It will already be clear that the story of the North’s fight for self-government is long and complex. The 1920s are important in that long story because it was then that the arguments and issues that would dominate future debate were defined.
It is sad but true that the only new issue in present discussions on the future of the Australian Federation is the degree of fiscal imbalance created by the Commonwealth’s overwhelming financial power. Every other issue, everyone one of the solutions put forward, every argument for or against each solution, was fully canvassed in the 1920s and then repeated seriatim over coming decades.
I mention this because we are now coming in our story to the creation of the Cohen Royal Commission into New States. This was seen, correctly, as a considerable achievement. However, it was also one that would bring the new state movement to its knees.
In March 1920, the Progressive Party had campaigned as a new broom. However, the new Party was actually an uneasy amalgam of very experienced Parliamentarians who saw political power as an end and the new and younger country members such as Bruxner or Drummond who saw political power as a means to an end, the achievement of their objectives and aspirations.
On 5 October 1920 Labor Premier John Storey died, being replaced by James Dooley. Storey’s death left the Assembly evenly balanced. Sensing an opportunity, Nationalist Liberal leader George Fuller persuaded some of the Progressives to join him to create a Nationalist-Progressive Coalition to overthrow the Government.
The move failed, but split the Progressive Party down the middle, with the younger country members led by Bruxner refusing to have anything to do with the deal. Initially their fate was uncertain, but their stand was finally backed by the Progressive Party organisation.
The elections of March 1922 saw the two wings of the Progressive Party pitted against each other. Following the elections, the Nationalist- Coalitionists became the largest party group, but did not have a majority. Fuller (photo) therefore formed a minority government.
The True Blue Progressives were in a difficult position. Their party organisation and key backers including the Graziers’ Association would not allow them to support the Labor Party. Aware of this, Fuller did his best to ignore the presence of the True Blue Progressives.
The True Blues responded by making life miserable for the Government while campaigning on causes dear to their hearts, including new states. Matters came to a head in November 1923 when the Progressives combined with Labor, independent and dissident Coalitionists to defeat the Government during the Estimates debate.
Sir George Fuller had had enough. A deal was struck in which the Progressives agreed to provide general support to the Government in return for undertakings that included a Royal Commission into New States.
In December 1923, Drummond was able to move a successful motion in the Assembly calling for the creation of the Royal Commission. The Cohen Commission was born.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 27 August 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 for 2009, 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