Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Monday, December 27, 2010

Social Change in New England 1950-2000 11 - the Aborigines

Will Owen's Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye remains one of my favourite blogs. His blog and twitter feed (I have just subscribed to the second) are an education not just in Aboriginal art, but extend to anthropology and current culture. Looking back over the 145 or so posts I have written across my various blogs connected in some ways with the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, I was interested to see just how often I had referred to Will's writing. While I was aware of this, I hadn't realised the extent.

While Will's writing has obviously been important, there is a problem from the particular perspective of this blog, one that I have referred to before. I put part of the problem this way in a post I wrote on 17 September 2010, New England's Aboriginal artists:
This blog (Will's blog) is an education on Aboriginal art and beyond into Aboriginal culture and history. However, it does have one weakness from my perspective, its remote area focus.
While I am interested in Aboriginal art in a general sense, I also want to know more about Aboriginal art connected with New England.  Like many other aspects of New England life, this is actually quite hard to do because the information is not readily available.
The problem extends beyond this. One of the recurring themes in my writing on Aboriginal issues has been our failure to recognise diversity among Australia's Aboriginal people. This, I suggested, distorted perception, thought and policy.

At this point I don't want to revisit my past arguments, although I will need to do so at some point. Instead, I want to look at some of the historiographical issues raised by any consideration of social change among New England's Aborigines in the period 1950-2000. In so doing, I also hope to interest you in this part of New England's story.

The 1965 Freedom Ride

Influenced by the civil rights struggle in the United States, in February 1965 a group of University of Sydney students organised a bus tour of western and coastal New South Wales towns:
Their purpose was threefold. The students planned to draw public attention to the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing. They hoped to point out and help to lessen the socially discriminatory barriers which existed between Aboriginal and white residents. And they also wished to encourage and support Aboriginal people themselves to resistMoree freedom ride discrimination.
This photo shows students confronting locals and police at Moree.

The ride has achieved iconic status. Now what you won't get from the historical material because New England doesn't exist in a formal sense is that nearly all the towns visited were in New England. The phrase "western and coastal NSW towns" is actually misleading because it denies geographic specificity. As a consequence, you also won't get any feel for what went before or what came afterwards beyond the very broad-brush story of changing Australian attitudes and policies towards its Aboriginal peoples.

Importance of Aboriginal New England

While the New England Tablelands itself had a relatively small Aboriginal population, the surrounding river valleys were ecologically rich. Reflecting this, the Aboriginal population was high. As a result, at the first census in 1971 recording the Aboriginal population, the number of NSW residents self-reporting as Aboriginal were heavily concentrated in New England.

The total number of self-identified Aborigines was quite low, 23,101 in all. Of this group, 12,760 (55%) lived in New England. The proportion is quite startling, more so if the unknown but quite high proportion of New England ancestry Aboriginal people living in the Sydney metropolitan area is included. This means that the story of New England's Aboriginal peoples is actually quite important. Indeed, and I accept that I have biases, if you don't understand their story, then it is very hard to understand the total story.

Application of Universal Frames

One of the most complicated things in understanding the story of Aboriginal Australia after the arrival of the Europeans is to understand the way in which European perceptions affected the country's Aboriginal peoples. This affects every aspect of both history and the writing of history.

At evidence level, the problems involved in using ethnohistorical evidence are generally well understood, partially as a consequence of researchers from the University of New England. This was the first University in Australia to look in detail at the ethnohistorical9_moreeaboriginalball1937_j material across a broad but geographically related area.

The position at a cultural and policy level is less well understood. This photo shows an Aboriginal Ball at Moree.

From the beginning of European settlement, the various governments in the new colonies had to work out just how to respond to the local inhabitants.

The tragedy is that some of the greatest damage, and this remains true today, was done by the best intentioned. They formed general views, universals if you like, and then applied them holus-bolus.
The results were disastrous because policy changes always come with a lag.

The first attempts to "civilise" and "educate" Aboriginal people in NSW failed because of the vast incomprehension between European views and the realities of traditional Aboriginal life. There was then a gap.

When interest resumed, the Aboriginal people had moved on. With traditional life destroyed, many Aboriginal parents had accepted that their kids needed education, must fit in to the new society. Now, however, they had to deal with a resumption of official interest in Aboriginal welfare.

The tragedy was that views held by European benefactors and community activists, by officials, had been formed by experiences and conclusions formed all those years before. If nothing had been done, if those parents who wanted it had been allowed to enrol their kids in the new public school system letting the rest find their way, the the Aborigines would have been far better off.

Yes there was prejudice that would have affected some, but people would still have broken through. In NSW it would be the 1960s before the first Aboriginal person achieved a university degree. A policy of benign neglect would have achieved this result years earlier.         
The next photo shows mission houses built at Pilliga not far from Moree.

With renewed interest, the NSW Government moved to introduce a series of measures intended to "protect" the Aborigines.  Now we come to the world of missions, reserves and fringe dwellers, of a separate Aboriginal education system whose central assumption was that Aboriginal peoples could not hack it in the conventional education system. We also come, eventually, to the stolen generation.

Importance of Northern Australia

In their 2007 book Beyond Humbug: Transforming government engagement with indigenous Australia (Seaview Press, South Australia, 2007), Michael C Dillon and Neil D Westbury pointed to a number of problems with the policies of various Governments towards Australia's indigenous people.
The book argued, correctly to my mind, that one problem had been a lack of rigour in policy making. It also argued, again correctly to my mind, that a second problem lay in the failure to recognise Indigenous difference, leading to a one size fits all approach.

All this said, the flaw in the book lay in the way that the authors, having made these points, actually generalised from Northern Territory experience.  The NT is only a small part of Indigenous Australia.
In that same year, on 22 June, then PM Howard and Minister Brough announced that Australian Government was taking over direct control of the Northern Territory's Aboriginal lands and the communities on them. The intervention was driven by conditions in specific Aboriginal communities, but led to policy changes that affected first all Australia's Aboriginal peoples and then the broader community.
This is outside my period, but in a sense book-ends some of the discussion.

From Federation, there were discussions among Australian Governments a
bout the development of common approaches to Aboriginal affairs. These discussions were strongly influenced by conditions in areas that had large Aboriginal populations still living in traditional ways. This created peculiar difficulties in NSW.
Many in NSW believed, incorrectly, that traditional Aboriginal life had been extinguished. I say incorrectly because we now know that elements of that life and its traditions continued. Yet it is also true that the issues and conditions facing those of Aboriginal descent in NSW were different from those in Northern Australia. By the 1880s, an increasing number of Aboriginal parents or parents of Aboriginal descent wanted just the same things as other parents: work, a home and an education for their kids.
The problem that arose is that those of Aboriginal descent in NSW faced a denial of traditional life on one side, the application of policy approaches based on traditional stereotypes on the other, policy approaches that impeded social progress and change. This second was effectively reinforced by the evolving national conversation, as well as on-ground prejudices.

Because New England had such a large Aboriginal population, because that population was visible in a way not seen in Sydney, issues of race, prejudice and stereotypes played out on the ground. New England was both a source of change and of resistance to change.

The students who visited Moree in 1965 found a town that was marked by prejudice and divide. The students then left. Their visit did have local effects. However, it was the town itself and its people who had to adjust, to work things out in their own way.

Today, 22% of the population of Moree Plains Shire is Aboriginal. Prejudice still exists, but Moree is a very different town to the one the students visited.

Changing Universal Frames

By the time the students visited Moree, fundamental change was well underway. Riven by contradictions, NSW public policy towards the Aborigines had begun to shift and shift quite quickly.

 Education is one theme that I intend to focus on, in part because my grandfather was NSW Minister for Education for much of the period from 1928 to 1941, in part because education was just so important.

David Drummond himself captures all the pressures and contradictions built into official policy at a time of change. His attempt to make sense of a policy, to create structure, through the articulation of the concept of a child race, foundered not just on the fact that the policy made no sense to begin with, but also on practical electoral issues.

Faced by Aboriginal parents from the Woolbrook school, some of his electors, demanding an education for their children in the public school system, he could not deny them even though White parents were opposed.

Drummond's case is interesting, but more important is the way that official policies denied Aboriginal children a first class education over so many generations. By the time official policies really changed, generational disadvantage had been further built in.

On 27 May 1967, two years after the student visit to Moree, the Australian people overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the constitution giving the Commonwealth, among other things, the power to make laws specifically in relation to Aboriginal people. In many ways, this constitutional referendum marked a symbolic rather than substantive change, but symbolism is important.

Between 1950 and 1967 there had been significant change and not just in education. One marker here is the growth in interest in Aboriginal culture and history. Here the University of New England both reflected national trends and played an important role in the work itself. It also provided a very specific regional focus, another element in the story.

In some ways, the interest in Aboriginal culture and history seems to have peaked in the early 1970s for reasons that are still unclear to me.

This is not meant to be an absolute statement. Interest in particular aspects continued, such as the long-running boom in Aboriginal art. However, looking at the historical writing in particular, a focus on the Aborigines as Aborigines seems to have been replaced by a focus on black-white relations and on the Aborigines as victims.

I am making this statement cautiously because it is subject to correction. What, I think, is more certain is that there was a decline in interest in the specifically local or regional aspects of the Aboriginal story.

This trend coincided with changes in public policy approaches. Of especial importance here was the emergence of the idea of Aboriginal self-determination, along with new approaches to land-rights. Again, we have the development of new absolutes, new universals, that played themselves out at national, state and regional levels.

I have a lot of work to do here to really understand what happened. I have opinions, but they have to be tested against the evidence.

To state my personal view up-front, and as had happened so many times before, I feel that the new approaches worked to conceal and submerge diversity. Entire new political and social structures were created that, of themselves, came to work against real change. Yet the picture is so complicated that I remain uncertain.

Let me take an example.

The NSW Aboriginal Land Council states on its web site:
It is a common misconception that the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council was established as a direct result of the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NSW) in 1983.
I am sure that that's true.  As NSWALC notes, a non-statutory NSW Aboriginal Land Council was established in 1977 as a specialist Aboriginal lobby on land rights. It was formed when over 200 Aboriginal community representatives and individuals met for three days at the Black Theatre in Redfern to discuss land rights.

Yet while true, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NSW) is of critical importance because it set a formal legal framework that, with amendments, continues to this day. It is also a framework with built in contradictions and tensions that also continue to be important.
Aboriginal Responses to European Frames

No human being can be oblivious to the views held by others. People respond at both individual and group levels. We have already seen this is some of my earlier discussion.

One aspect of the process is called mirroring, the way in which a minority group comes to respond to and to a degree reflect the views of the dominant majority.

The process is a complicated one. Simply put, every change in social and official attitudes towards Australia's Aboriginal peoples has been reflected in changes within the Aboriginal community in both structures and attitudes. This is as true in New England as it is in the broader nation. It was also as true in 1788 as it is today.

Some Aboriginal people simply escaped, merging into the broader community. This was encouraged by official policies, more so by the problems involved in being Aboriginal. We have no idea of the number involved, although it seems to have been high.

One anecdotal measure of this is the number of Australians who are now willing to recognise that they have some element of Aboriginal ancestry. A second measure is provided by a comparison of the 1971 NSW census figure of 23,301 as compared to the 138,506 number reported in the 2006 census.

That's a very big increase, far greater than can be explained by the higher Aboriginal birthrate. Part  of the increase comes from better reporting. A bigger proportion comes from an increase in the number of people willing to recognise themselves as Aboriginal. One side-effect has been a decline in the proportion of Aboriginal people living in New England.
  This leaves open the question as to why New England should have had such a high figure in the first place. Part of the reason lies in higher numbers to begin with. But part also lies, I think, in the fact that New England had retained a large number of people who were identifiably Aboriginal and who lived in specifically Aboriginal communities.      Aborigines Home the Island Urunga

This photo is of an Aboriginal family living on an island in the Bellinger River near Urunga. Similar photos can be replicated across New England.

The high number of identifiable Aboriginal people living together facilitated elements of cultural retention including language, but also meant that New England's Aborigines were strongly affected by changing attitudes and policies. As a modern example, 61 of the 119 NSW Aboriginal Land Councils are to be found in New England, spread across no less than five NSW Aboriginal Land Council regions.

I am still working through the way in changing policies and structures over the last three decades of the twentieth century affected New England Aboriginal life and perceptions. The picture is a complicated one, further complicated by the fact that I necessarily write as an outsider.

Islands of Poverty

One of the most difficult things to deal with is the way in which previous approaches have created islands of poverty. Further, those islands are quite visible in New England because of the relative size and concentration of the Aboriginal population.

I am writing a history, not a public policy analysis, although the two are obviously connected. With some manipulation, census data does provide something of a snap-shot across New England at the end of the period. What is less clear to me is the extent to which poverty has shifted in both absolute and relative terms.

My hypothesis is that Aboriginal living standards improved over the 1950s and 1960s, but then went into reverse as a consequence of broader structural change and associated changes in the world of work that reduced the availability of unskilled and semi-skilled work. This especially affected Aboriginal people because their education was generally poorer.

This links to another factor, internal migration. For historical and cultural reasons, the Aboriginal population has always been mobile. Today, that population is noticeably more mobile than the NSW population as a whole. However, the patterns of mobility are different. This has significant affects on Aboriginal demography and on the structure of Aboriginal life, as well as on the overall structure of the New England population.

In some New England centres, the Aboriginal proportion of the population has increased over the period we are talking about because of emigration especially of the non-Aboriginal young. In other New England centres, the Aboriginal proportion of the population has increased because of in-migration by Aboriginal people. In still other areas, the once relatively large Aboriginal populations have been increasingly swamped by in-migration of non-Aboriginal people.

Concluding Trends

I have barely scratched the surface in this preliminary discussion. However, I want to finish by just mentioning a number of other changes:
  • One big change has been a shift in the role and attitudes of local Government towards a constant recognition of Aboriginal interests. While this is a broader trend, it has special importance in New England with its higher Aboriginal populations. It is not, I think, a coincidence that the 1983 election of Pat Dixon to Armidale City Council was the first time that an Aboriginal person had been elected to a local council in NSW.
  • A second and very important change, one that deserves a full post in its own right to extend my  discussion in earlier posts, has been the rise of Aboriginal consciousness. This has played out across many areas of life, including writing, painting and the Aboriginal Language Revival Movement. Again, New England's bigger Aboriginal population has had an impact: New England languages are central to language revival; one of the best know national Aboriginal papers (the Koori Mail) is based in New England; while writers and painters with New England connections are also prominent.
  • Finally and perhaps more problematically, there has been the rise of Aboriginal specific jobs.    

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Social Change in New England 1950-2000 10: electricity & national competition policy

This post written in May this year provides an example of a cascade effect, the way in which a new national policy then flows down to state level and then to area level.

The introduction of National Competition Policy set a national framework that led to responses by the NSW Government. In turn, this had on-ground effects within New England.

This post focuses on one aspect of the change, the replacement of locally managed electricity county councils by larger state controlled corporate entities. As I write, the state is selling the distribution assets, thus finalising a process that began in 1955.

While the post provides historical information, it is obviously partisan.

National Competition Policy  was one of a series of linked technological, economic and policy changes that led to loss of local control and to the hollowing of the middle class within New England. I have previously dealt with one one small aspect of this in Social Change in New England 1950-2000 8: unlisted public companies.

While the processes involved began earlier, they reached their peak in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Key features included:

  • the rise of the computer that allowed centralisation of activities previously carried out at local or regional level. The type of jobs lost included bank managers, sales staff and technicians.
  • the acquisition of local businesses by outside interests, together with greater penetration by the chains. Senior manager positions were replaced by a smaller number of lower level positions.
  • industrial consolidation that saw, among other things, the ending of cooperatives and the closure of smaller plants. Jobs lost included positions such as factory managers, dairy technicians, process workers and, more generally, the various trades and service positions that had supported the closed plants.
  • reductions in industry protection and regulation in primary as well as secondary industry. The 1997 closure of BHP's Newcastle steel works is one of the bigger examples, but it played out across New England. The dairy famers of the lower Hunter and Manning Valleys who voted no in the 1967 plebiscite on self-government because they feared loss of their preferential access to the big and lucrative Sydney milk marketplace lost it anyway!

One of the difficulties involved in writing a history such as I my history of New England is that you have to deal with the cascade effects. You actually have to at least sketch out a much broader history before you can interpret local or regional events.  

If you look at much of the writing that has been done on the topics I am talking about here, you will find that it has a national, an industry or a policy focus. There is very little that I am aware of that deals with the on-ground aspects, especially in a broader area such as New England. 

Sydney's 1995 electricity heist , Monday, May 10, 2010

I had been putting together another New England blog round-up when my eye was caught by a story in the Armidale Express. Sadly it's not on-line.

Essentially, the message in the story was that mandated state increases in water charges in regional centres might be paving the way for an eventual state takeover of water resources. In Armidale's case, that would mean loss of the Council owned Malpas dam.

The story was linked to Sydney's earlier smash and grab raid on New England's electricity county council assets

In writing this story, I tried to check on-line sources to find out more details of exact funding arrangements for Malpas, as well as more information on management arrangements. I am glad that I did, for the two are not quite the same.

However, in checking I also dug back into the electricity story and decided to focus in this post on that, picking up water in a second post.

As it happened, at the time Sydney seized New England county council electricity distribution assets, I was doing some work on national electricity marketing.

I said to a colleague in the NSW Treasury that I thought that what had been done was wrong in principle. I did not receive a sympathetic response. They were, he said, assets finally owned by all NSW taxpayers. NSW taxpayers as a whole would benefit.

I leave it to you to judge.

The story begins  

The original idea for county councils was developed by Earle Page, then Mayor of South Grafton. The idea was to assist councils to develop new and shared services via entities controlled by participating councils. From this original start in the Northern Rivers, county councils spread rapidly including electricity supply.

By the early 1990s, electricity distribution throughout New England was carried out by a network of county councils. These arrangements were now to be transformed through the combination of National Competition Policy with NSW Government actions intended to extract the maximum cash from the system.

Introduction of National Competition Policy

In 1992 Australian governments established the independent Committee of Inquiry into a National Competition Policy for Australia[1]. Known as the Hilmer Committee after its chair (Frederick Hilmer) the committee reported in August 1993. It recommended:

  • extension of the coverage of the Trade Practices Act 1974 to unincorporated businesses and state and territory government businesses
  • extension of prices surveillance to state and territory businesses to deal with circumstances where other competition policy reforms had proven inadequate
  • application of competitive neutrality principles so government businesses do not enjoy a competitive advantage over their private sector competitors simply as a result of public sector ownership
  • restructuring of public sector monopoly businesses
  • review of all legislation that restricts competition
  • provision for third party access to nationally significant infrastructure.

On 25 February 1994, the Council of Australian Governments accepted the competition policy principles set out in the Hilmer report. Next year, 11 April 1995, the Council of Australian Governments reached three intergovernmental agreements; the Competition Principles Agreement, the Conduct Code Agreement and the Agreement to Implement the National Competition Policy and Related Reforms. . The agreements set out a national microeconomic reform program, the National Competition Policy. They also contained undertakings to implement pre-existing intergovernmental reform agreements in the sectors of electricity, gas, water and road transport.

Importantly, clause 7 of the Competition Principles Agreement extended the reform agenda to local government. States and territories undertook to work with local government in applying legislation review and reform, competitive neutrality and structural reform principles.

As part of the overall package of agreements, Governments also agreed to:

  • restructure their electricity sector, apply competitive neutrality and review electricity regulation that restricts competition
  • introduce a fully competitive National Electricity Market (NEM) in southern and eastern Australia, extend competition in supply so that all consumers could have choice of supplier and provide for specific bodies to have operational responsibility in the market[2].

This led to agreement to on the following objectives:

  • the ability for customers to choose their supplier, including generators, retailers and traders (full contestability)
  • non-discriminatory access to the interconnected transmission and distribution network
  • no discriminatory legislative or regulatory barriers to entry for new participants in generation or retail supply
  • no discriminatory legislative or regulatory barriers to interstate and/or intrastate trade.

Turning now to water, on 25 February 1994, the Council of Australian Governments adopted a strategic water reform framework which was later incorporated into the National Competition Policy agreements. The main objectives were to establish an efficient and sustainable water industry and to arrest widespread natural resource degradation, for which water use is partly responsible. The framework covered pricing, the appraisal of investment in rural water schemes, the specification of, and trading in, water entitlements, resource management (including recognising the environment as a user of water via formal allocations), institutional reform and improved public consultation.

Application to the NSW electricity sector

In May 1995, NSW Treasurer Michael Egan released the NSW Electricity Reform Taskforce Electricity Reform Statement[3]. As part of the changes:

  • The existing 25 Electricity Distributors would be amalgamated into a small number of distributors and restructured.
  • Distributors would be corporatised and operate under a commercial framework. This would cover aspects such as rate of return, asset valuations, capital structure and financial distributions to government.
  • Each Distributor would have two subsidiary corporations, dealing separately with distribution network ("wires") and retail supply ("energy trading") operations. This structure reflected the distinctive nature of the two businesses: network being a regulated monopoly and retail supply being subject to open market competition.
  • Electricity consumers would be able to exercise choice of energy supplier, as retail competition developed.

The arguments for the change can be summarised this way:

  • Small operators could not survive in the new deregulated market
  • NSW had to comply with National Competition Policy
  • Economies of scale meant that retail electricity prices would fall in real terms from 9.3 cents per kwh in 1995 to 7.4 cents per kwh in 2000
  • There was presently no incentive for county councils to maximise returns on assets.
  • Financial arrangements governing county councils gave them preferential positions as compared to private sector firms.

In a remarkably revealing statement, the Statement said[4]:

A commercial framework requires that all distributors have an appropriate capital structure. Current debt levels of most distributors are relatively low, with an average gearing of approximately 13%, compared to the proposed 50% to 60% gearing of Victorian distributors.

Despite low profitability, rural distributors have been able to accumulate significant cash reserves as they have little debt and are not currently required to pay tax and dividends. In the absence of a commercial cost of capital, distributors are provided with strong incentives to eliminate debt and over invest in network assets. Local Government governance structures have contributed to the development of inefficient capital structures.

In conjunction with an increase in network sector returns to commercial levels, there is also an opportunity to review debt levels in order to achieve a commercial capital structure appropriate for mature, low risk utilities.

For example, financial modelling indicates that a 10% per annum regulated return on network assets will generate sufficient cashflow to support gearing levels of up to 50% for network businesses.

There was a need for change. However, the new arrangements completely ignored existing ownership arrangements. These were not Sydney assets. They were assets owned by country councils who were in turn owned by local councils. Further, those assets had been largely been built up by tariffs paid by local consumers that covered operating costs, interest payments and loan repayments.

Outcomes of the changes

The NSW Government did very well out of the deal. It:

  • Was able to extract money by borrowing against assets, increasing gearing.
  • Maximised dividend and other payments, forcing distributors to reduce costs regardless.
  • Is now looking at privatising the assets to get a final return.

Consumers were not so fortunate.

While some consumers in some areas did experience lower real prices (this depended on starting prices), the higher financial costs imposed on distributors limited these gains. Further, in cutting costs, distributors cut key staff, maintenance and investment.

By the early 2000s they were scrambling to find replacement staff such as linesmen. Now in 2010 electricity prices are being greatly increased to overcome past under-investment.

I have not been able on on-line information to check price movements. However, the current Country Energy price for a retail consumer of 19.62 cents per kwh excluding GST can be compared with the 1995 average of 9.3 cents,

Local areas were least fortunate of all. They lost local jobs, they largely lost the support for local projects that had been funded from county council profits, and they got no return for the assets seized by Sydney.

New England County Council Case Study

I no longer have my copies of the NECC annual reports, so I have not been able to validate all my information[5].

The Electricity Development Act, 1946 established an Electricity Authority, empowering it to recommend the constitution of new county districts and the alteration of existing boundaries. Prior to this date, electricity generation and distribution in the area was carried out first by a private company and then Armidale City Council.

In 1948 the New England County Council was formed. The new Council decided to buy additional bulk electricity from Tamworth Council and to build its own hydro generation scheme at Oakey River. This was completed in 1956.

New England County Council tariffs were initially high by NSW standards in part because of the need to fund the Oakey Scheme. However, by 1995 the County Council was quite profitable, while tariffs were below the NSW average. The Council saw part of its role in keeping consumer costs down, while profits were being used to fund local activities.

I said earlier that financial arrangements with county councils needed to be refined independent of the changes actually introduced. One sign of this is that the County Council’s growing cash flow created a difficulty. There were no formal frameworks in existence as to how this money should be spent.

When NECC was expropriated by the NSW Government, Armidale lost head office jobs, the funding that had been going to community activities within the NECC area was lost, the chance of building a bigger business was lost. Local councils as owners received no payment, locals ratepayers and in a sense council shareholders received no local benefit, while there was little if any consumer gain via lower electricity prices.



Greg said...

Hi Jim, I must admit to having little knowledge of this subject. However, I suspect that a similar thing happened in Newcastle when the Shortland County Council was swallowed up in the "merger"/corporatisation with it's Sydney counterpart to create Energy Australia. There is a similar story of the loss of head office jobs and I fear underinvestment in local infrastructure. It is hard to believe that the same cash stripping did not occur with the SCC's assets without compensation to the lower Hunter which built those assets up over a period of decades.
Hunter Water is another case in point. Hunter ratepayers are being expected to pay for the Tillegra dam that the people of the Hunter do not want and do not need, for the ultimate benefit of Sydney's water security. HWC is also now corporatised and pays hefty dividends back to the state. So profits generated in the area are not reinvested into local infrastructure and jobs but become part of State consolidated revenue. Also the regions land and water will be harvested and the the region which is bearing the cost will not be the principal beneficiary.
On another level the Hunter Development Corporation was set up to develop and sell (at a tidy profit for the state) prime state harbourfront real estate in Newcastle. The HDC has also been delegated quasi planning authority. Clearly there is a major conflict of interest in a profit making organisation having planning powers over the property that it is charged with developing. I won't argue that Honeysuckle isn't better than the dilapidated wharves of a decade or so ago, but it is still a long way short of ideal and the profits have been siphoned out of the city. It is a wasted opportunity in the interests of cash to fund Macquarie Streets Sydney ambitions.

Monday, May 10, 2010 10:31:00 PM clip_image003


Jim Belshaw said...

I am sure that Shortland is a similar case to NECC - it was a common pattern.
Water is an interesting one that I am just coming to grips with. It has similar features, but also a higher degree of direct state subvention. If you look at the argument I am mounting in terms of principles, there may be an argument that NSW taxpayers as a whole have an interest in the assets because they have paid as a whole.
On Tillegra, I think that your point is well taken, although (I think) that it's really Central Coast water security rather than Sydney.
HDC is a bit of a blank spot in terms of my own knowledge. Something else I need to learn!

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Greg said...

I take your point about Central Coast water security, but since the CC was provided with water piped from Hunter reservoirs during the drought it was already being underwritten by the Hunter from existing supply.
Which begs several questions - why Tillegra? Why not storage closer to the population it is to service since pumping of water is a costly and energy intensive exercise? Why not encourage domestic capture of rainwater? Ok the last question is naive - it will not produce a revenue return back to the state so that will never be encouraged.
And therein, I suspect, lies the crux of the issue. It is more about additional revenue for the state than it is about water security.
The HDC is a very curious beast with a massive and obvious conflict of interest. This is a state owned development corporation charged with making a profit from surplus state land in Newcastle. It was originally the Honeysuckle Development Corporation since it's original brief was to develop the harbourfront at Honeysuckle. The name was changed to Hunter Development Corporation as it was such a successful revenue earner for the state that it has been given a wider and ongoing brief in Newcastle and Lower Hunter. It also has quasi planning powers making reports and recommendations to its shareholder (the state) about development or re-use of state property, some of which is not even under it's existing control (eg the rail).
This is a very dangerous precedent and I suspect that the state will use it as a model to turn a profit from state property in other regional areas without regard to the best use of that property for the community.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010 9:37:00 AM clip_image003[2]


Augustus Winston said...

Jim this is not a new occurrence. In 1979 I worked for the Brisbane City Council electricity department. We were responsible for power distribution, both the overhead and the new underground cables that were being rolled out in the new estates across Brisbane. So successful (and profitable) was this arm of the council that the Bjelke Petersen government decided to take it over.
It was done with the stealth worthy of that regime. On friday we were working for BCC on Monday all the logos on the vans and carts we worked from had been changed to SEQEB (South East Queensland Electricity Board).
We were assured there would be no changes but 6 months later much of the work had been outsourced to contractors. In 1980 one of the worst strikes in QLD's history took place. All the workers were sacked and lost their super and other benefits. (later repayed by the Goss government).
This strike has been well documented. I suppose the moral of the story is councils are allowed to run non/marginal or no profit services but watch out if they start to make money.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010 6:45:00 PM clip_image003[3]


Jim Belshaw said...

Greg, interesting comments on Tillegra. My feeling is that it is all about politics. I did a post on this back in 2007 - http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com/2007/01/newcastle-lower-hunter-tillegra-dam.html - nad haven't seem anything to change my mind. I have bookmaked the HDC site for further investigation.
Interesting story, Augustus. The date is interesting too, for this is actually before the later corporatisation wave. Another case that I know little about!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010 2:31:00 PM clip_image003[4]


Ian Mott said...

Hello Jim, I am glad to find your blog as I was a member of the NSWFarmers New State Task Force and have been posting on the issue of "farm states" for some years now. The issues you raise are common to all the regional areas of the larger states. They are all subject to the whim of distant, disinterested, metrocentric governance. And it is difficult to see any viable future for these regions without full self governance. There is a lot more material to be presented and a lot more detailed research that needs to be done and I am eager to see how we can work together on this.

Thursday, July 08, 2010 2:53:00 PM clip_image003[5]


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Ian and welcome
Could you email me please ndarala(at)optusnet(dot)com(dot)au and I will put you on touch with the new state group.

Thursday, July 08, 2010 4:31:00 PM clip_image003[6]

[1] National Competition Council, National Competition Policy, Major Areas of Reform, http://ncp.ncc.gov.au/pages/reform, accessed 10 May 2010

[2] National Competition Council, National Competition Policy, Related Reform - electricity, http://ncp.ncc.gov.au/pages/electricity, accessed 10 May 2010

[3] http://www.treasury.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/7941/TPP95-5_NSW_Electricity_Reform_Taskforce.pdf accessed 10 May 2010

[4] Ibid pp18-19

[5] The historical material in this section is drawn from an Armidale City Council document on the history of electricity in Armidale - http://www.armidale.nsw.gov.au/files/12300/File/GasandElectricity.pdf accessed 10 May 2010. Material on later events is drawn from my own experience at the time.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Round the history blogs 9 - Footnotes, presentism and soldiers of fortune

I am still bogged down writing the next piece in my social change series. In the meantime, another round-up from some of the history blogs I read,

Starting with two new blogs. Legal History Blog is a US group blog focusing on scholarship, news and new ideas in legal history. Vicky Woeste's post Deja vu all over again really caught my eye. Vicky is going through the trails and tribulations of checking footnoted before publication. I really shuddered on this one. Hat tip to Christopher Moore for the lead.

Adam Rubinstein is writing a book of poems about his hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts. "I'm writing it", he wrote, "to explain my town's strange disinterest in its own history, mostly to myself. It's sort of becoming a novel." To do this, he centres his writing on slices of the town's past. His blog, the Dredge Cycle, describes the process, but also deals with different aspects of the history.

In Embrace the political, Christopher Moore reports on a controversy involving the still to be completed Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Here I quote from a column by Dan Lett in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Last week, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress expressed outrage that the Holodomor, the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians by Russia in the early 1930s, will not be given permanent exhibition status in the museum. In a report delivered to Ottawa last week, the UCC demanded the Holodomor be given "coverage" equal to the Holocaust, the slaughter of six million Jews and millions of others by Nazi Germany, which will have a permanent exhibition.

Although it made news just last week, this is a fight Ukrainians have been waging for decades. Ukrainians all over the world have protested the fact the Holocaust has a higher profile than the Holodomor, that it is the subject of more memorials, museums, study centres, and even films. Many Ukrainians believe the aggrandizing of the Holocaust has marginalized the Holodomor and dishonoured its victims.

Christopher's post is worth reading in full. He concludes:

How do we, as historians, and as citizens, measure historical evil and victimhood? Is the perception of the holocaust as the ultimate historical evil in the mind of much of the Western World the product of inherited guilt and/or superior organization, commitment, historical consciousness on the part of the Jewish diaspora, or is there some additional degree of evil inherent in the intentionality of genocide by the Nazis which transcends any quantitative measurement of lives lost and terror and suffering undergone?

There is, of course no definitive answer. I tend to favour the latter explanation, but it is a question that cannot be dodged, and should not be dodged. Yes, this is presentism. Or maybe the reverse: pastism. Everything is present, and everything is political (in the largest sense of the word.) As William Faulkner put it, in my fave quotation about history :"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

Communities exist in time. They are backward looking and forward looking. The debate is nasty, because people care. A lot. And if they didn't, there would be no debate to advance

Presentism is defined as an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.

I find that I profoundly disagree with Christopher's conclusion, or at least the way I interpret that conclusion. The reasons why will have to wait for another post; after all, this is a blog round-up.

On rethinking history, Nigel Davies' has a remarkably good post, Uses and Abuses of Wikipedia.

I use Wikipedia all the time. I am well aware of the weaknesses. However to say to students, as schools and universities do, that they cannot use Wikipedia to write essays is, to my mind, corrupting censorship.

I say corrupting because students will in fact do so, and indeed I advised eldest to do so in one of her economics essays. Why? Well, on the topic she was working on, the best and quickest way to get an initial feel for the issues was a Wikipedia tour. This then gives rise to an intellectual dishonesty if you cannot acknowledge the source.

I especially liked Nigel's comments on the War of 1812 since I had written something similar. Remarkable how often we like things that we agree with!

A Fortean in the Archives continues to have some quite wonderful posts, posts that make me realise what a rank amateur I am. Here I will mention just two recent ones.

Tracking the trends via Google’s New Book Database introduces a new tool, one that I had not caught up with but now need to play with. The immediately preceding post, Truth, beauty and Pancho Villa, provides fascinating early picture of the role of what we now call the media in war. I quote:

So… Understanding the Mexican Revolution means realising that it was an unusually early example of a 20th century “media war”: a conflict in which the opposing generals duked it out not only on the battlefield, but also in the newspapers and in cinema scenarios. At stake, in this particular instance, were the hearts and minds of the government and people of the United States – who could, if they so wished, intervene decisively on behalf of one side or the other.

On The Resident Judge of Port Philip, Janine Rizzetti records the death of her mother. My thoughts are with her.

Helen Webberley's Art and Architecture mainly has introduced me to an entire new resource, Colonial Film: moving images of the British Empire. The coverage is still patchy, while you cannot access films directly. Still, the historical notes are interesting.

No matter how much history one knows, there is always more to know. My knowledge of the chaotic history of Northern Europe and Scandinavia during the First World War and the immediate period afterwards is very limited. I know very little of the history of Finland, for example.

To get a taste of the chaos, on History and Futility see Jussi Jalonen's story of the Finnish soldier of fortune Kaarlo Kurko. The latest post is  Kaarlo Kurko; the victory, the downfall and the aftermath. You can follow the earlier posts back from there.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Blogging and the craft of history

Anybody who has been seriously involved in historical study at whatever level will know that the work begins in confusion, uncertainty. Sometimes it just seems impossible to link things together. We drown in information. Things are disconnected.

Then, if we persevere, patterns start to emerge. We see connections between things. Now we are pointing and counterplotting between the general ideas we have been forming and the further evidence. Some things we put aside, others come into stronger focus. Now life has become interesting!

If we continue beyond this point, a new process emerges. Now we are both broadening and deepening our knowledge. Everything we read links back in some way to something we have looked at before. You would think that life would suddenly become boring, but no, for now we have just so many directions we can go that choice becomes an issue. In an interconnected world, we can follow threads in whatever direction we like.

You can see this process in one of my favourite history blogs, Janine Rizzetti's The Resident Judge of Port Phillip. I suspect that Janine had no idea that her study of one person at Port Phillip would take her deep into the world of Upper Canada.

I explored a little of this in a post on my personal blog, Greece, history & the on-line world. Here you can see how things link and cross-link.

One of the difficulties for all historians and especially those who work isolated from the profession, and that is in fact most people studying history, lies in the inability to share. We go to our families or friends with a very interesting if somewhat arcane piece of information and they just roll their eyes!

This is where blogging comes in. We can write the stuff and put it out there for all to see. Often, of course, no-one notices. They behave just like our family or friends. Even then, we have at least written it down, and the act of writing refines thought.

Beyond that, and if we keep at it, we do get some feedback. We find one or two people who are actually interested in that otherwise arcane piece of information. It doesn't happen all the time, but it happens often enough to be of value.   

All this may seem to be at some remove from my present main topic on this blog, social change in New England 1950-2000. In fact, it's quite germane.

In 1923: Classical Greek in the New England countryside, I provided a small snapshot of one small part of New England life in 1923, one far removed from normal historical discussion relating to the area. This drew a comment from KVD providing a link to a Sydney Morning Herald notice on the material I was talking about. I am already in front!

The post in question was triggered by some work that I was doing investigating New England's Ogilvie family for the next post in the culture change series. So now you have two of the things that I have been talking about in play.

The first is the new directions effect. Who could or would have thought that a search on a New England pastoral dynasty would take me to a Greek play performed in the original Greek?

The second is the deepening effect. I have added another small tile to my growing New England mosaic. 

Now all this is really very satisfying. Remember, the thesis on which my writing is based is that the history of New England is more than just a variation at the margin to the broader Australian story. It is a story in its own right.

I am sure now that I can show this if only I can complete the work. I think that I can write a story that will explain New England to New Englanders, but also challenge the simplistic theme based structures on which so much of Australian history writing is based.

What I really want to do, and it's a huge challenge that may be beyond my skills, is to recreate worlds now vanished that simply hang together. If I can do this, I pose a fundamental challenge to those who deny the existence and validity of those worlds.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Social Change in New England 1950-2000 9: Grafton Brewing Company Limited

Following my muse Rural Press, Fairfax and Brian McCarthy, I wrote a short piece Social Change in New England 1950-2000 8: unlisted public companies fleshing out the role of such companies.

In the first post, I mentioned the Grafton Brewing Company as an unlisted public company. Checking, I found that it was certainly listed in 1961 when it was taken over by Tooheys.

I also found an interesting thematic history of Grafton, one that I had not seen before: Brett J. Stubbs, A Thematic History of the City of Grafton, Volume 2 of Community-based Heritage Study, Clarence Valley Council & NSW Heritage Office, December 2007. Brett's history includes a section on brewing, pp 100-103.

I am take the liberty of quoting the section on brewing, with a comment at the end, looking at Grafton as a bit of a case study on aspects of change.

"4.4 Brewing Industry

Grafton’s first brewery was started by Robert Muir in 1861, but it was small and short-lived. Muir’s Grafton Brewery was situated near the Dobie Street wharf, across the river from Patrick Fraser’s flour mill. Muir advertised in October that year that he was able to supply ales manufactured ‘solely from the best English malt and hops’.The brewery seems to have ceased operation in 1863.

From the closure of Muir’s brewery until the early 1950s, Grafton obtained practically all of its beer requirements from breweries in Newcastle, Maitland and, most significantly, Sydney. In the late 1940s, however, when the Sydney breweries were slowly recovering from wartime restrictions on production, there existed a general shortage of beer throughout New South Wales, especially outside the capital city. In the north coast region, to which beer was shipped from Sydney by the North Coast Steam Navigation Co., supply was irregular and shortages commonplace. Under these circumstances, plans were commenced for the construction at Grafton of a new brewery to serve the northern part of the state.

Grafton Brewing Company

The Grafton Brewing Company Pty Ltd was incorporated in 1949, and was granted a licence for its Grafton Brewery when construction of this was completed in 1952. Production of beer commenced in November that year, and the first Grafton beer was sold over the counter in Grafton pubs on 18 December. The brewery, situated on the northern side of North Street, was in Copmanhurst Shire, but a northward relocation of the local government boundary in 1957 brought it within the newly-created City of Grafton.

Grafton Brewing became a public company (Grafton Brewing Company Ltd) in 1953, in order to facilitate the raising of extra capital for expansion. At about the same time, the Sydney breweries were beginning to overcome the post-war shortage, and a rail bulk-loading contract enabled them to send beer cheaply to Lismore, the largest centre within Grafton Brewery’s intended distribution area. Resulting strong competition from the Sydney breweries, among other factors, led to the inability of the Grafton Brewery to operate profitably, and in 1961 the company accepted a takeover offer from one of its
city rivals, Tooheys Limited.

Under the brewery’s new owner, Grafton beers were phased out and replaced by Tooheys brands in the 1960s, but production at the Grafton Brewery was greatly increased by the addition of new plant. This included an outdoor ‘tank farm’ of individually refrigerated fermentation and maturation tanks, and
new canning and bottling machinery, all of which were officially opened in December 1968. The canning line processed the first ‘ring-pull’ beer cans produced and sold in New South Wales. The new bottling line enabled the brewery to fill 13 fluid ounce ‘stubbies’ in addition to the usual 26 fluid ounce
bottles, which the existing line handled.

A review of operations at the three Tooheys breweries in New South Wales resulted in major changes at Grafton in 1987. Packaging of beer at the brewery ceased, although it continued to produce bulk (kegged) products. As a consequence, forty of the nearly 200 workers at the brewery were retrenched.This was a better outcome than at the Hunter Brewery at Cardiff (Newcastle), which was closed completely. The much larger brewery at Auburn (Sydney) would produce all Tooheys packageimaged products.

Figure 4.3 The brewhouse at the Grafton Brewery, 1988. These copper brewing vessels were manufactured by A. Ziemann Breweries of Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, Germany. As far as can be ascertained, they were scrapped soon after the closure of the brewery.

Further job losses occurred at the Grafton Brewery in 1991 after Tooheys targetted 41 positions to be cut out of the remaining 157. The brewery received a boost in 1993 with the installation of a new keg line to handle the 50 litre kegs that had become standard elsewhere in the industry.

By mid-1994, the Grafton Brewery employed 95 people, fewer than half of its 1987 workforce, yet further reductions were implemented. A year later only 61 remained. Amid rumours of closure, the brewery’s new operations manager gave assurances that ‘We’re certainly not here to close the brewery down’. Barely a year later, the same operations manager told 42 workers that they were no longer required as the brewery would close completely on 30 May 1997. Reduction in demand for keg beer, on which Grafton Brewery
concentrated, was cited as the reason for the closure.image

Figure 4.4 The former Grafton Brewery, 2007"


Looking at the references, I see that Brett has done a bigger study on NSW brewing: Stubbs, 1996, ‘The Revival and Decline of the Independent Breweries in New South Wales, 1946 to 1961,’Australian Economic History Review 36(1), 32-63.

The web site deListed shows that  Grafton was delisted on 24 July 1961 following its takeover by Tooheys.  According to the State Library of NSW, Toohey  opened the Hunter Brewery at Cardiff in Newcastle in February 1971


I was interested to see that war time and immediate post war shortages were one of the drivers in the establishment of the brewery.

I haven't fully scoped the economic impact of the Second World War on New England. Shortages of paper, for example, affected the newspapers. Diversion of ships into naval duties along with losses from Japanese submarines badly damaged the coastal trade. The ending of coastal shipping was one element of change in New England during the fifties.

The commercial challenges that Grafton faced in breaking into the marketplace in the face of bigger competitors were, I think, pretty typical. Of the various New England business interests, I know the media best. Working in a small market place on one side, competing with bigger Sydney based interests for things like advertising on the other, were regular themes in board discussions.

Problems with transport compounded problems. As in the case of Lismore, bulk rail transport rates allowed external suppliers to bring goods in cheaply, while poor roads limited Grafton's access to inland markets. I haven't looked at the costs of road freight Grafton-Armidale as compared to rail freight Sydney-Armidale, but I suspect that rail was cheaper.

Probably of more importance in the case of beer was brewery ownership of hotels. As I remember it, Tooths and Tooheys owned or controlled significant pub chains, giving them something of a market lock-in. I say as I remember it because while I know that they did own or control many pubs, I don't know the distribution across New England. My memory from discussions is that this was a problem in, say, Armidale.

Once Tooheys took over, the fate of the brewery depended on broader corporate decisions.

With the Tooheys takeover, Grafton disappeared as a brand. I don't know the year. It didn't happen immediately, but it did happen. Then there was an initial expansion, followed by contraction that closed both the Cardiff and Grafton breweries.

What I hadn't realised properly until I read Brett's history was the scale of industrial activity in Grafton. This was quite significant. Grafton is actually an interesting microcosm of the nature of industrial change with the consequent social side-effects.

If we look at New England as a whole, there were two quite distinct industrial change processes.

From the end of the Second World War until the 1980s, Australian industry was protected by a system of considerable tariff barriers and quotas. This allowed considerable industrial expansion and especially in the 1950s and 1960s. This provided some benefits to parts of New England at periods. However, as a largely branch office economy, New England was also affected by business restructuring. Here growing industrial and concentration led to changes; ice cream manufacturing in Grafton is a case in point, as is the Grafton Brewery.  

The second major industrial change process came about with the progressive dismantling of trade barriers. From the 1970s, and especially in the 1980s, industry protection was greatly reduced, forcing industrial restructuring. This affected Newcastle in particular. The closure of the BHP plant in 1997 is an example.

These changes affected agriculture as well. Previous industry based marketing regimes were progressively reduced or modified. Certain industries, dairying is an example, experienced very considerable change as a consequence.

An interesting sub-text in both change processes is the way in which previously state-based commercial activities became national. Beer, ice cream and dairy products are all examples.     

In combination, these various changes brought about fundamental change in the patterns of New England life. 

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Social Change in New England 1950-2000 8: unlisted public companies

In an earlier post in this series, Social Change in New England 1950-2000 5: end of local media ownership I talked about (as the title said) the end of local media ownership. In Rural Press, Fairfax and Brian McCarthy, a post on my New England Australia blog, I talked in part about the fall of the unlisted public company. The two are connected.

Unlisted public companies were quite important in the economic fabric of New England life for a period. Their decline was was of the social and economic changes that took place in New England over the second half of the twentieth century. For that reason, I thought that I should do a note here as part of my current social change series.

While there are still unlisted public companies, that is public companies not listed on any stock exchange, there is really no modern equivalent so far as small companies are concerned. Regulatory and compliance costs now rule the structure out.

Public companies were formed because they facilitated capital raising and share transfers, while providing the protection of limited liability. Many of these New England companies were very small even then by comparison to their metro equivalents. By today's standards, they were tiny.

To put this in perspective, the local department  store, the newspaper, the car dealership might all be unlisted public companies. 

The unlisted public company structure was well understood. It was normal practice when considering a significant new venture to consider the formation of an unlisted public company as a way of gathering local or regional capital and of spreading risk.

Risk avoidance was important. Reading the board papers of companies such as the Armidale Express, Northern Newspapers or Broadcast Amalgamated, there are constant references to business risks and uncertainties. One way of managing this in the case of new ventures, was to form a new public company controlled by one or more of the existing companies.

While there were wealthy families and individuals in New England some of whom did invest, many of the investors appear to have been medium size graziers and middle class town people both business and professional. Unlisted public companies formed an important vehicle for capturing local capital for local use. They also provided a market for local professionals such as accountants and lawyers. Big city law firms were used on more complex matters especially where city activities were concerned, but local service supply was still important.

Some of the companies developed into significant businesses. Some became listed companies. But all were to vanish.

I have not traced the decline of the unlisted public company across New England, but I think that it was concentrated in the fifteen years from the end of the 1960s. Most were taken over by outside interests, some by local entrepreneurs looking to expand. Structural change in combination with rising compliance costs meant that there were no replacements.

An era had ended. With their passing went a key mechanism for capturing local capital for local investment. With them went the local head office jobs, replaced by lower level external reports. By 2000, and I have to scope this properly, New England had become a capital  exporter whose profits and savings funded development elsewhere.  

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Social Change in New England 1950-2000 7: Judith Wright

These are some of my favourite posts. Like many of the other posts I am repeating here, they were not written as history posts. However, they do capture elements of some of the key social changes that took place in New England after 1950.

Judith was born into one of New England's great pastoral dynasties. In 1950, the world she grew up in, while under strain, still seemed secure. By the time she died, it had largely gone.

The loss of the family properties marked Judith. In a world where the first son inherited, she had no claim to the land, yet it was hers in a very personal sense. The loss hurt.

The relationship between Judith, the family and especially her father and the land was always a complicated one.

She saw the land as hers, but came increasingly to recognise the rights of the earlier inhabitants. With time, her views on the society in which she grew up progressively shaded from positive to negative. I found this erosion, as I saw it, very sad.

I hope that you enjoy the posts. She was such a brilliant writer whose words had the capacity to present my own country to me.  

The Poetry of Judith Wright - Bora Ring, January 30, 2007

Judith Wright is probably New England's best known poet.

Her poetry, especially her earlier writing, has always resonated with me because it says something to me about the world in which I grew up, a world still deeply imprinted on my soul. I thought therefore that it might be fun to take some of her poems and use them as a window to look at different aspects of New England.

I suspect that many Australians still think of Australia's traditional Aborigines as simple hunter gatherers living in an ancient and unchanging landscape, although there is growing recognition of the complexity of their social and spiritual life. In fact, within the limits set by their tools and available food supplies they were also sophisticated builders.

The Bora Rings of New England and south-eastern Queensland are examples. As Sandra Bowdler pointed out, these earthen rings of eastern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland are significant ritual structures and are probably unique in the world as hunter gatherer constructions of known function which constitute notable monuments in the landscape.

Sandra goes on to describe them:

The earthen rings known as “Bora” are usually part of a complex of two or three rings, linked by a path or paths. They were used in what Sutton calls “man-making ceremonies”, that is, male initiation ceremonies. In the literature, we find that the large ring in the complex was usually part of a relatively public ceremony, with women looking on; the smaller ring was the site of the major initiation rites, for initiated men and initiates only. The purpose of the third ring is not as well documented in the literature. It has been suggested that these are women’s rings, but it is not clear to me that this was always the case. Bora sites were often (always?) associated with carved trees.
The average size of a large ring is about 25 - 30 m across, and a small ring 10-12 m. There is a wide range of variation however. The earth is mounded up to a height of c.25-50 cms. Usually there is a path, often to the south-west from the large ring, connecting to smaller ring.

Judith's poem starts by painting a picture of a Bora Ring now alone in the landscape:
The song is gone, the dance
is secret with the dancers in the earth,
the ritual useless, and the tribal story
lost in an alien tale.
Only the grass stands up
to mark the dancing-ring, the apple gums
posture and mime a past corroboree,
murmurs a broken chant

The hunter is gone, the spear
is splintered underground, the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still

The rider halts, feeling that the ghosts are still present.
Only the rider's heart
halts at sightless shadow, an unsaid word
that fastens in the blood the ancient curse,
the fear as old as Cain.

It is a wonderfully evocative poem. But it is also a very European perspective with its emphasis on the vanished Aboriginal past. In fact, that past was still present.

I am not sure when Judith wrote this poem, but at the time there were almost certainly New England Aborigines alive who had passed through traditional initiation at one of the Bora sites. Further, the knowledge of the sites and their significance has continued to be passed on.

Here we can compare Judith's words with the much later 1996/1997 Aboriginal description of a site near Bellbrook quoted by Sandra:

“This site is known as the passing out ground for initiates of the Thungetti tribe. It is one of several initiation Grounds in the Bellbrook area where different stages of the Bora ceremony took place. As such, it is still highly sacred to the Aboriginal elders residing at Bellbrook Mission, and is considered to be one of the most important of the initiation sites in the area”

Judith Wright's The Hawthorn Hedge - Regional Australia writers, 14 August 2007

Photo: Just about in the middle of nowhere, above the gorge, sits this orange tree. Presumably, once upon a time, a homestead once sat nearby. From Gordon Smith.

Across the Australian countryside you will find remnants of past settlement. Now they just sit there. Once they were a symbol of human hopes and dreams.

Judith Wright is one of Australia's premier regional writers. While she wrote on many things, her writing was formed by her early experiences in New England 's Northern Tablelands, the same area covered by Gordon Smith's photos.

Judith Wright's poem The Hawthorn Hedge captures one element of the New England experience. The very title is indicative of this, an English plant transplanted into an Australian environment to provide a feeling of home.

The poem begins:

How long ago she planted the hawthorn hedge -
she forgets how long ago -
that barrier thorn across the hungry ridge;
thorn and snow.

The phrase hungry ridge echoes another traditional Australian bush phrase, hungry country. This is country that has to be fed, but does not give a proper return for the effort. Snow, because snow is not uncommon in the high New England country where Judith grew up.

The poem goes on:

It is twice as tall as the rider on the tall mare
who draws his reins to peer
in through the bee-hung blossom. Let him stare.
No one is here;

We can see the hedge grown tall. However, it is not true that no one is there.

Only the mad old girl from the hut on the hill,
unkempt as an old tree.
She will hide away if you wave your hand or call;
she will not see.

Obviously the rider know that she is there. So we are left wondering why, how she came to this? Judith's next verse drives home the point:

Year-long, wind turns her grindstone heart and whets
a thornbranch like a knife,
shouting in winter "Death"; and when the white bud sets,
more loudly, "Life".

Now Judith contrasts present and past:

She has forgotten when she planted the hawthorn hedge,
that thorn, that green, that snow;
birdsong and sun dazzled across the ridge -
it was long ago

She goes on:

Her hands were strong in the earth, her glance on the sky,
her song was sweet on the wind,
The hawthorn hedge took root, grew wild and high
to hide behind.

I grew up in this country. When Judith writes, I can see and understand.

The Poetry of Judith Wright - South of My Days, 1 September 2007

Photo: Here, in the misty rain, Cooney Creek rises out of its bed and passes behind the old cottage. Gordon Smith. Cooney Creek crosses Waterfall Way, the main road linking Armidale to the coast, just to the east of the city.

In his Friday Australian poetry series, Neil (Ninglun) featured Judith Wright's South of My Days. This is a magnificent poem that, like all good poetry, stands alone independent of context.

While the poem does stand alone, the language and content of the poem are also deeply imbued by the world in which Judith grew up. I know and love this world, so I thought that I might continue my irregular series on the poetry of Judith Wright by placing this poem and its language in a context.

I am not going to repeat the poem in full. If you are interested, I suggest that you read Neil's post first, perhaps printing the poem off. At the end of the post I have added links to some of the other posts I have written on the Wrights.

The Wrights and the associated Wyndhams are one of the great New England pastoral dynasties whose story encompasses the rise and later fall of New England itself.

The story begins in the Hunter Valley in 183o when George and Margaret Wyndham purchased "Annandale", renaming the property "Dalwood" and building Dalwood House as a home. From there the family spread, acquiring a chain of properties along the eastern edge of the New England Tablelands and then stretching up into Queensland. Judith's own book, Generations of Men, captures the early history of the family.

Wallamumbi, the home property for Judith's branch of the family, lies on Waterfall Way to the east of Armidale just before that road plunges into the rough country of New England's Snowy Mountains. Look north, and the rolling green hills are all Wallamumbi.

The poem begins: "South of my day's circle, part of my blood's country,".

As Neil notes, Judith was then living to the north in Queensland. The spare elegance of these words captures location and love of country. Blood can be read in two ways, both her blood and that of her family. The poem goes on:

rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue leaved and olive, outcropping granite -

This is high country. Coastal hugging Australians know the eastern escarpment mainly as a distant blue range seen from a car window. Some venture as far as the national parks along the rim, the Barrington Tops, Oxley Wild Rivers, Dorrigo, New England. Far too few venture further in.

High country means cold. The "black-frost night" is a term Judith uses a little later in the poem. Snow is not uncommon, frost very common. The worst frosts, the black frosts, crisp the ground itself. This can actually crunch under your feet as you walk.

Much of the New England Tablelands is also granite country, especially in the west.

Granite takes many forms. The water-streaked dome of Bald Rock is the largest single granite rock in Australia. It's 750 metres long, 500 metres wide and 200 metres high. Sometimes you have several major boulders together such as Thunderbolt's Rock south of Uralla where Captain Thunderbolt used to watch for the gold coaches. Sometimes the granite forms flattish sheets.

Granite makes for poor soils. Trees are low, smaller, struggling. This can be, as Judith says, "clean, lean, hungry country." Hungry country carries two linked meanings: country that has to be fed if it is to be productive; but it also means country that can suck the spirit, the life, from the settler.

The poem goes on:

clean, lean, hungry country. The creek's leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.

There is a contrast built into these lines between the Australian "low trees, blue leaved and olive "and the very European willow and crabapple.

The early European settlers planted to remind them of home. With time, these plantings (run wild) became part of the landscape. Here, as in Judith's poem The Hawthorn Hedge, the plantings form a sometimes complicated link between past and present.

The old cottage" lurches in for shelter" continues the theme of "wincing under winter." This continues in the next verse:

O cold the black frost night. The walls draw in to the warmth
and the old roof cracks its joints: the sling kettle
hisses a leak on the fire ...

In the early period, cooking was done over an open fire. There was often a bar over the fire on which hung kettles, pots and pans. To avoid the problem of fire, kitchens were often separated from the main house by a covered walk-way.

In all places, the kitchen became the place to gather for warmth. At home in Armidale, my girl friends used to stand with their backs to the fuel stove, hitching their skirts up to capture the warmth.

The poem now changes direction with the introduction of old Dan with his "seventy years of stories". Now we come to something that is different from the modern metro atomistic society.

Judith grew up in a village world.

Tablelands' society was far more stratified than today. Yet properties then employed far more people, so Judith would have known and listened to the older hands. In my case, I remember old Mr Wallace who did the weekly gardening at our place and used to tell me stories about the clearing of the tall trees on the Dorrigo plateau.

In Judith's case, the stories would have resonated because of her own family past. So when Dan spoke of droving cattle from Charleville to the Hunter - "nineteen one it was, and the drought beginning" -she would have remembered stories from her own family experience.

In all this, Judith captures an idiom that is still familiar to Australians today despite all the changes. describing Thunderbolt: "He went like a luny, him on his big black horse."

The poem finishes. To quote Neil: And that closure: wonderful.

South of my days' circle
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of dark stories that still go walking in my sleep.

As they do for me too.

Judith Wright's "For a Pastoral Family" - and "Skins" 7 September 2007

This post continues my irregular series on Judith Wright, again inspired by a good post by Neil. I do not have a full copy of this poem, something that I must rectify. Again, I thought that I might usefully add a little context to the discussion.

Before reading this post, I suggest that you read Neil's post first. You might also read a rather interesting piece from the Cordite Poetry Review found by Neil that provides useful biographical material on Judith, as well as a commentary from an external perspective.

A year or so back I brought Judith Wright's autobiographical memoir Half a Life Time (1999). I bought it with anticipation, I read it with a degree of sadness.

We all interpret and reinterpret our own lives in the light of experience and events. Things change. As they do, we change. Here Neil quoted a much later poem, Skins, a poem that I had not see before.

The poem begins:

This pair of skin gloves is sixty-six years old,
mended in places, worn thin across the knuckles.

You can see here how she retains her superb control of English.

The poem goes on:

Snakes get rid of their covering all at once.
Even those empty cuticles trouble the passer-by

Note the references to the "empty cuticles". This is critical to the point she wants to make in the poem.

Now she says:

Counting in seven-year rhythms I’ve lost nine skins
though their gradual flaking isn’t so spectacular.

So she is comparing herself to the snake. This lays the basis for her final, tart, jab at those who were critical of her later, more political, writing.

You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties?
They dropped off several incarnations back.

The difficulty for Judith is that you cannot easily disentangle yourself from your own life or family, nor can you stop people interpreting your work through their own current frames.

When I look at her work as a whole, I have not read all of it, I can see a gradual erosion in optimism, a darkening. You can see this simply by comparing Generations of Men (1959), Cry for the Dead (1981) and Half a Life Time (1999).

Part of this came from her growing political activisim. Her focus on the Aborigines and on environmental issues is well documented. Personally I find this later material much harder to read because I cannot disentangle my own views on issues from the writing.

I am not sure exactly when For a Pastoral Family was written, 1979 or 1980, not long before the publication of Cry for the Dead. This is message poetry, but one (as I see it) with an edge of bitterness. One part of the poem says:

Our people who gnawed at the fringe
of the edible leaf of this country
left all the margins of action, a rural security
and left to me
what serves a base for poetry,
a doubtful song that has a dying fall

The language is superb. Read it out loud several times and you will see what I mean.

I will talk about family - caught in the and left to me - in a moment. For the present, you will see what I mean by message poetry. To see a little more, go back to Neil's post and read out loud the words from To My Generation. There is a real passion there, captured in superb English.

To understand Judith, you have to understand her family. I tread cautiously here because in all families there are different views. While I knew many members of her family including her father, I did not know Judith. Her (Judith's) daughter may well have a different perception to me.

As I see it, there were two family members who had a particular influence on Judith.

The first was the matriarch, Charlotte May, who essentially built the family fortune. Judith knew about powerful women. This made her exclusion from the male line of succession doubly difficult.

The second was her father, P A Wright. Everybody called him PA, if not to his face. His sense of committment, his dedication to development and the New England cause was profound. In a comment on his post Neil wrote:

I find it fascinating that Judith Wright followed a line of thinking about such things as the environment and Aboriginal Australia before such things really became “fashionable”. You could say her poetry led her down that path.

One of the points that I have made to Neil in our on-going and enjoyable debates on Australian intellectual life is that certain concerns did not arise out of a vacuum.

In Judith's case, she had a father who (among other things) was involved in environmental issues. His concerns may not have been quite those that exist today, but he did fight to create his own national park, the New England National Park, the second(I think) in NSW. I will write this story up a little later.

PA died in 1970. At this point, Judith's exclusion from the land she loved became absolute. Then, towards the end of her life, she had to deal with the loss of the family properties.

First came the loss of Jeogla and the V1V branch (V1V was the brand) of the family. A little later came the loss of of V2V and Wallamumbi itself.

I do not want to comment on the commercial issues involved.

Richard Wright with his partner was my first ever consulting client. Both Richard (ViV) and David (V2V) Wright had a passion for good cattle and have played a major role in the development of breeds and of new objective measurement techniques. Both became involved in expansion plans that brought the empires down. Both suffered from the bastardry of the banks.

To Judith with her love of country, this was a disaster. In the words of the ABC Dynasties program talking about brother David Wright:

By December 2000, he 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.

I suppose that I have come a fair distance from talking about Judith's poetry. But (to my mind) you cannot separate her from her family and the broader history of New England.

After thoughts

Re-reading this a little later, I do not think that I have the balance exactly right.

Judith's father died in 1970. This was the second important death in a few years, for her husband Jack McKinney had died in 1966.

I knew that Jack McKinney was older, but had forgotten by how much. He was born in 1891, only two years later than Judith's father (1889). It seems to me that Mr McKinney, her daughter along with her family and the family country formed a core in her life. So she lost her husband, then her father and finally at the end her family country.

Tracing all the influences on a life is always hard.

I used the New England National Park example to indicate that her love of the environment did not just appear, but had its roots deep in her past. I think something similar holds with her support for Aboriginal causes.

How do I explain this?

I have a problem here in that her work is so often forced into modern thought structures that can actually impede interpretation. Further, and as I suggested in the post, Judith's own interpretations shifted over time.

I think that we have to look at her writing and especially her poetry across several dimensions.

One is literary. Whether one agrees with her or not on particular issues, the power and passion of her words is tangible, a living thing. So we need to understand and study this.

But this does not make her writing valid as a historical expression. Her poem Bora Ring paints an evocative picture of a vanished race. Yet the people she spoke of were still alive, their traditions were still alive, at the time she wrote.

I cannot continue now. I have to cook tea. I will try to continue as a new post.


Browsing, I found that Ramona Koval had done an interesting interview with Judith just before her death that traces some of the effects of time on her thought.