Now that the combination of the independents with a resurgence of North Queensland new state interest has put new states back on the agenda, I have watched with a degree of bemusement as the same old arguments against are re-cycled.
It is now 150 years since the first attempt to create a new state in Northern New South Wales. From 1915, there were waves of sustained agitation for New England self-government. The name New England itself was adopted at a convention in Maitland in 1932. This agitation forced, among other things, two Royal Commissions in NSW, a Commonwealth Royal Commission into the constitution and the formation of an all-party Commonwealth Parliamentary inquiry into the constitution. The agitation also led, among other things, to the creation first of the Armidale Teachers College and then the New England University College to provide tertiary education for the North.
In 1967, a plebiscite on self-government for Northern New South Wales was just defeated following fierce opposition by the then Labor Party in NSW. The Party was concerned that it would become the permanent opposition in Northern New South Wales.
The graphic shows the back of a New England New State Movement envelope. These are the boundaries as recommended in 1935 by the Nicholas Royal Commission.
The New England New State Movement collapsed in the bitter infighting that followed the 1967 plebiscite defeat. There have been a number of attempts since then to revive the cause, but these failed to grab. However, over the last six months, we have seen the slow emergence of a more structured campaign, with the drive coming from the Hunter.
Some years ago, I said to Jack Arnold (a fellow supporter of self-government for New England) that our biggest problem in reviving the New England New State Movement lay in the almost complete loss of folk memory over the years since 1967. In essence, we had lost our history. That was part of the reason that I began this blog in April 2006. I wanted to preserve and re-present the New England story, to provide a vehicle for the re-articulation of common concerns. Since then I have blogged away with a combination of current events, Northern history, new state stories and straight Northern promotion.
For those who know nothing of the New England Movement, History of the New England New State Movement 2 - defining New England, provides something of a short introduction.
This flier sets out some of the arguments used by the Movement to justify its cause. They remain valid today.
One of the problems now, and this applies in North Queensland as well, is that, in forgetting our past, the arguments now begin again from scratch. Listening to the media commentary, I felt a strong sense of deja vu. Our opponents are using just the same arguments! Just as bad, supporters are also reinventing the wheel. I have heard very little from North Queensland that references current activities back to the past.
Certain things have changed in the 43 years since the plebiscite defeat. New England's relative structural decline has continued, despite population growth along the coastal strip. The area has become more fragmented. Commonwealth-state financial relations have changed.
Perhaps the most important change since 1967 is that we now know that most of the arguments used to support the No case have been invalidated by time.
Labor would not have been in a permanent minority. Fear of loss of the preferential access to the Sydney milk market that swung the vote in the dairy areas of the lower Hunter and around is no longer relevant. Those farmers lost that access anyway and quite quickly. The arguments that our needs could be met by the Sydney Government have been invalidated by time. They haven't been.
Another thing that has changed is that we now have a far better understanding of the way existing systems work against us. I explored this a little in my Why I Remain a New England New Stater series. It is no coincidence that some of us like me or Paul Barratt remain new staters. It's not just our emotional ties to the North, it's also the fact that as former senior public servants we know how the system works. In addition, my own work on the history of New England threw a clear lime-light on the gains
As new state support began to increase in New England, old arguments began to emerge. There was also a strong interest among new Hunter supporters in the Movement's past. It quickly became clear that there was a simple need to document and explain past arguments, leading to my still to be completed New State Arguments series. Even at this point, I hope that you can see that the arguments now suddenly put forward against are both old and in some ways simply crass.
The next photo shows a new state float from Newcastle in the lead up to the 1967 plebiscite. The Young Northerners Club was a youth group that began in Newcastle and then spread north.
Even at this level of detail, I hope that I have demonstrated that the New England self-government cause is not new; that the arguments for and against have been well thrashed out in the past; and, most importantly, that the desire to create new states is not a strange idiosyncratic phenomenon, but reflects deeply long held views that reflect both a sense of regional identity and a desire to reform the Governmental systems in this country to better meet the needs of the people.
The next photo looks like just a lunch group, and indeed it was. However, it was not without significance.
This is the first formal meeting of the re-emerging Northern or New England New State Movement. The people present come from different parts of the Lower Hunter, Armidale and Sydney.
Local Government has been driving the move in North Queensland. In New England, we are working bottom up, a much slower process. Not one member of this little gathering had in fact met prior to the lunch. Our links were formed by the internet.
The sense of enthusiasm was palpable. Indeed, we all had cameras because we wanted to record the event!
The outcome of the meeting was the formalisation of a steering committee with members across Northern NSW to guide the overall reformation of the Movement, along with the creation of a Hunter Valley Branch. Small stuff I know, but when you have lost your past you have to start small!
From our collective viewpoints, just having people to talk to who shared the concern for Northern self-government and for Northern development was quite wonderful.
So far, we have been keeping the discussions somewhat below the radar. From my viewpoint as the group historian, it has been wonderful having people who want to learn about our past to provide a base for our future. We have to educate ourselves and re-create agreement on common issues before we can launch in a hugely public way.This is actually not easy, because so much has been lost.
The next graphic shows part of the original anthem of the New England New State Movement.
I suppose like most anthems, it has a rah-rah element. yet I remember how moved I was as a sixteen year old when I first heard it.
I was an usher at the Armidale convention that launched Operation Seventh State, the large campaign that culminated in the lost 1967 plebiscite. The lights dimmed, the spotlight shone on the New England flag, while an operatic singer sang the anthem.
Today we are building from a much smaller base. Yet the idea of working for New England, fighting for New England, fighting for our liberty still resonates. We want freedom within the Federation, freedom to do our own thing and to make our own mistakes.
None of us are naive. We know how hard it is to get real change. But if you don't try, nothing happens. In trying to reform the movement, our present objectives are two-fold:
- By networking people across New England, we hope to create a common focus that will force Governments to take New England needs into account. Here we are trying to overcome the factional pottage based marginal seats approach that simply fragments.
- We also hope to make the achievement of another plebiscite a major issue at the next NSW State elections.
If you would like to join us in discussing New England's future, there are several things that you can do: