Wednesday, May 26, 2010

New State arguments 4 - party politics

I had intended to write this post later in the series. However, following the formation of the North Queensland Party to campaign for self-government for North Queensland, there have been suggestions that we should do something similar in New England. I thought therefore that I should bring it forward.

There is no right or wrong answer. I doubt that Scotland would have achieved devolution without the Scottish Nationalists. However, the adoption of political party stances also has costs. We can see some of the problems here from the history of the New England Movement.

Historical Background

When the twentieth century New England Movement began it was non-party political. However, the political party that benefited most was the Progressive Party, a little later renamed as the Country Party.

This happened because the Progressives were new and had no political baggage. They identified with and campaigned for statehood.

The adoption of a unification platform by the Labor Party created some difficulties for members of that Party. This need not have been an impossible difficulty: Frank Forde, for example, who would later be Australian Prime Minister for a brief period was a strong supporter of new states in Queensland. However, in New England in the competition between Progressives, Labor and Nationalists, the close linkages between the Progressives and the New State Movement created an impossible barrier.

The turmoil of the Depression saw the rapid spread of country protest movements including especially new state movements. In the turmoil of the time, these new movements were strongly anti-Labor. Their merger with the Country Party to form the United Country Movement further cemented divides.

The UCM had swept country NSW, becoming a major political force. Its new state leadership was determined to bring about the subdivision of NSW into new states. However, this proved to be a far more complicated task than arguing for statehood for discrete areas such as New England or Riverina with their own sense of identity and new state traditions.

There were conflicts and compromises over suggested boundaries that left many dissatisfied. Some UCM branches in areas such as parts of the central west of NSW with traditionally close links to Sydney were actively opposed to subdivision. Further, as part of the governing UCM/Nationalist coalition, the UCM leadership were all concerned as well with practical governing matters.

The relationships between the new staters and the Progressive/Country Parties and then UCM had brought direct political benefits. These included two NSW Royal Commissions on New States, the Commonwealth Peden Royal Commission into the Constitution, as well as a range of electoral benefits including the Armidale Teachers College and the New England University College. Nevertheless, the formation of merged United Country Movement proved to be something of a poisoned chalice from a new state perspective.

By the time the Nicholas Royal Commission into boundaries reported in 1935, and with the easing of the Depression, political patterns were returning to normal. Support for new states had diminished, the merger of the New England Movement into the UCM meant that it no longer had an independent structure, while many new state supporters who were not necessarily Country Party supporters felt uncomfortable within the UCM structure.

Following the Nicholas Commission, Sir Michael Bruxner as Parliamentary leader of the UCM was offered a referendum in New England, the first step recommended by Nicholas. Bruxner, concerned now that a referendum might be defeated without a renewed education program, declined the offer at that point.

Bruxner would come to regret this decision as did other UCM leaders. However, at that point he had no idea that the Government would lose power at the elections in May 1941, that he would never again be in Government. Regardless of the outcome of any referendum, it was a lost opportunity. Many ordinary new staters also felt betrayed.

Given this history, when the New England Movement was reformed following the Second World War it was consciously non-party political. It also appointed staff to provide campaign continuity.

The non-party political stance did make it easier to attract non-Country Party support. However, Labor remained opposed. The Party was in Government, it had no interest in a separation that meant loss of power and risked putting it into a permanent minority position in a new New England state, while historical enmities remained.

The decision to appoint staff meant that there was now a continuing new state campaign along side the normal political cycles. This led in turn to the launch of Operation Seventh State in 1961, a major fund raising effort that supported greatly increased campaigning. Then, in 1965, the 24 year period of Labor rule finally came to an end. A referendum was promised and delivered.

The Labor Party campaigned hard for a no vote; the plebiscite was lost on the votes in Labor's industrial heartland and in dairying areas that feared loss of their preferential access to the Sydney milk market.

Following the defeat, the Movement entered a new phase when it decided to run new state candidates in selected seats at the 1968 elections in opposition to Country Party members. This caused bitter dissension. The Country Party had delivered on its promise of a plebiscite, while both the parliamentarians and Party members had been strong new state supporters.

The decision to run also provided a test of electoral support in circumstances where every established party was opposed. There was a dedicated new state vote independent of party, but it was not enough at that point to elect candidates in the face of combined party opposition. Exhausted, the Movement largely collapsed.

Issues Arising

While I have discussed some of this history before, I am repeating it here because it shows the interaction over a long period between party politics and the separatist cause.

The linkages between the Country Party and New State Movement gave the Movement added power and brought tangible benefits, but also made it difficult to attract the support it needed across party divides to carry a majority of the electorate in circumstances where one or more of the established parties was opposed.

The landscape today is different. None of the existing parties including the New England independents are strongly new state, but then none of them are strongly anti either. The issue has simply not been on the agenda. Further, with the shift in political fortunes, no political party now has the electoral base to be a natural governing party.

The formation of a specific New England Party faces number of difficulties. Among other things, the NSW Government has introduced rules that make it harder to form parties. For example, under the rules it is already too late to run a Legislative Council ticket at the next election. You have to be ready to go twelve months before an election. There are also difficulties in gaining agreement on policy where the political views of new state supporters span the spectrum from far left to far right.

On the surface, the single most important issue is to gain the promise of another referendum. This is also something that candidates can commit to without necessarily supporting a new state themselves. It's simply a case of let the people decide.

For that reason, my feeling is that a non-party political stance is the best way to go. This would then hold out the possibility at the next election of seeking support from candidates of all parties to support a referendum if elected. At the election itself, how to vote cards could be handed out simply asking people to choose among candidates who have agreed to support a new referendum.

A non-party campaign on New England development and representation would, as it has done in the past, force all parties to consider New England issues. Of itself, that would be a huge gain.        


Greg said...

Jim, I understand your reasoning and can see the logic. But where does that leave us?

Without organisational structure and with no political voice we are going nowhere. Do we kick start a new New State Movement to advance our goal?

I have no doubt that the mood is very different now to at any time in the last 43 years, at least in The Hunter, where there is a deep seated feeling of betrayal and mistrust. That mood could well translate to a yes vote, if only we can get a referendum.

Just how do we get this back on the agenda and in the mainstream media and how do we get a commitment for a new referendum?

Mark said...

Interesting once again Jim. I was studying the link between a new state movement and political parties, especially so, to see which existing political party would be the most supportive and have the strongest voice.

This has brought me to the Nationals. Without going into party politics etc, their platform is everything regional. I also note that they hold the most seats within the consolidated New England area.

On the other hand, your post reminds me of the last republican movement. They were non aligned although had support of the Labor Party and in the end, the referendum results reflected party politics of the day.

And Greg, whilst I drive around the Lower Hunter, I try to understand and compare the electorate then and now. Demographics are changing(slowly in Labor heartland!) and there are more people now that are open minded rather than blinded by generational party views.

With this in mind, I see the best way to get the idea out there is for an influential person to promote it. That link that I added from Mr Lawler is exactly what I mean. A respected community figure whether it is a farmer, businessman, councillor, politician or academic from each sub region to promote the idea.

Jim Belshaw said...

Greg, I have come back to you via email on this one in terms of detail.

My view is that is we are going to get a new referendum while forcing people to better consider New England issues, we need to reform the Movement. I have suggested that we should aim for a convention at Maitland to do this. I suggest Maitland for historical reasons.

A number of intermediate steps are required before we can do this. Here the suggestion is that we target a public meeting at Newcastle to test public support. I think that this is a good idea. How might we do this?

Mark,I take the force of ypur point. Previous new state support in Newcastle came from people like Mr Purdue. Any ideas?

Also, could you email me at ndarala(at)optusnet(dot)com(dot)au? You may have done so, but I am swamped in emails. I want to put you in direct contact with Greg and others.

Mark said...

Jim, at the last state election, a number of locals were running as independants in the view of forming a "Hunter Alliance" of state members with the aim of consolidating support in their efforts for more bread crumbs. These people would be the first I'd entertain the idea to. From memory, they never said the words "new state" but were keen on looking after individual Hunter seats as a whole.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's an interesting idea, Mark.

When I was in Armidale last, I had a chat with one of the original organisers for New England independants who played a role in the first Torbay campaign. I asked about linkages with the the Hunter Valley independants because it seemed a logical fit.

The message I got was that the Hunter Valley people were too focused on immediate lower Hunter issues to see a connection. It would certainly be interesting to know if that was still true.

If you know any of those involved, why not ask?

Greg said...

Jim, I think that you have a point about the Hunter being too heavily focused on Lower Hunter issues, although the Tillegra Dam and Upper Hunter/Central West mining issues have also drawn a lot of attention also to those areas. I don't know of too many issues from further north that get a great deal of media attention in the Hunter.

But I still think that some sort of political link between the Hunter and further north is logical. The grievances are common and the ultimate goal of a better deal (or even self-government) is also common. And as you point out - there is also the shared geography.

One interesting aside is that Newcastle seems to be an attractive option for people from the north and central west seeking city opportunities but not liking the pace of Sydney. I know of a number of people who have relocated here from Dubbo, Coonamble and other north west areas.

They certainly bring their perspective and an appreciation of their home issues to the Lower Hunter.