Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Nathan Tinkler's Dartbrook coal play

I hope that you had a happy and peaceful Christmas.

The proposed sale of the mothballed Dartbrook coal mine Anglo American plc to the Nathan Tinkler controlled Australia Pacific Coal (Stock Exchange ticker AQC) for a price of up to $A50 million (here, here, here) has been greeted with a degree of incredulity and indeed anger in some quarters.

Under the terms of the deal, AQC will acquire:
  • Anglo American's 83.33% interest in the Dartbrook JV
  • a 100% interest in Anglo Coal (Dartbrook Management) Pty Ltd, manager of the Dartbrook JV 
  • a 83.33% interest in Dartbrook Coal (Sales) Pty Ltd, marketing agent of the Dartbrook JV (
The consideration for the acquisition includes:
  • a A$25 million cash payment
  • a royalty over AQC’s share of coal from the Dartbrook joint venture at a rate of A$3.00 per tonne of coal sold or otherwise disposed of and A$0.25 per tonne of any third party coal processed through the Dartbrook infrastructure, but capped at A$25 million (subject to escalation in accordance with CPI). 
  • in addition, the Company will be replacing approximately A$7.7 million in financial assurances in respect of the Dartbrook mining tenements.
You can see what Mr Tinkler is trying to achieve. Anglo American is in a degree of trouble world wide, and is seeking to slash 85,000 jobs. Dartbrook is on a care and maintenance basis, is quite surplus to requirements, while coal prices are very low. It wants out. From Mr Tinkler's perspective, the mining and transport infrastructure is there, while the coal is high quality thermal coal that can be extracted more cheaply if the present underground mine is replaced by an open cut. His aim is a low cost coal mine that will be profitable once coal prices recover somewhat, highly profitable is if coal prices increase significantly, creating either an asset for sale or a cash flow that can be used to support other projects. He is, in fact, trying to replicate the process that gave him his original fortune.

I am not privy to the numbers, but they could well stack up in commercial terms. However, the AQC statement to the Exchange seems remarkably sanguine on two points: the first the likelihood of community support, the second the expectation that environmental approvals will be relatively easy to obtain given nearby mines. Every Hunter Valley coal proposal now meets fierce environmental opposition, while too many people are owed money from Mr Tinkler's previous ventures to provide a basis of trust. Even the unions which normally support mining ventures because of the jobs provided are extremely cautious because of Mr Tinkler's involvement. .    

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Season's Greetings amid memories of Christmases past

I am shutting down for the Xmas break. Publication will resume on the thirtieth

Christmas is a very special time for all of us, marked by our own family rituals.

Growing up, Christmas began with a pine branch buried in a pot. Downtown, brother David and I visited Coles and Penneys with our money clutched in our hands to buy presents.

On Christmas Eve people came round to our house for drinks. We had to go to bed, but were allowed to stay up for a while to meet people.

Christmas Day dawns. On our bed is a Santa sack full of presents. We play with these waiting for our parents to wake up. They do, and we get our presents from them. One year this was an Indian outfit for us both, made by Mum using whatever she could find from sacking to old belts to feathers collected from the chooks and died.

Mid morning and we go down to Fah and Gran’s, a block away in Mann Street. This was always open house for our grandparents’ friends and electorate workers. The Mackellars who managed Forglen, Fah’s property, were always there with eldest my age. We talk to people and go outside to play.

Once people have gone, we get another set of presents from our grandparents and aunts. Then to Christmas lunch, always a roast chook. We kids sit in a little sun room off the main dining room.

After lunch we play, rolling down the grass slopes. Sometimes there are special events. I remember one Christmas a piper played, striding up and down the lawns at the back of the house.

Later we go up to the Halpins for late afternoon Christmas drinks.

Time passes. I am living in Canberra, joining the great New England diaspora.

Neville Crew’s 1960s’ research showed that for every one person living on the Tablelands there was one Tablelands’ born person living elsewhere. This pattern is replicated across the broader New England, from the lower Hunter to the boarder. As best as I can work out, if we count those born in the broader New England plus their immediate children, we are talking about more than a million people.

By bus, car, plane and train, many of us try to come home, meeting old friends.

The last time I saw Zivan Milanovich was on the train. Zivan’s dad Branco was groundsman at TAS. I knew Branco, but only in a formal sense. By contrast, Zivan and I were in scouts together, 2nd Armidale Troop. We were mates.

I suppose that 2nd Armidale still has a bob a job week equivalent. That year Zivan and I decided to clean shoes in Beardy Street. We stood there, but no one came. Finally we overcame our shyness, started spruking and approaching people. The cash rolled in. I think that we both learned an important lesson, the way in which you have to stand outside yourself to be successful.

Those Christmases were very special times as those dispersed over tens of thousands of miles came together.I know that you all have your own rituals and memories.

I wish you and your a safe and happy Christmas and a successful new year. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Impact on New England of the proposed redistribution of Federal seats

In the first decade of the twentieth century when New South Wales had 28 seats in the Federal Parliament, inland New England had two seats. On the latest proposed redistribution of Federal seats, New South Wales will have 47 seats. inland New England will have just one seat. That's a measure of relative decline, but there is more to it than that.


The Australian Constitution (section 24) lays down the basis for the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives. The critical starting point is the number of senators. The number of members in the House of Representatives is to be twice the number of senators. After that, the distribution of seats among the states is based on relative population. The constitution is silent on the seats for territories such as the ACT, but each seat for the territories reduces the number of senators available for the states.

Within the constitution, the process of determining the allocation of seats is set by the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 as amended from time to time. There used to be a provision that allowed for a weighting for country seats, but that was replace by what was called "one vote, one value."  This is enshrined in Section 73 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act.  This provides:
  • The allocation of seats between states based on the latest population subject to the absolute number not exceeding that set by the constitution 
  • the calculation of an average divisional (electorate) enrollment for the state or territory as a whole based on the number set by the number of seats in each state or territory
  • the definition of electoral boundaries based on that number taking into account things such as community of interest. 
  • To provide some flexibility,. the actual numbers in each electorate (division) can be in the range 3.5% higher or lower than the average In special circumstance (this is not defined), this variance can be extended to 10%.  
  • In no case, can the total number of seats exceed the number of seats allocated by the constitution.  

The New South Wales population as a proportion of the Australian population has been declining. Within NSW, the New England proportion of the NSW population has been declining. That long term structural decline is one of the drivers for those of us supporting New England self government. We don't accept that decline as inevitable We want to do something about it. The effect is that NSW loses seats and that, within NSW, New England loses seats.

In November 2014, the Electoral Commissioner issued his determination stating that New South Wales would lose a seat for the next election, reduced from 48 to 47 seats, while Western Australia would gain a seat, increasing from 15 to 16 seats. The draft boundaries subsequently released for NSW proposed  the abolition of one seat within the broader New England, the lower Hunter Seat of Charlton. This change was associated with significant boundary shifts summarised in the table below drawn from the ABC.

On the North Coast, all the seat boundaries have had to shift south in order to gain numbers. In the Hunter boundaries have gone all over the place, partly as a consequence of the seat lost, partly because of the boundary shifts in the North Coast seats. Inland, the seat of New England has lost Gunnedah to to the seat of Parkes, gained Gwydir Shire from Parkes plus the Upper Hunter. Parkes has become a mega seat in geographic terms, occupying most of Western NSW and growing from 257 to 402 thousand square kilometres. All of New England's Western Plains plus some of the Western Slopes are now submerged in Parkes.

Responses to the proposed boundaries closed on 13 December with almost 800 responses received. The Commission has to finalise boundaries by February 2013.

Electorate Old Margin % New Margin % Comments
Charlton ALP 9.2 - Abolished, see Hunter.
Cowper NAT 11.7 NAT 13.1 Shifts south, losing areas north of Coffs Harbour to Page while gaining Port Macquarie from Lyne.
Hunter ALP 3.7 ALP 6.2 Gains most of the electorate of Charlton, loses Maitland and Kurri Kurri to Paterson, Kandos and Rylstone to Calare and areas around Scone to New England.
Lyne NAT 14.8 NAT 14.2 Loses Port Macquarie to Cowper and gains Forster-Tuncurry and everything north of Port Stephens from Paterson.
New England NAT 20.7 NAT 20.2 Loses Gunnedah to Parkes while gaining areas around Scone from Hunter and Bingara and Warialda from Parkes.
Newcastle ALP 8.8 ALP 9.4 Loses Beresfield and Woodberry to Paterson, gains areas around Wallsend from Charlton.
Page NAT 2.5 NAT 3.1 Loses Ballina to Richmond in exchange for areas around Nimbin, while also gaining areas between the Clarence River and northern Coffs Harbour from Cowper.
Paterson LIB 9.8 ALP 1.3 Transformed into a notional Labor seat after losing Forster-Tuncurry and everything north of Port Stephens to Lyne while gaining Maitland and Kurri Kurri from Hunter and Beresfield and Woodberry from Newcastle.
Richmond ALP 3.0 ALP 1.8 Loses the area around Nimbin to Page in exchange for Ballina.
Shortland ALP 7.2 ALP 7.1 Gains areas around the northern end of Lake Macquarie from Charlton.


The table below summarises the political impact of the changes based on votes at the last election. Not unexpectedly, the Liberal Party wishes to see changes, To get the results they desire. they propose transferring Glen Innes and Tenterfield into the coastal seat of Page. This then allows restructuring of the proposed boundaries on the Coast and in the Hunter. The effect would be, I think, a reduction of one ALP seat in return for a Liberal seat.

Party Previous New
ALP 5 5
National 4 4
Liberal 1 0
Total 10 9

Not unexpectedly, the sheer increase in the size of the seat of Parkes has drawn opposition. The intent of the one vote one value changes was to get rid of the previous bias towards country seats. The effect of one vote one value has been to reduce the effectiveness of country representation. How one responds to that depends on the weighting placed on the local role of the MP.

The sheer scale of the changes on the North Coast and in the Hunter has drawn widespread criticism because of the ways in which the boundaries split local government areas and all the ancillary things such as tourism promotion bodies.Instead of working with one MP, people will have to work with two whose territories include competing interests.

Inland, the main objection has come from Gwydir Shire who wish to be in Parkes on the grounds of community of interest especially with Moree.

There are no easy answers. Further, the position is only going to get worse with current population trends. At either the next redistribution or the one after that, I haven't fully crunched the numbers, NSW will lose another seat and again that will come from New England. Getting half way decent local representation is becoming an increasing problem.   

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Armidale's a day on the green

By all accounts, today's  a day on the green held at Petersen's Wines on the outskirts of Armidale was a great success. It's a beautiful venue.

Mind you, it was hot. Armidale may be known as Balmydale for several reasons, but one is definitely the normal summer climate. But this time! Not as hot as its been elsewhere during the current heatwave, mind you, but at 33c still very hot. You would definitely have needed a hat.

Promoted by Roundhouse Entertainment, a day on the green began in Victoria with a first show on Australia Day 2001. Now a day on the green runs in the summer months from October – March with around 30 concerts per season in major wine-growing regions around Australia.

Before going on, local State MP Adam Marshall was clearly enjoying himself!

In addition to the Petersen's Armidale wine gig, there are two other vineyards with New England connections, Bimbadgen Wines at Pokolbin, Sirromet Wines in the Queensland Granite Belt.

It's remarkable how few people realise that Queensland's Granite Belt is actually the most northern part of the New England Tablelands. That border really creates a very peculiar myopia!

Both Bimbadgen Wines and Sirromet Wines host more events than Petersen's for a very simple reason.

Pokolbin is about two hours from Sydney, attracting visitors from there as well as Newcastle and the Lower Hunter. Stanthorpe is about two and a half hours from Brisbane.and attracts visitors from there as well as the Darling Downs. Unlike Pokolbin which competes with Orange and Mudgee as well as Canberra area vineyards, Stanthorpe has the South East Queensland market to itself.

While smaller, the Armidale event is now drawing people from across Northern New South Wales, making for a considerable crowd.  


Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Regional development: Austarm success story

Rather a nice story on Queensland Country Life about New England woolgrower turned Rob Ward.

Mr Ward's Austarm Machinery sources hardy Australian-built tillage, seeding and spray equipment and ground engaging tools for buyers in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

From his base at Armidale, Mr Ward identifies and sources gear across eastern Australia to meet orders from customers as diverse as land barons in Kazakhstan, to mixed croppers in Botswana and agricultural aid initiatives with African villages. Australia's minimum- and zero-till revolution of the past three decades has contributed significantly to his export success.
I will leave you to read the full story. I found it interesting as someone who tried to establish an international business from an Armidale base and knows how hard it is. After initial success, the business finally went down in the recession of the early 1990s. We were one of a number of Armidale start-ups at the time that centred on high technology or professional services and that, for a period, seemed likely to give Armidale a new economic base. In the end, most closed or moved, in part because of the cost effects of very high air fares for businesses that depended on constant domestic travel. In our case, air fares were our second biggest expenditure item after salaries. 
I must try to write up the story of those days for they have lessons for development discussions today. . For the moment, Austarm seems to have a business model that is location independent but firmly based on Australian technical advantage.   

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

New England and the cloying effects of imposed uniformity

In UK and the local benefits of devolution, I looked at the way in which devolution had benefited areas of the UK though greater local freedom and power. In this, the second of my posts reflecting on the lessons for New England from the experience gained on my European trip, I look at the cloying effects of the uniformity imposed on New England by current Governmental structures and practices, focusing especially on tourism.

To set a broad context for the discussions that follows, Scotland has an area of 73,387 square k, Wales 20,761 square k, England 130,395 square k. By contrast, NSW is 809,444 square k. So very much bigger.

England and especially Scotland and Wales glory in their differences. Difference from each other, but also differences within. These are matters to promote, to glory in, sometimes to fight over.

This is Jedburgh in the Scottish border country. Each part of the border country - the boundaries have varied over time - has its own character. This is expressed in tourism material, in books and other cultural material.

Centrally imposed variations in boundaries do affect local identity and complicate promotion, just as they do in Australia. However, UK areas seem better able to withstand these external pressures in retaining and presenting their heritage.

This is a scene from the English Lake District. In Australian drive time terms, it's quite close to the border country. The printed tourism material on the Lake District runs to hundreds of pages. Individual destinations promote themselves, but the focus is on the totality, on using a particular place as a base, but then moving around.

Further south, you find the same pattern in the Cotswolds, a stretch of hill country roughly 25 miles (40 km) across and 90 miles (145 km) long, stretching south-west from just south of Stratford-upon-Avon to just south of Bath. The picture postcard villages are a major attraction, with the attraction lying not just in the individual locality but in the totality of nearby attractions.This is important because no centre has enough attractions on its own to justify a longish stay.

This applies even in the nearby town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace.  Stratford is about the same size as Armidale in population terms.

Mind you, Stratford is HQ of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Employing 700 people whose theatre has just undergone a £112.8 million upgrade. I wrote on our visit to Stratford in Watching Henry V on the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt.

Armidale, by contrast, struggles to build a new library and theatre complex even though it is a major cultural centre. But then, neither the NSW or Australian Governments would even consider supporting something of the scale of Stratford's theatre extension in a regional centre.

Regional areas in the UK have certain advantages. Both populations and visitor numbers are higher. I haven't checked the number, but I suspect that Stratford gets more visitors in total than all of Northern NSW. I
suspect that the little village of Grasmere  in the Lake's District gets more visitors than any New England centre.

That said, we are left with a number of questions.

Why aren't local and regional differences properly recognized and promoted within the broader New England? Why don't people know about them? Why are all of the NSW "great cultural institutions" in Sydney? To put this last in perspective, the British Museum, truly one of the world's great cultural institutions, is actually a bit player in UK cultural and tourism promotion. There are no tourism promotions that focus on the capital cities as such unless, of course, they are funded by those cities.

I have really struggled with this, especially when I was actively involved in tourism promotion. I think that three factors are in play.

The first is the factional system of politics that evolved during the nineteenth century and which played local area against local area with benefits for votes. This translated into intense local parochialism only partially overcome by broader movements such as the new state movements. Each local area wanted to promote its own thing, even though this would be self defeating in the end. This continues today.

The second was the actual denial of regional difference. This worked its way through the school system with its emphasis, on uniformity but extended beyond that into various forms of official expression. Difference was recognised, but this was generally expressed in narrow geographic terms. The idea of historical or cultural difference was rejected.

The third was the differential in population terms between Sydney and individual centres elsewhere in NSW. Until quite recently, aggregate populations were not so dwarfed by Sydney. This was concealed by emphasis on locality as opposed to broader areas. More importantly, there were constant variations in regional boundaries and regional approaches dictated by central needs that made it impossible to create consistent approaches, especially in visitor promotion.

In all, the effect was the outcome I described in the heading, the imposition of a cloying uniformity. This still exists, nor is immediate change likely. Until change happens, improved regional performance is unlikely.  
. .

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

UK and the local benefits of devolution

I have just come back from a trip to Denmark and the UK, This is the first of several posts reflecting on the lessons for New England from the experience. The photo shows one view of the Welsh capital, Cardiff, from the castle.

When I was first in the UK for an extended period, devolution had yet to occur.The arguments used against self-government for Scotland and Wales were very similar to those previously used against self-government for New England. Scotland and Wales were too small, they had nothing to gain. Further, those who had opposed New England self-government on the grounds that Australia needed fewer, not more states, constantly pointed to the UK to support their case.

Scotland has a population of around 5.3 million, capital city Edinburgh (Scotland's second city) has a population around 493,000, 1.33 million in the greater Edinburgh region.Wales has a population of 3.09 million, Cardiff 346,000. Northern Ireland a population of 1.81 million. To put these numbers in context, England has a population of 53 million, of which 12-14 million live in Greater London depending on the definition used.

You can see that in demographic terms, Wales and Scotland are totally dwarfed by England. Both were effectively swamped, lacking in influence within a then rigid party system.   .  .

The wheel turns.As a consequence of constant agitation especially in Scotland that threatened to tear the Union apart, power was progressively devolved from Westminster.This could never have happened without that constant agitation. Now as I walked the streets, I could see some of the results.

This  is the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, capacity over 72,000. The nearest Newcastle equivalent is in Newcastle, an open air stadium with a capacity of 33,000 thousand.

It wasn't just the new or rebuilt institutions, but the focus on local character and interests, the buzz in the streets, the presence of young people. .

Now that the benefits of devolution have become clearer, North England (population 14.5 million) too is starting to demand some measure of devolution as a way of reducing London dominance. 

All this means that that the UK has moved from an argument against new states to a case study of the way that local benefits can flow.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Spring Soiree at NERAM (New England Regional Art Museum) 11 September 2015

NERAM has invited all those who would like to attend to come to a Spring Soiree at NERAM
11 September 2015 - 5:30pm.

The Spring Celebration is intended to welcome NERAM's new Director, a new Café and a new Season ahead!
  • Meet Robert Heather, incoming Director at NERAM.
  • Enjoy finger food from the new café, Studio 52. 
  • Buy wine by the glass from the Friends of NERAM.
  • Complimentary non-alcoholic drinks available.
If you want to come you must let NERAM know. Just to tempt you this is a piece from the permanent collection

About Robert:

Robert Heather comes to NERAM from the State Library of Victoria where he was manager of events and exhibitions, and before that, director of Artspace in Mackay, and executive director of the Regional Galleries Association of Queensland. He has also worked at Cairns Regional Gallery and the Queensland Art Gallery.

About Studio 52:

David Thomas and Phil Tutt come to NERAM from Trina's in Uralla, where they established a reputation for great food and service. They are looking forward to providing the same quality service and varied menu at NERAM. Studio 52 will be open during NERAM's opening hours, 10am-4pm Tuesday to Sunday.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Newcastle eLearning company launches online platform to help teachers build their own courses

New product launch that I found interesting. The story draws from the press release, but I'm interested in both prmoting New England businesses and in the application of new technology in education. 

Newcastle based edtech company Futura Group, today launched eCoach BETA, a cloud-based platform providing high school teachers with simple tools to build and design their own engaging online courses.

The eCoach allows teachers to transform their own materials into online courses attractive to students. 

According to Jude Novak (eCoach Product Manager), “courses made with the eCoach can be used to promote discovery, problem solving, and decision making in a fun and engaging way. The builder includes over 20 easy to use drag-and-drop eLearning templates to ensure that students have a great educational experience online”.

The company argues that with escalating professional demands such as reporting, compliance and benchmarking, teachers are increasingly time-poor; to stay ahead of the technology curve and deliver tech-savvy students with interactive course content would normally mean developing design skills or learning complex authoring software.

“Some teachers simply don’t have the time or design knowledge to create high-quality eLearning. The eCoach gives them everything they need to build interactive resources, without the headache of learning how to use complicated software”.

The eCoach is a cloud-based solution and courses are smartphone compatible and BYOD ready, meaning that students will be able to access courses at home, ‘on the go’, or in the classroom. This ‘build once and use anywhere’ approach means that the eCoach can be easily paired with popular tools like Google Classroom to transform teaching and learning in high schools.  
Google’s Education tools are widely used by teachers (both here and abroad) to foster collaboration and creativity. “Using the eCoach in tandem with such tools will help students have fun while they discover information and interact with new ideas”.    

“It looks great!” said Rachel McCann, PDHPE Teacher at Mudgee High School. “It’s not only highly engaging, but it provides a kind of consistent shape and form to lesson resources. I also love the fact that I can easily share courses I’ve made with my students using Google Classroom for safe and secure access.”

There are currently 175 teachers registered for eCoach BETA. Anyone interested in the eCoach can request access via the website:

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Enova and Sydney's 1995 electricity heist

Back in November 2014 I provided a brief report on Northern Rivers plans to launch a community owned clean energy generator. Now the proposals have got to the launch stage, with the new venture to be called Enova.

I'm sorry, but I can't help feeling angry. Not, I hasten to add, with Enova, just with Sydney's great big electricity heist. You see, we used to have New England power distributors, many with their own generation capacity.They were profitable, with the profits ploughed back into local activities.

Then, the good folks in the NSW Treasury decided that this wasn't right. Those local county councils did not have the economies of scale to survive. Further, they were capital lazy, not required to earn a sufficient return on capital. So what those bright sparks in Sydney did was to take over the lot, centralise them, then borrow against the assets, all this in the name of economic rationalism and efficiency. That money was effectively pissed away without gain to the areas that lost their assets and associated cash flow. The world has changed and now we are trying to recreate.

Okay, I may be wrong and prejudiced, but this 2010 post (Sydney's 1995 electricity heist) provides the background, footnotes and all. Am I wrong to be angry?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Save New England - how do we manage our environmental wars?

I have mixed views about New England's environmental wars, although I have tried to report on them objectively.

I have two of these sloppy joes. On the back it reads, no Big Guns on New England. They date back many years to a time when there was a proposal to take a large part of the New England Tablelands and turn it into a military firing range,

I was happy to join that protest because it struck me as a crazy idea. So I am not averse to personal participation in protests. Indeed, so far as New England is concerned, I seem to have been protesting much of my life!

One of my central concerns has been the structural decline in the area that I love, the rise of both relative and indeed absolute poverty. I have seen skills and jobs stripped away through economic change combined with Government policy and regulation. I became a supporter of the environmental movement many years ago and then moved away because its proponents could not answer a basic question: you say that this is a good thing, that it will have environmental benefits, but who will compensate us for the economic costs that we must bear?

I was in Grafton when I was handed a flier opposing the logging of old growth forests. I broadly supported that, if not with the passion of the exponents. I looked at the flier. On jobs, it said don't worry, new jobs will be created in Oberon through plantation tree farming. I looked at them  Leaving aside any issues that might be involved in the expansion of plantation farming, they were trying to tell me that a job created in Oberon was an equivalent offset to a job lost in Grafton. Tell that to the people losing their jobs.

In many of these battles we are dealing with absolutes that cannot be reconciled. The proponents, both sides, will use whatever arguments they can to support their case.Both are passionate. Neither are objective.

In trying to steer a personal path through this maze, I have tried to argue two things: the first is the need for objective assessment, the second for compensation and benefit sharing.

This is an environmental video on the the current environmental battles affecting the Liverpool Plains. Here the battle is over a proposed coal mine. I have included it for two reasons. The first is that it is an example of the sophistication of the current environmental campaigns. The second is that it shows a little of the beauty of the area, the colours that I have written about in speaking of both paintings and film. Further comments follow the video.

I have known the Plains all my life. It is a beautiful, fertile area with the best ground water in New England. For that reason, as well as my dislike at the way external bodies and especially governments can simply come in and strip away local rights in the name of progress, I am instinctively inclined to support the protests at personal level. And then I remember the way that Gunnedah was on its beam ends because of the combination of rural decline with decline in coal mining. So how do we balance this?

As late as the 1960, new state New England had a population and economic base greater than WA or SA. Now we are are behind SA. We also have some of the poorest areas in Australia as measured by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.So I don't think that it is sufficient to oppose particular developments,. I would argue that we have to do more than that. I think that we need to explain the positives, not just present the negatives.      .

Monday, August 17, 2015

Still time to visit Lismore Gallery's Rennie Ellis exhibition

I have been meaning to mention this one for a while. The Lismore Regional Art Gallery has an exhibition on at present showcasing the work of photographer Rennie Ellis (1940–2003). This is one of the photographs on display, Mr Muscleman, Albert Park Beach.

 Ellis is a key figure in Australian visual culture, best remembered for his effervescent observations of Australian life exemplified in his iconic book Life is a beach. Although invariably infused with his own personality and wit, the thousands of social documentary photographs taken by Ellis now form an important historical record.

The Rennie Ellis Show highlights some of the defining images of Australian life from the 1970s and ‘80s. This is the period of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser; Paul Keating and Bob Hawke; AC/DC and punk rock; cheap petrol and coconut oil; Hari Krishnas and Hookers and Deviant balls.

This exhibition of 100 photographs provides a personal account of what Ellis termed ‘a great period of change’. The photographs explore the cultures and subcultures of the period, and provide a strong sense of a place that now seems a world away; a world free of risk, of affordable inner city housing, of social protest, of disco and pub rock, of youth and exuberance.

The travelling exhibition is presented by the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive and Monash Gallery of Art with support from the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria.

The exhibition will be open until 5 September.

Monday, August 03, 2015

For Deborah Tree - a guided introduction to Judith Wright and the Wright Family

Back in July 2015 Deborah Tree wrote in a comment on a post I had written in January 2007, Poetry's Decline and the Sound of Words:
Hello Jim I have just discovered the poems of Judith Wright - a friend gave me her "Collected Poems" yesterday and already I've learned the first verse of "South of my Days" mainly because it was the favourite of my friend. As I learn the words and say them out loud, the poem changes for me; I become enchanted by the sound of the words (as you said) and the way Judith has woven them like a rose brier hedge, an enduring essence of a distant, simpler life of survival through hardship. There is romance in that, and in her love of country. I have a Wright journey ahead of me. Cheers Deborah
The photo shows Judith Wright in 1946.

I promised to bring up a consolidated post that might assist Deborah in her journey. This is that post. Because of the scale of the task, I am going to have to let the post evolve.


Judith Wright was born on 31 May 1915. From then until her death on 25 June 2000, her life and career went through a number of stages.As she went through those stages, her attitudes and interests changed.  “You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties?” she wrote in Skins when she was sixty-six.. “They dropped off several incarnations back.”

My primary interest in lies in her connection with Northern New South Wales, the broader New England that is the subject of my main historical work. I am interested in her as a New England writer and as a member of a family that played a significant role in New England history.

To my mind, Judith remained a quintessentially New England writer. That was where her views were first formed, although her later experiences and especially her relationship with the older novelist and philosopher Jack McKinney would exercise a powerful influence over her. Judith met Jack McKinney when she moved to Brisbane. He was a much older man, some twenty four years her senior, only two years younger than her father. They fell in love, moving to Mount Tamborine in 1950; daughter Meredith was born in that year. In 1962, Jack and Judith finally married. Four years later Jack died, leaving a hole in Judith’s life.

Jack McKinney was the second of three powerful men in Judith Wright’s life. The first was her father, Phillip Arundell Wright, with whom she shared a middle name. The third was H C “Nugget” Coombs, a noted Australian economist and public servant, with whom she had a twenty five year love affair. Coombs was again an older man, in this case by nine years. Both were major public figures. Judith was a widow, Coombs long separated from his wife. Both shared common interests, including Aboriginal advancement and the environment. Judith moved to Braidwood to be closer to the Canberra based Coombs, but the affair was kept secret, if open to their friends and the Canberra network within which they moved.

Each man had a powerful impact on Judith, but I think that it was the father that formed her core views. It was he that gave her that love of the environment and of the country. It was he that gave her that love, affection and unstinting support that seems to shine through in the letters between them. This image is one of  W E Pidgeon's (WEPs') portrait of Judith's father.

 I knew her father as a much older man. PA, we all spoke of him as PA, was my grandfather’s friend; my grandfather was godfather to his son who bore the same first name; my copy of Generations of Men carries my grandfather’s signature, bought in the year the book first came out. To me, PA was a somewhat remote figure. I saw him at events and at the New England New State Movement Executive meetings that he sometimes chaired. I and my fellow students at the University of New England where he was chancellor poked gentle fun at him for his sometimes mangled English. It would be a number of years before I came to properly understand his contribution to Northern life and the causes he supported. .

Judith loved her father, she loved the Falls country in which she grew up, she loved the life on the family properties. Her earlier works reflect that love, and then the joy she found in her relationship with Jack McKinney. Later, there would come a darkening of spirit, erosion in optimism, a rejection of elements of her past. 

Judith had the misfortune to be born a girl in an age when men inherited. Especially after the death of PA, she became separated from the properties and life she had loved, although the family ties remained close. Towards the end of her life, she saw the end of the Wright family empire that had been carefully built by her grandparents and especially grandmother May Wright. The ABC TV Dynasties program recorded the event in this rather dramatic way:

By December 2000, he (brother David) had lost it all – his properties, his cattle and his wife to cancer. His sister, the poet Judith Wright, watched in despair and died soon after.

That’s dramatic, but the loss was a profound one. Generations of Men is dedicated to the children of May and Albert, to her father and his brothers and sisters. The phrase generations of men comes from Blake’s Milton; the verse is quoted on the book’s title page:

The generations of men run on in the tide of time
But their destn’d lineaments permanent for ever and ever.

If you look at those words, you can get a feel for Judith’s subsequent sense of loss.

Six years after Judith’s death, David died suddenly. It was a shock. On his death, University of New England Professor Bernie Bindon described David as one of the pioneers of the scientific research underpinning today's Australian beef industry. "I can't think of a beef industry person” Professor Bindon said, “who's made a bigger contribution to not only the growth of the beef industry but the science that underpins the beef business," 

The Herefords .that formed the base of the V1V and V2V Wright brands began their life at Dalwood. It was Judith’s grandparents, the core characters in Generations of Men, who began the breeding program that created the Wright cattle. PA, then David and other Wright family members carried it through to the end. There is a whole story there.  

So, Deborah, you have begun a journey that can not only gratify in terms of the poetry, but which can carry you through into many aspects of Australian life.It's also a story that is sufficiently well documented for you to get to know the people and their connections.  


I will break the remaining post into three parts:
  • my posts on Judith and the Wrights.
  • the published material, including the locally published material that you might not find unless you know where to look.
  • a short guide to on-line sources that I am aware off.

My posts 

The various posts I have written to this point are set out below. They vary considerably in topic and length. I suggest that you scan quickly, that will give you a feel, and then come back to those that interest you. I welcome comments.

To be continued

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Snow in Australia's New England

There were quite heavy snow falls at the weekend across the New England Tablelands. This photo by Bonnie Smith shows the Edwardian Langford homestead on the outskirts of Walcha.

Driving too and from Sydney I have often stopped on the road outside just to have a look. I have never been inside. That is a treat I have promised myself for a future occasion.

For people who don't know New England, the New England Tablelands is not as high as the Southern Alps, but it does have six mountains over 5,000 feet (1,524 metres), another dozen over 4,000 feet.(1,219 meters).  Walcha where this photo was taken has a height of 3,501 feet (1,067 metres).

This next shot is taken along Thunderbolt's Way, the road between Gloucester and Walcha that runs past Langford to Uralla and then on to Inverell. Some city people don't like this road because it's narrow in spots and can be a bit rough. You also have to watch for stock and kangaroos. Still, its a beautiful drive that also happens to be the quickest route to Armidale and indeed on to Brisbane.

You would think that snow would be frequent in such high country and indeed it does fall on a regular basis. However, the New England Tablelands are much further north than either the Blue Mountains or Southern Alps, tempering the climate. However, the high country is sufficiently spectacular and sometimes cold enough to form the tourism theme for the Tablelands, New England High Country (Facebook page) .

Armidale at 3,215 feet (980 metres) claims, accurately enough, to be the highest city in Australia. However, while some snow falls every winter, heavy falls are relatively uncommon. For that reason, one of the local rituals over so many years for both school and university students has been to hop into buses or cars and travel north up the highway towards Black Mountain (4,304 feet, 1,312 metres). There students, many of whom have never seen snow before, made snowmen and threw snowballs.

.The last photo is again near Walcha.

Guyra (4,364 feet, 1,330 metres) lies just to the north of Black Mountain. I used to play Rugby Union at school. I remember one match at Guyra with the temperature close to freezing and the snow sleeting in from the west. It was so cold that the tips of my fingers were blue, making it quite painful if you miss-caught the ball, hitting the finger tips.

 They breed them tough in the North. The Sydney schools coming up to play Rugby in Armidale during winter found the hard grounds and the sometimes biting westerlies something of an ordeal.

North of Guyra the road stretches on the Glen Innes (3,484 feet, 1,062 metres) though more high country. I have actually never seen snow in Glen. The road north is usually closed during those very heavy falls.

Each major snow-fall brings a stream of visitors from the sub-tropical coast up the mountain ranges to the nearest snow point. The bush goes very quiet when it snows. Sound is dampened, except for the sometimes sound of water. Even though the roads can be treacherous, there is something very calming about the experience.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Creating a New England fringe festival

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival claims to be the largest arts festival in the world. At yesterday's inaugural  meeting of the New England (Northern) new state group Sydney group ( New England New State Sydney discussion group formed) it was agreed that we should:
1 Raise the prospect of a New England Fringe Festival that may include a combination of cultural, political and intellectual events amongst our networks in order to gauge the responses and prospects of participation and support.
This post looks at some of the issues involved.

What is a fringe festival?

 The Edinburgh Festival describes itself in this way:
“Every year we think we know what it’s going to deliver, but every year it surprises, delights, amazes and inspires. The Fringe is a festival like no other. Completely open access – where artists don’t need to wait for an invitation, where anyone with a story to tell is welcome. Where there’s no curator, no vetting, no barriers. Just incredible talent from almost fifty countries all over the world"
Edinburgh is a well established and in many ways unique festival. However, the concept of openness, of letting the world come, is important.

Why a New England fringe festival? 

New England has many generally small arts festivals.It is also made up of many towns or cities, each in rivalry with each other. There is remarkably little cross-promotion. If you have an official festival, then each place will seek to maximise its gain. to sell itself against others. I know that may sound harsh, but its true. Each place has its own story, but that is lost in  the competitive cacophony.  

 If you have a structured festival that is independent of place ore indeed of event, that competition can feed into a better experience for all.

There is a further factor, one referred to in in passing in the meeting summary, the combination of events that spans artistic experience. New England, the broader North, has its own history and culture, but this is fragmented along particular cultural lines, fragmented between communities. Over the last four decades, our knowledge of our own history and culture, the sharing of cultural experiences, has declined. There are many reasons for this, including the decline in the separatist cause that once provided a unifying element, changes in media ownership, changes in Government structures and funding arrangements that tend to fragment. 

We want to turn this around.This doesn't mean that the festival must have a central New England focus, although some of that should be there. To dictate what should go into a fringe festival is anathema to the very concept. However, the idea of a festival that might combine the local and the regional with broader endeavours and trends is very attractive. It might both promote local cultural endeavour and skills and integrate that into the broader world.

Is there enough local endeavour to  provide the required base?

The fact that I have posed this question is itself a sign of the decline we are attempting to address. Of course there is! A fringe festival is not about artistic excellence, although that might be there. It is about sharing what we have, about encouraging others to come.

This shot comes from the Walcha. The whole of Walcha is becoming a sculpture town. It's just one example of the things to see that already exist.

How might it be organised?

It needs to start small. It shouldn't take away from other festivals or activities, but to be used to promote them.

We need a number of participating communities to provide a focus. This need not be large to begin with. Local Government support would be helpful as sponsors and to help coordinate. The regional arts and tourism bodies would also need to be involved.

There would also need to be some form of central organisation to coordinate central marketing, promotion and fund raising.. 

We would also need active support from the local media.  

What might go into the program? 

Each community would look at the things that they have already or that they might do.We need a base package of activities that could be added to a program and cross-promoted, something to build from.

 This  painting, Oxley Highway 2007 is by Walcha artist Julia Griffin. 

At least for the first few festivals, it might be desirable to have one or two key themes to provide a degree of unity. 

We are talking not just about a festival, but a fringe festival. By their nature, fringe festivals are slightly funky, edgy, involving new players and local participation. That makes them fun.

Edinburgh has a recognised brand, it is a capital city and has a large relatively close population base. The fringe also spun off an internationally recognised festival, the Edinburgh International Festival.In the Edinburgh case, fringe means on the margins of an existing festival. In the New England case, fringe means on the margin of multiple activities and attractions spread over space. That's a very different challenge. Available venues are also smaller and may lack facilities. 

 To overcome these problems while keeping the funky, edgy feel,  we would need a community focus that welcomes visitors while giving locals the chance to strut their stuff. We need a combination of main stream with new. And we must cross-promote so that people will travel. 

All this will take thought, imagination and time.

Next Steps

At this point, we are just floating the idea to get people thinking. Over the next few months we will continue to brain storm. In the meantime, we would like feedback on the things that people might like to see or do.    

       .      .

Saturday, July 04, 2015

New England New State Sydney discussion group formed

Over a very pleasant BBQ lunch at my place today, we agreed to:

1 Raise the prospect of a New England Fringe Festival that may include a combination of cultural, political and intellectual events amongst our networks in order to gauge the responses and prospects of participation and support.

2. Create a Sydney Discussion Group with Jarrod Hore and Carlo Ritchie as co-convenors in order to organise further meetings in Sydney, expand the network of those interested in a Northern State, and raise awareness of the North amongst the network of 'ex-patriates' who reside in Sydney.

3. Meet again in October at the Dock in Redfern, and each bring along someone new who might be interested in discussing and promoting aspects of Northern culture, politics, history and heritage.

The broad emphasis on Northern culture, politics, history and heritage is important for we are concerned not just with the question of self-government, but also with the protection and promotion of our own unique culture, history and sense of identity.I will write something on the fringe festival concept tomorrow.

It really was a pleasant lunch, greatly helped by Carlo's kindness in bringing along samples of the fine product of the New England Brewing Company.  

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

New states, history and the sense of New England identity

Senator Matt Canavan has again raised the new state cause. This led to a small media flurry. In discussion, Mitchell wrote: Unfortunately aussies hate change. The attitudes in the comment threads from news posts is really disheartening. I responded:
Don't be disheartened, Mitchell Nicholas Ophir. We have been going for almost 160 years and have always failed. Out of that failure we have created national parks, teachers colleges, universities, books schools, political traditions, intellectual traditions. We have influenced politics and thought. We are playing a long game. The institutional barriers are such that without physical insurrection, success is hard. But we are fighting for our own history and the things that we have achieved. That's not all bad.
In this short post, I want to reflect on what I said to Mitchell. 

A lot of the discussion on constitutional reform in Australia is phrased in abstract terms set within the frame defined by the current constitution.

Some argue for the abolition of the states with, in some cases, their replacement by regional councils. This is extremely difficult for it requires a fundamental change to the existing constitution, Others argue for a restatement of relations within the current constitution to return powers to the states. That does not affect the constitution, but is extremely difficult because Federal governments of any persuasion are reluctant to give up real powers, the states suspicious of change in circumstances where final financial control rests with the Commonwealth.  

At this level, the new state movements are a little different because they argue for smaller units related to geography within the existing constitution. That constitution provides for the creation of new states. The impediment is not the constitution, but the unwillingness of existing states to see their territories subdivided.The problem is political, not constitutional. However, because of the nature of the political opposition, the new state movements have argued over time that the constitution should be amended to allow the inhabitants of particular areas to gain self government through some form of popular expression that would override the opposition of the state in question. This is a difficult ask for it requires constitutional change that would, effectively, be opposed by all existing interests.   

The nature of the problems involved leads to depression. Why bother when the cards are stacked against you?  However, it's not quite as clear-cut as that. 

Since the separatist cause first emerged in the lead up to the separation of the Moreton Bay Colony, now Queensland, it has been riven by divisions. At the beginning, it was the division between squatters and small farmers and towns' people, between those saw either joining with Moreton Bay or the creation of a new colony as a way of meeting labour shortages through continued convict importation and those who were opposed. A little later, it was the towns' people who became the separatists because they saw the return from land sales in their area all spent in Sydney. 

As the decades passed. as the agitation rose and fell, the composition of those opposed and those supporting shifted depending on the circumstances of the time.In 1967 when the question was put to plebiscite, the vote was lost 53% to 47% with the no vote concentrated in the Newcastle and coal fields electorates, in the southern dairy farming electorates. The first group feared Country Party domination in the new Parliament, the second loss of preferential access to the Sydney milk market. Economics and party politics are always important.

Two things happened in the midst of shifting agitation and alliances. The first was the creation of a sense of Northern identity, a recognition that the North had its own history and interests. The separatists campaigned for the North, stated that the North was different, an entity. The North did indeed have its own identity based on history and geography, but the campaigns emphasized that  separateness. The second was the establishment of a clear relationship between the rise and fall of new state agitation and the public and political recognition of New England as an entity that had to be taken into account, that could not be ignored, that had to be satisfied in some way. 

Since the plebiscite loss, that sense of New England identity has declined. Further and unlike North Queensland where distance from Brisbane has maintained the sense of separation, New England has become increasingly fragmented between the growing metros of Sydney and Brisbane. And yet, history and geography have both ensured a continuation of that sense of Northernness.        

In my comment to Mitchell, I said that we were fighting for our own history. Many, even in the North, would deny that we have our own unique history or would say that it's just not important in the changing sweep of Australian history. Each region of New England has its own history, but sitting on top of this, integrating it, is a Northern history. 

I write the weekly history column for the Armidale Express. I know from talking to people that the sense of Northern history, even New England Tablelands' history, has declined relative to local history. The sense of identity, of interconnection, has diminished. 

When we talk about the fight for self-government we are not just talking about a constitutional battle, we are not just talking about the fight for political and economic recognition, we are actually fighting for the continued recognition of our story as something important and worthwhile. This holds for the North in general and for the different parts of the North. We have our own narrative and that's worth preserving.

New England's Aboriginal peoples talk about sense of country, of the importance of linkages between present and past. They have very particular reasons for emphasising that, but it's true for the rest of us as well. That is what we are fighting for, not just for self-government as such.    

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

University of New England to open Natural History Museum

Armidale is to get another museum. The region’s first Natural History Museum will be the showcase of a $27 million development at the University of New England. The museum will feature the skeleton of a carnivorous dinosaur along with a diverse collection of animals, plants and meteorites.

Construction has commenced at the facility which is part of the multi-million dollar Integrated Agriculture Education Project precinct and is expected to open next year.

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Annabelle Duncan, said the Museum will be a significant community asset. “The museum will be an important education resource for students and will become a central repository for natural history collections across the region,” Professor Duncan continued.

“The new Museum will feature a five-metre Australovenator dinosaur, UNE’s meteorite collection, animal and hominid skeletons, and fossils.”

As well as the new exhibits, the Museum will house UNE’s existing museum collections. Presumably, this includes the Classics Museum, the University's best know museum, presently housed in the Arts Building. I must find out what is happening here.

The Head of UNE’s School of Environmental and Rural Sciences, Professor Iain Young, said the museum will enhance teaching at UNE specifically in the areas of zoology, biology, botany and geology.

“It is envisaged that the Museum will also be used by schools as a learning resource and be accessible to the community and special interest groups.

“The long term vision for the museum is to have regular tours and displays, including loan exhibitions, an interactive museum website, and to use our knowledge of natural history to increase the awareness, understanding, technologies and tools needed to create an environmentally sustainable future.”

Community members interested in becoming a hands-on part of the exciting Natural History Museum project can contact Dr Romina Rader, Community Ecologist and museum coordinator, on for more information.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Need for a Northern NSW White Paper

My main post today is on the Australian Government's Northern Australia White Paper.

It would be nice to have our own white paper, something for another neglected North. But you see, we don't exist in the public or political conscience.

Just a note.  

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Resenting Tasmania's Dark Mofo

I really resent Tasmania's Dark Mofo. It's getting extensive news coverage.

Because we don't exist, there is no equivalent in New England. Some of our Festivals such as Byron Bay have achieved national coverage, but we have no specifically New England festivals or celebrations. We have no platform.

Tasmania may be smaller than New England on every measure, but it has a defined entity. That gives it a base. Each area in New England has to struggle at a local level to gain recognition. Some do manage it, but it's an unbalanced competition.

Often I meet people who deny our fight for self-government. I can understand that. But they do more. They either deny our independent history and culture or downgrade its importance. Then I get upset, for they deny the validity and distinctiveness of my own life experience. I resent that.       .


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Mullumbimby: a case study in the unexpected outcomes of protest

The photo shows a demonstration in Mullumbimby against  the building of a Woolworth's store in the town. The photo comes from an interesting story in the Sydney Morning Herald by Malcolm Knox: How Woolworths overcame local opposition and set up a supermarket near Mullumbimby.

In very simple terms, a local family wanted to build a supermarket in the town, part of Byron Shire, but faced fierce opposition. Finally, they sold the project out to Woolworths who with time, money and connections were able to go around the protestors. The end result was a bigger store owned outside the town.

This is hardly the result the protestors wanted. I suspect if asked to make a choice between a locally owned store and a bigger store owned by Woolworths, they would have opted for the first very quickly. But then, that's a retrospective view. Having won on the first count, they expected to win on the second as well.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Apparent demise of North Coast Voices

It is remiss of me not to have mentioned this before, but on 17 May North Coast Voices ceased publication. I quote from the final post:

Due to events beyond our control North Coast Voices will not be posting until further notice. 
For this we apologize to all our regular readers and to those that just drop by from time to time on a whim.
The first NCV post was on 9 October 2007. Since then, they have kept a stream of posts going, generally from a Green left perspective.

Sometimes NCV used to annoy the hell out of me, but I will still miss them.

The end was very abrupt. There were two earlier posts on 17 May and then, suddenly, came the final post. All three were posted in the early hours of the morning within a short time of each other. It was like a snap, something that I can understand.

I have no idea what the problem was/is. I can only offer my thoughts and a deep felt wish that things sort themselves out.  

Monday, June 08, 2015

Newcastle wins both age groups in the 2015 Northern NSW State Football championships

The Telstra Northern NSW State Championships for Boys kicked off at 8:30am on Saturday 6 June at Coffs Habour.

Over 250 of Northern NSW’s best young male footballers converged on Coffs Harbour to participate in the Championships in both the 11 Years and 12 Years age divisions.

Each of the Northern News South Wales Football Federations Member Zones -  Football Far North Coast, Football Mid North Coast, Hunter Valley Football, Macquarie Football, Newcastle Football, North Coast Football and Northern Inland Football, as well as Emerging Jets 10 Years and 11 Years squads - contested the Championships.

In the end Newcastle Football claimed the title of State Champions in both the 11 and 12 Years divisions following the final day of the State Championships. The photo shows the boys celebrating.

The 11 Years side cemented their place on top of the table following a 7-0 victory over Northern Inland in the second last match of the day.

It was a different story for the 12 Years squad however, as a 0-0 draw with North Coast left the side relying on other fixtures to finish the weekend in 1st place.  Macquarie Football came second in both age groups. 

Full results can be found here.