Monday, May 24, 2010

New State arguments 3 - geographic basis of government

The new state movements throughout Australia challenged the existing basis of Government. In doing so, they faced a major challenge from those committed to the status quo.

It is a hard fact that all existing political institutions will defend themselves by all the means in their power, supported by those who for reason of sentiment or self-interest favour the status quo. The new state movements were required to develop arguments that would explain their case to a broader audience on emotional and logical grounds, that would challenge the arguments put forward by those opposing change. 

This led the New England Movement to develop the concept of the geographic basis of Government, a view later amplified by Professor Macdonald Holmes, Professor of Geography at Sydney University, in The Geographical Basis of Government (1944).

There were considerable links between Macdonald Holmes and the Movement's leadership. Macdonald Holmes saw geography as  'the study of land in relation to people'. This fed into Movement thinking and not just at the constitutional level.

Many of the senior Movement people had a deep interest in the conservation as well as the development of the land and in the application of science to conservation and primary production. In addition to the establishment of the New England National Park, this interest manifested itself not just on farm, but in the provision of direct financial support, including donation of land, to the University of New England to encourage the development of rural science. Macdonald Holmes himself promoted techniques such as contour ploughing as a way of reducing erosion, while maintaining moisture.

The idea behind the geographical basis of government was a simple one: geography helped determine the pattern of life; a geographically linked area was more likely to have the community of interest required for successful government.

NSW contained very distinct regions with limited commonality of interest. Further, it was dominated by one population centre with its own distinct interests that were very different from those holding elsewhere in the state. The inevitable result was a tendency to bad government in which the centre would tend to override, ignore or be unaware of the interests of the other parts of NSW.

By contrast, New England had a higher degree of community of interest in geographical terms because it consisted of the Tablelands plus the rivers originating on those Tablelands to the east, west and south, geographically linked entities. Further, those linkages in combination with its smaller size would made it easier for Government to understand and respond to community needs.

Like all simple concepts, the idea of the geographical basis of Government can be challenged by exception or argued in different ways. As an example, what do you do if history or particular aspects of geography have led to very different peoples occupying the same territory? Further, if New England has a commonality dictated by geography, wouldn't this be truer still of, say, the Northern Rivers or the Hunter Valley?

New England's geography has been central to its history.

The various names used to describe it during European times - the North, Northern Districts, Northern Provinces and New England are all geographical descriptors. The use of the word North defines location in regard to Sydney. The adoption of the name New England, the name originally applied just to the Tablelands that form New England's central geographic core, replaces a Sydney related descriptor with another geographical term.

During the long period of Aboriginal occupation of New England, the area's geography created a pattern of east-west and north south linkages and movements. This pattern was subsequently replicated during European times. The creation of Queensland put a political boundary through the top end of the unity, but otherwise left the pattern unchanged.

Within New England, the combination of history with geography made for divisions. This held true in Aboriginal times and is equally true today. However, the underlying entity keeps peeping through. If you map all the various and changing boundaries used for administrative purposes by the NSW Government and its various agencies and then overlay them on the New England new state area, New England still exists, however dimly.

NSW, by contrast, is a political not geographic entity. Outside history and constitutional structures, there is very little to unite. What unity that does exist is imposed. Further, that unity has become increasingly fragmented, a process that I described in The fragmentation of NSW.

If you want to test this, have a think about about NSW symbols. What symbolic things or even common ideas unite NSW? State of origin in the League is the one most commonly cited, but this only holds in part of the state.

Tourism is one of the most striking practical examples of problems that arise as a consequence, something that I dealt with in Why I remain New England New Stater 6 - conflicts in NSW tourism branding. Tourism is all about perception. It is very hard to sell NSW as a tourism destination because there is no unifying element. In tourism terms, if you ask people what NSW is you either get a complete blank or a list of specific localities or attractions.

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.  

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