I have been watching with interest the return of agitation seeking to create further new states in Australia.
An active movement has re-emerged in North Queensland, leading Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser to remark at a community cabinet meeting that North Queensland would never get self-government because Queensland might lose the state of origin.
In a sop to his audience, Mr Fraser did concede that Australia's state boundaries could move as settlement patterns changed, but not until the next century!
In New England, too, agitation has re-appeared, this time centred in the Hunter.
Back in March 2008, Newcastle Herald columnist Jeff Corbett floated the idea of a reformed New State Movement and self-government for the North. He wrote:
“Just think how well off we'd be if the regions of New England, the Hunter and northern NSW could spend all rather than some of their government contributions on themselves.”
Since then, the idea has kept re-surfacing, especially in reader comments on newspaper columns. One here, one there, then a spurt. Now a small but active group exists seeking to reform the New England New State Movement.
Those from Armidale who have been involved with the self-government movement will appreciate the irony. After all, we lost the vote in 1967 on the no vote in Newcastle and the milk producing areas of the lower Hunter and Manning Valley who were frightened of losing their then preferential access to the Sydney milk market.
The yes vote elsewhere was 67 per cent.
In considering the apparent irony of a surge in support for self-government in the Hunter, we need to remember that each wave of New State agitation has come from a different part of New England.
During the colonial period, initial agitation was Tablelands and Clarence based, with the next campaign coming from the Clarence. While these were sporadic, they established a separatist tradition.
Towards the end of the First World War, it was again the Clarence that called for self government. However, the sustained agitation that emerged from 1920 was initially driven out of Tamworth, before spreading widely across the North.
The reformation of the Movement at the end of the Second World War, the start of sustained agitation that culminated in the 1967 plebiscite, was driven from Armidale. Now we have the Hunter.
One of the interesting features of the growth in Hunter Valley interest lies in the source of the new state ideas.
In the forty years since the Movement effectively dissolved in the sometimes bitter local infighting that followed the 1967 loss, there has been almost new state coverage of any type in the Hunter.
So where does the idea come from? Well, talking to some of those involved, a key feature seems to be expressions of regret about the no vote in 1967 from the diminishing number who actively remember it.
One of the new activists, for example, heard about the idea from older unionists who said that we made a mistake. We were loyal, but have been betrayed.
Our activist had never heard of the new state movement, but became interested and started to investigate. This convinced him and led him to seek out others who were interested.
There is a further irony in all this.
When I was Chair of Tourism Armidale, I argued that we should use the fact that Armidale was to be the capital of New England in our promotion.
Yes, part of the idea was that it would help keep the New England dream alive. More importantly, however, it gave Armidale a unique identifying feature that could help the city stand out in a crowded tourism market place.
I could never get this across.
Well, while all the old debates about capital and system of government are still there, there is also a general acceptance of Armidale’s traditional role as capital in waiting.
The new state activist I am talking about was working with someone from Armidale. Enthused, he talked to this person about the need for New England to have statehood, only to find that his colleague knew nothing about the new state cause, nor about Armidale’s role!
I have been asked by my colleagues in the Hunter to see if there is anyone in Armidale who would like to play a role in reviving the New England New State Movement.
If you would like to join the group, please email me and I will put you in touch.
Finally, the attached photo shows a New England New State Movement float in a 1963 Newcastle parade.