Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Self-government for New England - why I remain a supporter

Over on the New England Australia blog I have been running a series on why I remain a supporter of self-government for New England.

The series is made up of short posts, examples of the way the current system discriminates against New England. You will find the series here.

In considering the series, remember that as a separate state New England would be in population and economic terms a significant part of the Federation.

I know of no way to break through the mind blocks created by our current system. All I can do is eat away at the edges.


ninglun said...

Hmm, I am still not convinced about the whole New England thing, while respecting your viewpoint. Have you been into similar movements, such as (from memory) one in Riverina? That one, it strikes me, would have made some issues -- Murray-Darling for example -- even worse than they now are.

Sometimes though I am drawn to the idea of abolishing the states altogether in favour of a redefined Canberra + stronger local governments. But only sometimes.

Jim Belshaw said...

One of the difficulties, Neil, in all this is that a major change such as New England self-government that upsets the status quo involves a pattern of winners and loosers. A further difficulty is that a lot of things in public debate that are taken for granted are in fact assumptions.

In these short posts I am building a pattern of examples that show the way that the current system works in a systemic way against the interests of those living in New England.

Take the tourim one as an example. The size of NSW combined with branding problems makes it very difficult to promote Northern NSW as a unit.In theory, this could be overcome within the existing system. In practice it won't because in a competitive tourism marketplace, promotion of Northern NSW in its own right might conflict with the tourism promotion of Sydney as an end-point destination. An added complication is that Sydney does not even recognise Northern NSW as a unit.

Even if I do build up a case for systemic problems, my difficulties don't end there.

In 1967 the self-government no case used three main lines of argument.

Number one was that New England would be better off as part of NSW in a general sense. The continuation of the systemic problems and the relative decline of New England in the forty years since rather invalidates this one.

Number two was the unification argument, that creation of another state would be a retrograde step when Australia should be thinking nationally and moving towards replacement of the states be an enhanced system of local government. The fact that this was highly unlikely to happen then and now does not affect the argument.

Number three was that the costs and risks associated with New England statehood were just too high to make the venture worthwhile.

These three lines of argument have been used consistently against self-government throughout, although the exact expression has changed over time.

The 1924 Cohen Royal Commission, as an example, concluded that the costs of self government would be too high and that the same results could be achieved by an effective system of regional councils within NSW.

Cohen's economics was flawed (the commission ignored the multiplier effect on New England national income of job transfer ffrom Sydney to New England), although the Commission may possibly be forgiven for this since Keynes had yet to develop the economic concept of the multiplier.

Cohen's negative economic conclusions have been quoted many times since to support the no case. Mind you, since the obverse of an immemdiate increase in New England income was a decline in Sydney income (the rest of NSW would have been un-affected) more rigorous economic analysis by Cohen would of itself have greatly strengthened opposition.

Yes, I have looked at other new state movement. Of all the movements, the New England one has been the most stable and sustained because of New England's population size and underlying geographical identity. The two Queensland movements (Capricornia and North Queensland) also displayed longevity for similar reasons.

Many of the other smaller movements - the Goldfields in WA, one in Victoria, Monaro and Western in NSW - proved ephmeral in part because of smaller population size as well as weaker geographic underpinnings.

Riverina falls in the middle. The Riverina agitation was due to and sustained by local causes,but was also supported by New England.

The Murray-Darling issue you raise is an example of the point I made earlier, the need to unpack issues.

Problems of upstream-downstream river rights is a world wide issue. A key feature is the way Governments act to protect the rights of their citizens against others. So a Riverina Government might have complicated Murray-Darling issues. As might a New England Government. New England is in fact the wettest part of NSW, New England's western flowing rivers form a key part of the Darling system, many of NSW's main western water storages are in New England, New England is a major producer of irrigated product.

Whether the existence of Riverina or New England states would have made Murray-Darling management harder is a little unclear. What we can say for certain it that it would make the political dynamics different.

I tried to unpack this a little in my response to Malcolm Turnbull's proposal that the waters of the Clarence should be used to supply Brisbane. Turnbull argued that anyone who opposed this was guilty of sectional interests. I argued that those who had an existing interest in the water (Clarence Valley, Northern Tablelands)should be compensated in some way if this were to happen. Certainly a New England Government would be likely to take a strong stand on this issue.

Enough. I must cook tea.