Saturday, April 14, 2007

Populism - the New England Tradition:Introduction

Graphic: New England Flag

In my post On Populism I said that I came from the New England populist stream. I also said that I would discuss that stream in my next post.

To start with a definition. In writing of New England I am not talking about the regional rump now classified as New England North West by the Sydney Government, but the broader historical New England - the north east corner of NSW - covering the Hunter Valley, North Coast, Northern Tablelands, Western Slopes along with a slab of the Western Plains.

I make this point because this broader New England has to some degree vanished from historical view. Yet it continues to be important.

There have been two broad streams in New England politics, Labor and New England populist.

Even today, that stream represented by the party now known as the Liberal Party - it has had many names in its sometimes unstable history - struggles to achieve New England parliamentary representation. The Party's very narrow victory in Port Stephens gave the Party its first New England based seat in the NSW Legislative Assembly for many years.

The Labor stream forms part of broader ALP history and had its historic base in the mines and factories of the Lower Hunter, the railway workers throughout New England, the pastoral and agricultural workforce, as well those who worked in mining activities outside the Lower Hunter.

The New England populist stream has its own unique character and had its base in a range of overlapping movements and interests centred outside the Lower Hunter. Today the main political manifestations of this stream are the National Party and the Independent Movement.

New England was and to a degree still is Country, now National, Party heartland. Because of the habit of classifying parliamentarians on a state basis, the importance of New England to the Party is not always recognised.

At Federal level, six of the Party's eleven leaders have come from New England including long serving leaders such as Earle Page and Doug Anthony. At NSW state level, six of nine leaders have come from New England including Mick Bruxner who was Party Leader for thirty years. This is a not insignificant record.

The National Party began as a populist, membership based party. Membership of the NSW Party peaked at more than 50,000 in the 1980s, a record that I think no other party can match. The problem for the Party is, at least as I see it, that its institutionalisation and absorption into coalition with the Liberal Party slowly cut it off from its populist base.

I will comment on this a little later. For the moment I simply note that that changes to the Party created an opening in New England for what was to become the Independent Movement. Untrammelled by the constraints faced by the National Party, the Independent Movement was able to capture the New England populist vote, building a core of independent seats in the heart of New England.

At the last NSW election, the key New England battle lay in the fight between the independents on one side, the established parties on the other. While Labor lost one seat to the independents, the National Party held. Elsewhere in NSW, the independents went down outside Sydney and Dubbo, leaving New England as the independent core.

I hope that I have said enough to indicate the continued importance of the New England populist tradition. In my next post I will trace its emergence.

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