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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

History revisited – the Cohen Commission’s silver lining

Even at the time, the 1925 Cohen Commission Report into new states was not as devastating as it seemed. Northern and, more broadly, country grievances had been documented. The NSW Treasury financial assumptions and analysis accepted by the Commission were open to severe challenge, although some of the analytical tools that would assist this such as the concept of the multiplier had yet to be developed. The Report’s biases themselves were clearly documented. 

All this was recognised by the Melbourne Age in a remarkably sympathetic editorial. The unfavourable report should not come as a surprise, the paper suggested, nor was it a reason for slackening effort. “The commission represented the interests of one State or part of a State …… The case for new States is undeniably strong.”

Perhaps most importantly of all, the five years’ campaigning since Victor Thompson launched his newspaper campaign had created a genuine sense of Northern identity. This went some distance towards overcoming the very powerful local parochialisms that had, and still do, so poison efforts at broader Northern cooperation. Armidale would benefit greatly as a consequence.

Over the first half of 1926, David Drummond returned to the fight with a series of articles in Country Life on constitutional reform. These were published later in 1926 under the title Constitutional Changes in Australia.

The result could hardly be classified as literature: Drummond’s lack of formal education was still apparent in his sometimes clumsy construction, while the articles were repetitive and written in a popular style. However, they were a detailed statement of the separatist position that, with modifications, has held to the present day. Armidale Teachers College

In parallel, Drummond along with other Northern leaders turned to what would later be called the functional approach to new states, the creation of the structures and institutions necessary to support Northern self government. In doing so, they were supported by the local press and drew on the links and loyalties created over the previous five years.

The elections of October 1927 saw the defeat of the first Lang Government and its replacement by a Nationalist- Country Party coalition. The Progressive Party had changed its name to better reflect its country base.

The Northern Country Party ministers including Drummond as Minister for Public Instruction came to office with a long to do list.

One of the immediate tangible results was the 1928 creation of the Armidale Teachers’ College (photo) as a first step towards the creation of a Northern university. Work also began on the construction of the Guyra-Dorrigo railway, pursuing another long-held Northern dream.

This Indian Summer would prove brief, swept away by the Great Depression. As it faded, the ground was being laid for the next and still more dramatic burst of new state agitation.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 10 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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