Sunday, August 15, 2010

New states, history and the sense of Northern identity

One of the things that's interesting but also a bit depressing about about the present growth of interest in new states is the way it draws out our own loss of history.

There are four major regions in Australia at sub-state level that have had a very strong sense of their own identity over time - Riverina, Northern NSW, Capricornia and North Queensland. Not coincidentally, these are also the regions where the desire for statehood expressed through separatist agitation has been a regular manifestation of the sense of identity.

In Australian historical terms, we are talking big sweeps of history.

In Northern NSW, the first new state agitation was associated with the agitation that resulted in the separation of Queensland (1859). From then until the turn of the century, there were sporadic outbreaks that laid down a separatist tradition. Then, in the twentieth century, you has a renewed demand for statehood at Grafton in 1915 that flowed through into a sustained wave of agitation that lasted until the mid twenties. Then there was another wave from 1930 to 1935, followed by a further wave from 1949 to 1967. Since then, demand for statehood has resurfaced from time to time, with another still small wave underway now.

How does all this link to loss of history? Well, if you look at the discussion presently taking place in North Queensland, you will see that there is very little reference to the past. To a degree, everything is being discovered afresh.

Does this matter? I think that it does and at several levels.

To begin with, there is no point in re-inventing the wheel. Most of the arguments for and against statehood have been well thrashed out and over a long period. Of course, their exact manifestation has changed as circumstances change, but the core arguments have not changed.

This loss of history is most damaging to those supporting self-government, for it allows the anti-side to present the desire for self-government as a strange minority view, a quirk, rather than the long running expression of regional desire. It also allows the anti-side to get away with flip and shallow expressions of opposition that have in fact been long-discredited.

The loss of history also matters because it accentuates divisions.

One feature of all the areas that have sought self-government in a sustained way is that they are large enough to have their own internal divisions. We can see this clearly in New England's history.

Attempts to gain east-west rail connections, for example, essentially foundered on the claims and counter claims of tablelands and coastal towns. Disputes over free trade and protection created divides between and within regions depending on the economic base, while political differences also divided. These divisions were in turn played on for purposes of power and politics.

The new state cause was one of the key unifying forces that helped create a unifying sense of identity. As the new state cause declined after 1967, so the knowledge of New England's history declined. The two fed on each other, accentuating division. I spoke of one aspect of this in a seminar paper I delivered in Armidale earlier this year. There I said in part:  

This paper follows my personal journey in attempting to write a history of the broader New England. I will talk a little about names and naming later. For the present, I simply note that when I talk about the broader New England, I mean the Northern Tablelands and its surrounding rivers to the north, south, west and east.

I say unrecognised, because the area that I am talking about has no formal identity. You will not find it on any map. I say now almost unknown, because the tides of history, and of fashions in the writing of history, have overtaken the area, its interests and activities. Things once considered important have been increasingly relegated to a sentence, a footnote, or just ignored.

Writing about an entity that does not formally exist in historical terms is always problematic. Yet in all the research and writing I have done, New England keeps peeking through as an entity. It does so because of the combination of, the interaction between, geography and history.

From Aboriginal times, New England has been marked by north-south and east-west patterns of movement centred on the Tablelands and river valleys. The patterns of early European settlement strengthened both the north-south and east-west links.

The relationships between those two geographic axis is part of the New England story. The first new state boundaries centred on the east-west axis. The airline name East-West Airlines reflected the east-west focus. Yet East-West ended up flying north-south, as had the earlier Lismore based New England Airways. Driven by geography, the later new state boundaries progressively combined both the east-west and north-south linkages.

Today, the administrative boundaries and patterns of political influence within New England still reflect those old geographic patterns, although the east-west axis has become somewhat attenuated as Sydney and Brisbane have grown in influence relative to the North.

The naming of and boundaries attached to New England reflect the shifting sands of history and of historical knowledge.

Initially the area was simply called the Northern Districts, Northern Provinces or just the North, a geographical identifier based on relationships to Sydney. The creation of Queensland broke the geographic unity by putting a political boundary across the top of the North. The Aborigines suffered first, because that line bisected language groups; the same peoples were placed in different jurisdictions. Then the rest of the far North suffered because of the way that policies based on political divides came to affect the pattern of economic and social life.

From 1932, the name New England was adopted for the whole area as a specific local identifier independent of the previous Sydney connection. By 1967 there were two New Englands, the New England to identify the New England Tablelands and New England, the name for the whole area. Then, from 1967 as the new state cause declined and sense of Northern identity diminished, usage of the name New England diminished, shrank back towards the Tablelands and Western Slopes. The rise and decline of the name New England is itself a proxy for the rise and decline of the sense of Northern identity.  

The term North or Northern NSW continued, if becoming progressively sloppier and ill-defined. Yet despite all the administrative boundary changes, despite demographic, political and economic change, despite the decline in New England historical writing (this peaked around 1980), the idea of Northern identity continues.

In recent years, the writing of history about New England has once again been on the rise. Reflecting the fragmentation of the North, it's more localised than in the past. Yet it's there and is providing a renewed base for broader analysis.

I find it interesting that the new interest in our history preceded the renewed interest in the North and the new state cause. You see, in the past, the new state agitation actually preceded and indeed caused the writing of New England history. This time, and building on that previous base, a renewed interest in our history is actually refuelling our own sense of identity.

I find that kind of satisfying.        


Anonymous said...

Great post again Jim.

This story might appear somewhat at a tangent to your post, but if you bear with me you will see that there is a link (albeit tenuous).

Today my wife and I enjoyed a pleasant lunch and stroll around the old Newcastle CBD and Newcastle East. This place never ceases to amaze and enchant me. The streetscapes and wonderful mix of architecture from colonial (the old police lockup and telegraph buildings) to Neo Classical, Edwardian, Art Deco, English Terraces and Modern. It is a treasure trove all wedged in a small area bordered by a fascinating working port and stunning beaches and coastline.

I later found myself in the the Great Northern Hotel enjoying a drink and chatting to the bar staff. For those of you not familiar to Newcastle, this was once one of the finest hotels in Australia and one of the best examples of art deco architecture. It is now sadly in need of a lot of money to restore it to it's former glory and is in some respects symbolic of Newcastle in general. The two female bar workers were from Ottawa in Canada and also Canberra. Both had traveled widely and had decided to settle in Newcastle for no other reason than that they were charmed by the place, the mix of old and new, the pace of life, the people and the whole feel of the city.

In the case of the young lady from Canberra, she was rather ignorant about Newcastle history (perhaps not surprisingly). But even the most obvious and basic things were unknown - that Newcastle was once a penal colony for the repeat offenders from Sydney Town, that it is the second oldest European settlement on mainland Australia (the original settlement in 1801 failed and it was re-established in 1804 the year after the establishment of Hobart), that it was once home to the BHP steelworks and was the centre of the nations heavy manufacturing, that it was shelled by the Japanese in WWII and that Fort Scratchley's 6" guns are the only coastal guns ever to be fired in anger in Australia, that an earthquake devastated the city in 1989 and that the "Pasha" storm also had a devastating effect as recently as 2007.

I found it quite distressing that such basic history and even recent major events could be either unknown to anyone but local history buffs or forgotten so quickly. The same thing seems to have happened to New England history to and the new state movement. It has been relegated to a footnote.

If you lose your history, you lose your sense of self-identity.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's an interesting comment. I actually wrote a post on the Great Northern

I love the old Newcastle. It's a real problem that so much has been forgotten. You seem the same thing in Armidale, and its not unique to these two places.

Part of the problem we have is simply lack of imagination. People want to measure themselves against other places, rather than focusing on what they have that is unique. Newcastle can't win comparing itself to Sydney. It can win if it looks at itself!