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 began his blog post:
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 been slowly gaining traction in discussion and in comments on newspaper stories and indeed on this blog. See, for example, the comments on the 11 May 2010 Herald story on Cessnock City Council planning powers.
There has in fact been a fair bit of discussion on and off over the last twenty years about new states in general and self-government for New England in particular. Ian Johnston's one man campaign is an example. I think that those interested, me included at one point, thought that simply putting the matter on the table would re-ignite interest. However, while these kept the idea alive, they failed to gain the traction necessary to restart full agitation.
In discussions with Jack Arnold from Armidale on Ian's campaign, I put the problem this way: we have lost so much of history and folklore that people don't have a framework any more. All the various calls for sub-division or New England statehood were essentially starting from scratch instead of being seen as another stage in a long-running campaign. The sense of Northern or New England identity had become attenuated, diminished.
You can see this process if you look at work done at the University of New England. At its foundation, this university seen as a central part of the infrastructure required to create a New England new state and indeed took its regional role very seriously.
One outcome was a wave of research and writing into different aspects of New England history and life. One example was the way the combination of New State agitation with academic research and writing maintained a focus on decentralisation throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Another example was the focus on regional extension activities. A third was a wave of historical research; theses, research papers, articles and books. This explains why the history of Northern NSW including Aboriginal times is the best documented of all Australian regional areas.
From the 1980s much of this activity progressively eroded. This was partially due to institutional factors, changes within the University itself, in funding arrangements for universities and in the broader and sometimes disastrous impact of changing Australian Government approaches to higher education. However, it was also due to loss of the focus and momentum previously created by the existence of active new state agitation.
The University's specialist regional history collection provides an an interesting example. The original geographic boundaries were based on the new state boundaries. However, with the passage of time the boundaries were altered from the new state boundaries to northern LGA boundaries, while the Hunter was excluded. The new state origins became a footnote.
Another symptom was the progressive decline in regional historical research measured by theses and research papers. This was a loss not just to New England, but to non-metropolitan history in general. The word decentralisation dropped from policy usage.
In saying all this I am not being critical of UNE, nor am I oblivious of the work done by, say, Newcastle University in documenting the history of the Hunter. I am concerned with the broad pattern.
To my mind, the most striking change since Jeff Corbett wrote his 2008 column has been the re-birth of interest in New England (Northern) history. Like most changes, this actually began a little earlier. However, you can see it clearly now in, for example, discussion on this blog and on the new New England New State Movement Facebook page.
Sure numbers are still small: 44 members on the Facebook page, some six who have put their hands up to join a group planning a Newcastle public meeting to test public feeling for a re-launch. However, beyond this is now a constant bubble of public discussion.
Those further north may see a sense of irony in the fact that the key agitation this time is coming from the Hunter. After all, it was the votes in Newcastle and, to a lesser extent, the dairying industries of the lower Hunter and Manning Valley frightened of losing access to the Sydney milk market that cost us the yes vote in 1967. However, this misses a key point.
Each re-birth of new state agitation has come from a different area.
In the nineteenth century, it was the Clarence Valley and part of the Tablelands. Towards the end of the First World War it was the Clarence. From 1920 it was Tamworth. Then, from the end of the Second World War, it was Armidale. Each new burst has been triggered by local grievances that then gathered broader support.
Now it's the Hunter's turn.
The first call in the Hunter for the creation of a Northern New State came from the decentralisation movement of the 1880s. Yes, that early. This was a mass movement concerned about metro dominance that began in Victoria and then spread. This is where the later popular term decentralisation came from.
I have absolutely no problem with the Hunter as part of New England, nor the fact that it is Hunter people who are driving. I just glory in that fact that for the first time for many years there are people who want to talk about what new states mean, who are interested in their history, who want to know about past analysis and conclusions.
I have no idea whether this interest will translate to a sustained movement. I just know that for the first time for many years there are people prepared to look at the broader New England, to fight the divide and rule policy that has emasculated collective analysis and action.
Achievement of New England self government is necessarily a longer term objective. Achievement of local and regional gains through collective action is an immediate benefit. I think that that's pretty good.