Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Hunter Valley calls for New England new state grows

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. 


Greg said...

Great post Jim. The benefit of a historical context is more obvious to me than ever before. It is not just a succession of failed movements. Nor is it a shooting star of a new movement that will quickly burn out and fade. It is part of a long struggle for recognition and self-identity. Each new step forward is taken from a cobblestone laid in the past.

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Greg said...

Jim, Sydney will fight tooth and nail to keep the north part of NSW. About 1 and 1/2 million people would be carved out of NSW to leave the state neck and neck with Victoria in terms of population.

There would also be the loss of massive revenues. $1.2b of coal royalties alone, perhaps another billion dollars of dividends from state owned corporations and utilities in the north, most of the state's power generation plants and about 1/3 of the state's export revenue, among other things.

Once they realize just what they would be letting go there will be panic and another campaign to derail a new state movement. What is for the north a struggle for identity will be for Sydney a struggle for survival as Australia's first state.

Mark said...

I dare say Greg that Barry O'Farrell will sell off the generators and the retailers, basically do what Iemma and Costa tried to do. At least then, that will be one bit of infastructure that wont become a sticking point.

I note that the mayor of Muswellbrook is blowing up about the state budget too. Upper Hunter discontent must co-incide with the Lower Hunter.

Had an interesting conversation with a work colleague last night about the idea of a new state. She agreed that it was a good idea but the amazing is, that coming from the Armidale area, she didn't know about the past.

Greg said...

Mark, did you point your colleague to this site? The ironic thing is that a poor budget for the Hunter is the best thing that could happen. We have a better chance of getting a new state on the agenda if NSW just does what it always has by ignoring the festering sores in the Hunter.

On Monday I told my 21yo daughter about New England and gave her a brief new state history lesson. She immediately signed up to the new state facebook page and started emailing her friends about it. I have never indoctrinated her and was quite surprised that it excited her.

The time has arrived.

Mark said...

Greg, she stated that she was absolutely embarrassed that Newcastle, as the second largest metropolitan area, is an utter joke. A feeling not just in Newcastle City itself, but throughout the Hunter Valley. I also heard that Port Stephens, who have been asking for a major road upgrade for an eternity, instead secured funding for promises made years ago with the ambulance station and police station. This is a phoney budget designed to consolidate votes in key areas.

I'll be sharing this site address with many more over the next few days. Jim should see a spike in traffic hopefully.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi all.

First a non-new state comment. Mr Lonely, while your comment and blog are off-topic, I have left the comment because I found your diary style blog as a Malaysian student interesting.

Mark, don't be too surprised that your Armidale colleague new nothing about the new state movement. Armidale has a transient population, something I have written about. Fewer than 25% were there in 67. The newbies have had very little access to their past. We are re-creating that access!

Greg, on Sydney there is a trade-off. They can cling to the faded dream of a NSW that once was, or they can get on with the task of re-building their city.

Both, one of the fun parts of doing what we are trying to do lies in breaking out of the mold imposed on us by recent history.