies and their respective regional areas. That makes it hard to get a feel for what is really happening.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Greg. You raise good points. I think that the best way of responding is by full posts; you can then respond.

Augustus Winston said...

Jim, Greg - Please, please spare us another parliament. This country would have to rank as one of the most overgoverned places given population, number of states and bureaucratic mechanisms in place to keep the whole thing ticking over. And I am not talking about a workforce that actually does anything other than serve our political masters. The idea of more governments seems to me completely ludicrous. If anything I'd be for less governments. This whole secession thing was once mooted by the now (thankfully) bereft of life Bjelke Petersen. It was nothing more than a stunt catering to the right wing jingoistic dullards of the State.

And whats all this business about Newcastle being in New England. At its broadest definition during the New England new state movement the NE region included the nothern coastal lowlands of NSW known as the mid north coast and northern rivers region & including cities such as Lismore and Grafton. But Newcastle?

Mark said...

Augustus Wilson, the Hunter Valley including Newcastle have more in common with those in regional NSW namely north of the Hawkesbury than those within the Sydney basin in terms of economic investment and infrastructure. It seems natural to me to include Newcastle and the Hunter Valley in discussion about New England.

I do agree with your views on more government. I see good government in the form of a collection of like minded local government areas that sit directly below the Federal Government. Regional Government Areas that look after regional areas. Abolish local and state government. Create regional government to administer federally funded services. A new state government is not feasible in this day and age. The time is ripe for discussion though on regional government. The case in North Queensland is interesting and has parallels with New England.

Greg said...

Augustus Winston,

I once held views similar to yours. Then I came to realise that abolition of the states is total fantasy and takes no account of Australia's history, geography and political reality.

Australia is a Federation of States. No getting over that simple constitutional fact. The constitution says that those states "agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth". They are unequivocal words - the entity the Commonwealth of Australia exists only as an indissoluble union of states. The "indissoluble" nature of our federation was even tested in the 1930's when WA voted in a referendum to secede from the Commonwealth. It was ruled unconstitutional by the High Court and so 80 years on WA is still constitutionally bound together with the other states.

Full stop. Forget about abolition of the states. States can be added, carved up, combined (provided their parliaments agree) etc. but states cannot get out by any means. Your model is simply a waste of breath and takes no account of reality.

So what is a realistic alternative? Carve up of the existing states into smaller self-governing states is not only realistic, it was expected and specifically written into Chapter 6 of the constitution. And it is effectively the same thing as you propose within our existing Constitutional arrangements, anyway.

I also disagree with your proposition that Australia is the most over-governed country. That is fallacy, however it is over centrally governed and has become increasingly so in recent decades. By contrast most other countries have a substantial divestment of power back to their regions. The countries with similar strong central government are usually either physically tiny, communist or dictatorial. Austria for example has nine states in an area only slightly larger than Tasmania.

States are a reflection of regional identity allowing those regions autonomy in their own decision making. The worlds most successful nation, the USA, certainly recognises that fact and has 50 states in a similar land area to Australia. The smallest in area are tiny Rhode Island and Delaware - smaller than the city of Brisbane. the smallest in population are Wyoming with population similar to Tasmania and Vermont similar to the Hunter Valley.

Australia's real problem is the over centralisation of government and the concentration of power and decision making in Canberra and the 6 state capitals. This results in a city centric focus with the capitals consistently make poor decisions and resource allocations to regional areas.

Local councils also exist solely due to state government statutes and have little power and very limited ability to raise their own revenue. They are not the answer and there is a good argument that they are pointless. Abolition of local councils can happen with the stroke of a pen by the state parliament and there might be an argument that that would be a better alternative along with smaller regional based states.

As for Newcastle and the Hunter being part of New England - I think that you will find that physically and historically it most definitely is. You will even find remnants of that in the way that our health system is set up. Hence Hunter New England Health. Newcastle certainly has more in common with Scone, Tamworth, Taree etc. than it has with Sydney. They are natural Newcastle "catchments". Sydney is not.

New England agitation for separation is also not a new idea. It dates back to the 1840's - before the separation of Qld from NSW and for the same reasons (a remote capital that failed to take local identity and interests into consideration). It is time that northern identity and self government was recognised.

Jim Belshaw said...

Greg, I have put up a first post on stats. Our inability to get good stats at local and regional level is a major problem. It increases the risk of fragmentation.

Winton, your history is incorrect in both economic and political terms.

In economic terms, New England history is dominated by two axis; an inland north south axis originally formed when Maitland was the North's big town; futher north an east-west axis.

In political terms, it is correct that the first new state boundaries exluded the Hunter. This gave rise to a major problem because it ignored geography, as well as new state support in the Upper Hunter. Im 1935, the Nicholas Commission recommended boundaries that included Newcastle. These were accepted by the then Movement and were in fact the boundaries that the 1967 plebiscite was fought on.

Yhe name New England was adopted for the whole area at the Maitland Convention in 1931 or 32. I have a mental block on the year, and don't want to spend time checking.

Prior to that date the Movement was called the Northern Separation Movement. From the Maitland Convention there were two New Englands. New England to describe the whole area, the New England to describe just the Tablelands.

More later. I have to cook dinner.

Anonymous said...

If Newcastle is not part of New England then why does the New England Highway start in Newcastle?

nafe said...

Greg, Jim,

On the capital issue, as long as the reigons see the benefits of moving away from Sydney, then thi sissue could be easily resolved.

Naturally the size of Newcastle would warrant a shot at being the capital but what i don't understand, and it does seem its quite Australian to only have 1 major city in each state. Unlike other countries (NZ for example having Wellington and Auckland has major cities).

Why couldn't New England do things differently, isn't that what we want?

Do we really want just a replacement for Sydney or do we want a whole different way of doing things?

I would love to see a major city in Armidale, Tamworth and Newcastle. All offering different things economically and socially which would be nothing but advantagous to the stability of the state and the states economy.

Greg said...

It is peculiar that the major city of each state accounts for half or more of the population of each state. That probably has something to do with the way that each state is administered in a city centric way. New England would be an exception in this regard in that Newcastle as the major city would only represent about 1/3 of the population.

I agree that we certainly don't want to replicate another city dominant state.

Mark said...

I guess Greg that things were different too when Federation was being discussed. There was more balance between regions and the metro areas however now, each metro area sucks the resources from huge areas to sustain their own growth at the expense of regional areas. The scales have turned significantly. Given that there are now more people in metro areas, regional voices are no longer heard on the same level as they once were.