Discussions on the possible revival of the New England New State Movement has already raised the question why not just abolish the states altogether? Leaving aside the constitutional difficulties involved, there are other issues to be considered.
Writing in 1926, the Movement's constitutional expert, David Drummond, suggested that there were then three schools of constitutional though in Australia - no states, new states and states' righters.
The no states' school suggested that all states should be abolished and replaced by a devolved system of provinces or regions working under central control. The new states' school suggested that the existing state system should be replaced by a larger number of states more closely related to community of interest. The states' right school believed in the preservation of the existing system.
Drummond dismissed the states' right school out of hand. They had failed to recognise, he argued, that Australia was now a nation. The question of the appropriate distribution of powers between Commonwealth and states had to be addressed, while existing state boundaries did not properly reflect geography.
The distinctions between no states and new states was more complicated because there were common arguments. Most no state supporters believed that there had to be some form of provincial or regional administrations because of the country's great diversity. What, then, was the difference?
To Drummond's mind, the difference lay in the powers to be accorded to the new states, provinces or regional administrations. Practical politics dictated that, with delegated powers, the centre would always override as political considerations dictated.
To support his case, he pointed to the experience of local government in NSW. This, he suggested, suffered from constant interference. To avoid this, state or provincial powers needed constitutional protection. However, there also needed to be a degree of flexibility to allow for distribution of powers to be changed as needs change.
Drummond was writing against a background set by the 1924 NSW Cohen Royal Commission into New States. New States supporters had forced its establishment and indeed had a representative on it, but the then Premier (Sir George Fuller) did not intend it to succeed. Importantly, he appointed William Holman KC as counsel assisting. Holman, a former Premier, had good reason to dislike the new state cause.
The Commission concluded that there were problems with the NSW system. However, those problems could be best addressed by an effective system of regional governments within NSW. The evidence presented and the subsequent report canvassed most of the arguments that you will find today.
Discussions on regional councils then rested until towards the end of the Second World War. Discussions on post-war reconstruction re-energised the debate. What type of country do we want? How should it be organised and governed?
In Armidale, two academics at the New England University College - James Belshaw (Economics) and Alan Voisey (Geology) - launched a movement to create regional councils as a way of encouraging effective decentralisation. Unlike his son, Belshaw was not a new stater. He believed that regional councils within the existing system could achieve results.
The new movement quickly gathered strength. When it became clear that the NSW Government would never grant the councils real power, the regional councils movement turned into a renewed New England New State Movement. The non-new state Belshaw found himself briefly as secretary of the new state movement!
Convinced that regional councils were a dead end, but still not convinced about new states, Belshaw turned to the concept of selective decentralisation. Why not concentrate available resources on building up a few country centres to critical mass, he argued?
This idea was picked up by Max Neutz and others at ANU and became the basis of the later Whitlam Government's growth centre strategy.
My point in all this is that Drummond's 1926 arguments still provide a valid analytical framework. Again leaving aside the difficulties of changing the existing constitution, if we are to abolish the states and replace them with regional or provincial councils, how do we ensure that Canberra doesn't simply override when political exigencies dictate?
This post is one of a series discussing issues associated with the creation of a New England New State. If you would like to look at the whole series, you can either search on new state arguments or go to the introductory post where you will find a full list of posts.