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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

History revisited – the Cohen Commission: outmanoeuvred, the New England new state movement goes down

Premier Sir George Fuller may have been forced to accept Drummond’s resolution calling for a Royal Commission into the creation of new states but, fundamentally opposed to the idea of breaking up NSW, Fuller had no intention of making things easy for the new state protagonists,

The Northerners had wanted a Commission to lay down the boundaries for John Jacob Cohentheir state. Instead, the terms of reference announced in April 1924 required the new staters to pass three main tests: whether new states were practicable; if so, whether they were desirable; and whether the same ends could not be achieved another way.

These tests made the membership of the Commission vitally important, for unsympathetic appointees had three different if related grounds for rejection. The omens here were not encouraging.

Three of the five commissioners including Grafton born Justice Cohen (photo) as chair had deep connections with the Nationalist Party. Even more important was the appointment of W A Holman (photo) as counsel to assist the inquiry, supported by H S Nicholas. As Premier, Holman had clashed with the new staters while his political career had been effectively destroyed by those same Progressives who were now the chief protagonists of the new state cause.

The Northerners organised thoroughly for the task ahead. It was agreed that Thompson would organise the general evidence, while Page as Commonwealth Treasurer preparing the necessary financial data. Guidelines were prepared for witnesses, with local leagues provided on-ground support.

It was clear from the first hearings that the Movement was on trial as Holman used his considerable forensic skills to build the case against. The Commission became a duel between Thompson leading for the Movement and Holman.

Thompson believed that he was winning. This view was not shared by other members of the Northern leadership group. On 6 June 1924, an alarmed Alf Pollack wrote twice to Page stressing the need for expert cross-examination, arguing that Thompson could not provide it.

William_Holman_1919 The hearings also provoked scattered opposition from local opponents of the self-government cause, opposition that was played up by the metropolitan media covering the Commission. But most important of all were debates over financial viability.

Page had argued that a Northern new state would have an annual surplus of 416,064 pounds. NSW Treasury representative Bertram Stevens argued that revenues would be25 per cent lower than Page’s projections, costs 40 per cent higher.

Recognising that this was potentially devastating. Page drew on the resources of his own Department. A Treasury official analysed Steven’s evidence, while the Department also collected comparative material on costs in other jurisdictions.

In the end, it was all in vain. The Commission accepted Holman’s arguments and the State Treasury estimates, ruling against the Movement on all counts. New states were neither desirable nor practical. Existing defects in the machinery of government should be remedied by a system of district councils with delegated powers.

Exhausted, the movements elsewhere in NSW collapsed, while even the stronger Northern Movement was reduced to a shadow of its former strength.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 3 September 2014, the next 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 for2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014.

If you want to follow the story of the Northern or New England self-government movement, this is the entry post for the whole series

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