It may be hard to believe, but at Federation the population of greater Sydney was a bit over 32 per cent of the total NSW population. Even then, the trend towards centralisation was clear.
The 1905-1906 NSW Year Book struggled to explain this. Why was it happening, it asked? Why was NSW already such a city focused, urban based state by global standards?
The reason the Year Book gave lay in the unusual centralisation of activities in Sydney.
Over coming decades, New England leaders fought for decentralisation to reverse this trend. New states were one answer, a variety of decentralisation activities another.
As late as May 1974, official projections prepared by the NSW Department of Decentralisation and Development suggested that the New England-North West population would grow to 238,708 by 2001. Tamworth would grow to 45,613, Armidale still faster to 47,301.
In fact, at the 2006 census the Northern Statistical Division had a population of just 172,395.
If we look at the broader New State New England, between 2001 and 2006, the population of inland New England declined from 211,306 to 207,401, a decline of 3,905 or 1.8 per cent.
Between 2006 and 2009, the estimated resident population of inland New England increased from 201,401 to 211,641, an increase of 4,241 or 2.04 per cent. This is not a big increase, but a small reversal of trend.
Population stagnation in inland New England has been associated with a dramatic decline in the area’s visibility and political importance. Further, because so much planning is based on population projections, inland New England has slipped down the pecking order when it comes to Government services.
Many of us have tried to turn this around.
In 1994 and 1995, for example, we put together a bid for Commonwealth funding for a cooperative multimedia centre in Armidale. The idea was that this would build on the strengths we already had.
A number of us put a fair bit of skin into this. In my case, I acted as a full time unpaid CEO for a considerable period.
We sought support from local member Ray Chappell who was then Minister for Small Business and Regional Development. He obtained a small grant for all of the CMC bidders to help fund the preparation of business plans.
We went back to Ray and said we need more support. If we are going to win against the metro bids including the two Sydney bids with their greater resources, then we need support. We also said that if either or both of the Sydney bids got up, they would have far less long term development paybacks.
Ray explained that the Government could not discriminate between bids from different parts of NSW. All must be treated equally. Further, the Government had problems in providing broader support; this represented intervention.
The Armidale bid went down. Worse, Queensland who had backed their bidders got two CMCs, NSW got just one in Sydney.
This is not a criticism of Ray, simply a reflection on the way Government works.
Growth in inland New England requires direct support if the barriers to growth are to be overcome. That cannot be achieved if everyone has to be treated equally, including those who have benefited from the dynamics of the current system.
In my column of 14 October last year, I ended by suggesting that the migration points system should be heavily skewed towards inland Australia. While I was trying to encourage discussion, there was also a serious point.
All the big Sydney growth spurts have been associated with increased migration. This has fed into building and infrastructure development. Money makes money, so more people have been attracted.
During down times, Sydney’s growth slows to a crawl. People continue to leave Sydney for other parts of Australia including regional NSW, but the number of new migrant arrivals drops. Sydney’s growth drops.
This is why I support reduced migration even though I actually think Australia needs a bigger population.
Reduced migration will have little effect on New England’s population because the population dynamics are not dependant on overseas migration. However, it would strengthen New England’s relative position and, potentially, its absolute position.
In the early 1990s when migration slowed, non-metro NSW actually gained population share compared to Sydney. Stop migration now, and the same thing is likely to happen.
I accept that this is a parochial position. But then, I am parochial.
I see absolutely no gain in a migration program whose effect is to increase metro dominance. If we are to maintain migration, then I want to know how this will help New England.