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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

History revisited – new state movement 163 years young and still kicking

In January 1851 a meeting in Brisbane supported by squatters from the Northern Tablelands, the Clarence and Darling Downs formed the Northern Districts Separation Association. Their aim was the creation of a new colony by the subdivision of NSW.

One hundred and sixty three years later, agitation for self government for the North continues. Last Monday, the ABC’s Kelly Fuller featured the New England New State Movement. As I write, the New England New State Facebook group page has 306 members. The Movement is presently much diminished from its peak to be sure, but at one hundred and sixty three years it is the oldest surviving political movement in Australia.
History is written by the winners, controlled by the gatekeepers who determine what will be researched and published, what is newsworthy. Since the 1967 plebiscite defeat, the fight for New England self-government has diminished to just a footnote in the history books. As it has done so, the recognition of the North, the broader New England, has diminished too.

Today, we count less than Tasmania or the ACT or the Northern Territory; less than Western Sydney, the Sunshine Coast, the Pilbara or the Kimberley. You see, we don’t exist. We are just not there.
Over the next six or so columns, I plan to tell you a little about the history of the continuing fight for New England self-government from the 1850s to the present time.

It’s not a story that you will find in the conventional history books. To those writers, our story is neither important nor relevant. However, it is to us. More, it’s important in a general sense as an integral thread in Australian history.

Over its history, the Northern later New England New State Movement forced the creation of one Federal and two state royal commissions into constitutional issues. It played a major role in the establishment of the most significant Commonwealth Parliamentary inquiry into the constitution. It led to pamphlets, book, articles, summer schools and conferences on constitutional issues.

The Movement had to do this because constitutional rigidities were, and remain, the biggest problem New England faced in gaining self government. In doing so, the Movement articulated all the main issues that have to be addressed by Mr Abbott’s White Paper on reform of the Federation.

Along the way, the Movement delivered quite tangible benefits to the North, going some way towards overcoming the parochial local and regional divides that have always bedevilled attempts at cooperative action.

Next week, I will begin the story by looking at the colonial origins of the Movement and especially that stormy petrel, the Presbyterian clergyman John Dunmore Lang who made such a mark on Australian history.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 9 July 2014, the first in a series telling the story of the Northern or New England self-government moment. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014.
Other posts in this series are:

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