Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sunday Essay - The beliefs of a New England populist

Those who read this blog on a regular basis will know that I score left of centre on the conventional political tests. Yet they will also know that I feel the need to deny that I am a conservative because some of the things that I write lead to me being typed as conservative under our conventional labelling systems . They may also notice how often I use the phrase outsider-insider or its converse indicating that I know how systems work, but am not part of them.

Like all people, my core beliefs are mixed and come from my family background transmuted through my own life experiences. I have described some of these varying influences, including the way they seem to have carried down through several generations spread across countries.

Helen, my eldest, started with management studies, a very popular topic in today's world. She switched to Economics-Arts because she found management studies too narrow. Last week, dissatisfied with the narrow applied mathematical focus especially in microeconomics, she chose economic history as her third major, adding to development studies and management.

She rang me quite excited to make me guess, unsuccessfully as it turned out, what she had chosen. She knew that I would be interested and pleased and I was. However, she did not realise that she was the third generation on the Belshaw side - the three generations that have been to university - to chose a mix that involved in some way economics, history, development and anthropology.

In describing my beliefs I use the term New England populist as a label to describe the core political tradition to which I belong. This tradition sits somewhat outside the conventional political constructs of left and right, labour and capital, conservative and labor, in part explaining why friends and colleagues sometimes have difficulty in understanding where I fit in the political spectrum. The answer is I don't fit.

What is New England Populism?

The term New England populism is my own label. Given this, what do I mean?

New England populism refers to a set of political beliefs and attitudes that took form in Northern New South Wales. While the genesis of those beliefs dates back to the colonial period, they were first articulated in a structured way the period after the First World War and especially during the first part of the 1920s.

To my knowledge, New England populism is the only sustained separate regionally based political belief system and, arguably, the only Australian political belief system with a claim to being uniquely Australian. In saying this, I am not saying that all the elements are unique. They are not. However, what is unusual is that the form and combination those beliefs took was based on very particular geographic and political circumstances including the fight for self-government.

My use of the term New England is itself a political statement.

New England was originally called Northern New South Wales, the Northern Districts, the Northern Provinces or simply the North. Those living in New England called themselves Northerners.

At its Maitland Convention in 1931, the Northern Separation Movement adopted the name New England, the name of the Tablelands forming the geographic centre of the North, as the title for the whole area. From then until the defeat of the New State plebiscite in 1967, the use of the name New England spread and became fairly universal. While New England is still used in the way I use the term, the terms Northern NSW, the North or even Northern Provinces or Districts have come back into vogue since 1967.

The NSW Progressive or Country Party is the best known political manifestation of New England populism. However, there are problems here at a number of levels.

The various State Country Parties that emerged after the First World War and the Federal Party itself all drew from various agrarian movements. In broad terms, these movements were dominated by small farmers and had a strong radical populist element. The early Victorian Country Party had more in common with Labor than it did with the Melbourne establishment dominated Nationalist Party as the then Liberal Party equivalent was known.

In NSW, the Progressive Party as the Country Party was first known attracted broader support. However, this was patchy. Only in New England did the Party become the dominant political force outside the still Labor dominated Newcastle and Lower Hunter, combining farmers and graziers, town and rural people.

The Party, especially the earlier Party, was still populist. However, this broader constituency together with the need to maintain support from the Graziers' Association, a major funder, also made it more conservative. This conservatism has tended to increase with time.

In his study of the NSW County Party, Don Aitkin pointed to the importance of country mindedness in the development of the Party, the idea of the virtues of country life combined with the sense of an oppressive city, an oppressed country. This survives today, although the term regional has now often replaced country. My use of "metro" as a sometimes pejorative term is an example.

Don also pointed to the importance of separatist agitation in solidifying broad support behind the Party. However, in doing so I think that he failed to recognise the importance of the separatist movement as an ideological and political force in its own right.

During the nineteenth century there were various moves to gain self government for Northern New South Wales, but these remained sporadic. However, agitation resumed towards the end of the First World War and then continued in a largely sustained way for the next fifty years.

This added a further and distinct thread to the New England populist tradition, for the separatists were attacking the legitimacy of existing constitutional structures. In doing so, they had to address issues relating to rights of self-determination, the proper basis for Government and allocation of powers within a Federal system. As part of this process, they forced a number of Royal Commissions and Parliamentary inquiries into constitutional issues.

The relationships between the separatists or new staters on one side, New England's political parties on the other, was a complicated one that is still affecting the New England political landscape today.

Early Progressive or Country Party politicians could easily embrace the cause. They were themselves starting a new political movement and for similar reasons. They saw separation as part of the same process. Led by Earle Page, all the Northern Progressive and Country Party parliamentarians became involved in the separation movement.

Nationalist politicians whose main power base was in Sydney and were under political threat from the emerging Progressive/Country Party were quick to attack the new separatist movement. The need for coalition forced some modification of the Party position. However, the Nationalist/United Australia/Liberal Party hierarchy remained deeply suspicious, in part because of a fear that New England's separation would leave them in a permanent minority position in a truncated NSW.

The Labor position was more complicated.

From 1920, the New England leaders took their cause national, attempting to create separation movements throughout Australia, thus reshaping the Australian political structure. In doing so, they deliberately reached out to the ALP.

While the majority of the New England leaders were now new Country (Federal) or Progressive (State) Party parliamentarians, this was not as bigger obstacle as it might seem today. Political alliances had yet to solidify.

A bigger obstacle lay in the earlier decision by the ALP to adopt unification as a platform item. Despite this, the new state cause did gain some ALP support, including Queenslander Frank Forde who later became Labor Prime Minister for a brief period.

NSW was a different story. The Progressives threatened Labor's country seats. NSW Labor opposition was strengthened a little later by the decision of the Progressives to establish the first coalition agreement with the Nationalist Party, then strengthened again during the political turmoil of the depression.

As the depression worsened and suspicions of the Lang Labor Government deepened, separatist agitation sprang up across regional NSW. These various movement finally merged with the Country Party to create the United Country Movement. The UCM swept country NSW at the next election.

New states were a central UCM plank, and indeed the new Government did appoint the Nicholas Royal Commission to draw up boundaries for areas suitable for statehood within NSW. However, new state support had dropped and, when offered a referendum, the New England political leadership within the NSW Government were reluctant to put the matter to the test.

The New State Movement emerged again at the Second World War, beginning a sustained campaign culminating in the 1967 plebiscite.

Movement activists had learned a bitter lesson from the United County Movement experience. The new movement was firmly non-party political, although Party responses in fact remained the same. NSW Labor, concerned that the Party might find itself in a permanent opposition position in a New England state, campaigned strongly for the no case. The very high no vote recorded in Newcastle and surrounds was sufficient to offset the yes vote elsewhere in New England, although the margin (4 per cent) was not high.

Relations between the Movement and Country Party broke down in the aftermath of the plebiscite. Angry, the Movement redrew the boundaries to exclude the Hunter Valley and then ran New State candidates at the next election. This created a bitter divide within the Movement and Party.

Exhausted, the Movement collapsed. The damage done to the Party was longer term in its effects.

The Party's strength in New England as compared to the rest of NSW had always rested on its capacity to mobilise support across very different groups. Although not clear at the time, this was in fact heavily dependent on the existence of the New State Movement because this provided a separate and unifying political focus that the Country Party of all the parties could best capture.

Today New England is still the National Party's strongest base in NSW. Yet that base has been much eroded by demographic change one side, the rise of the New England independents on the other.

To my mind, it is no coincidence that it should be New England where the independent movement is strongest, best organised and most cashed up. While they may not see it in this way, the New England independents best capture the New England populist tradition. Meantime, the NSW Nationals remain locked into the now conventional political structures in which their only distinguishing feature appears to be a regional focus on the "conservative" side of politics.

What do New England Populists Believe?

I have written at some length on the historical background because you will not find this material in any Australian history book. The New England story has been essentially expunged, reduced to passing references or a few footnotes.

It should also be clear that many different streams contributed to the development of New England populism. As you might expect, this led to different and even conflicting views. Further, those involved were not trying to develop a new political ideology, but were focused on more immediate political and practical concerns. There is in fact a reasonably substantial volume of political writing, but this was written for a purpose.

Given all this, what are the core beliefs of a New England populist?

A New England populist rejects the intellectual, institutional and political constructs of left and right. In old terms, the New England populist does not accept that there is capital on one side, labour on the other. In the middle lie the vast bulk of people, just trying to make their way in the world.

A New England populist believes that those who have power will tend to misuse it. This holds for big banks, Government, unions or institutionalised political parties.

When the Progressive Party first began its slogan was no preselection or pledge. This was designed to break the power of the machine. As part of this, any Party member in good standing should be able to run for election in the Party name. This may have been impractical even in a preferential system, but multiple endorsements were a common Country Party practice for many years.

A New England populist believes that the majority will always tend to oppress the minority in the belief that their views are self-evidently right. Safeguards are therefore required.

This leads to the constitutional stream centered on devolution of power and the geographic basis of Government. In constitutional terms, a New England populist believes that Governments must be representative and close to the people. To this end, entities whether states or local councils should be based on commonality of interest.

As part of this, a New England populist believes that people should be able to leave an entity, create or join another, if the first entity ceases to meet their needs.

A New England populist does not believe that Commonwealth-state powers should be fixed for ever. Powers should change as needs changed. However, constitutional entities must have real powers. Devolved powers do not work because, as with local government, the entity devolving the powers will always over-ride if its interest require it.

While suspicious of Government, a New England populist believes that Government has a key role to play in redressing social ills and in protecting the individual. Individuals must be responsible for their own actions. Government must act where events beyond individual control affect people.

Governments should also act to ensure that all people have equal access to services such as health or education.

A New England populist believes in collaboration, cooperation and collective action. People must organise in their own defence and to achieve joint objectives.

A traditional New England populist would regard the atomistic, individualist position of some so-called neo-conservatives as absurd. Improvement starts from individual and collective action. Governments then, or should, swing in.

This point is worth further development.

A New England populist believes that we have collective responsibilities. When things go wrong, the starting response is individual action. At the simplest level, this is knowing and worrying about your neighbour. If someone is sick, bring food.

Then, if things go belong this, you work through collective action. Fund raising, new programs, all supported by individual action. Beyond this is action through Government.

This is no mere rhetoric. It describes many of the positive developments within New England.

A New England populist respects authority and constitutional forms, especially parliamentary democracy.

Noticeably, New England populism is silent on personal moral issues beyond concepts such as personal or collective responsibility or duties. While I have read comments on personal moral issues from individuals or indeed from parties or organisations, there is no clear common thread that I can attribute to New England populism as such.

I make this point because it is noticeable. One could argue that this reflected a distinction between the personal and public domains. However, while I think that this is probably true, I am not sure what it really means.

In finishing, I remain as I was, an un-reconstructed New England populist.

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