Monday, December 08, 2008

Geography, history and our perceptions of our own past 2

My Sunday Essay - geography, history and our perceptions of our own past discussed the relationships between geography, history and perceptions, using the proposed New England new state area as an example. Neil commented in a note in his Google reader:

Fascinating observations, but I see the facts presented as neither for nor against the concept of the New England state movement... Was it partly that case that the Hunter region, especially the Newcastle end of it, never felt much attachment to a New England whose capital may have been further away than Sydney? Just wondering...

Neil is partially correct. While I am a supporter of self-government for New England, I was not arguing a case for or against self-government. That's a different issue. However, Neil's comment gives me an excuse to extend my arguments about the relationships between geography, history and perception, again using the New England self government area as a case study.

To start with a point that is self-evident, but one that has profound implications for the way we see the world, including the past.

The world around us is complex and confusing, bombarding us with constant messages. To simplify this, all human beings have mental models of their world, constructs that we use to guide thinking and behaviour, to interpret events.

These constructs form during childhood and are then modified through experience. Their formation draws from many things - the views of our parents, the views of the social groups we belong to, what we see and experience, the ideas that we are exposed to. These mental models are very powerful and slow to change. We ignore or reject things that do not fit in.

Humans are social animals. Beyond our individual views are the views of the groups or groups we belong to. These sit in a hierarchy and have their own cultures - sets of beliefs and shared attitudes, customs and habits. They exist independent of the views of any single individual. We identify with those groups that mesh with our own world views. We reject those that do not.

All groups have their own way of enforcing and reinforcing common views. However, to survive, group cultures need to be constantly refreshed, re-taught, at times controlled. Big groups develop formal structures for doing this - committees, parliaments, schools, seminaries, police forces. These structures develop lives of their own, independent of particular individuals making up the group.

Much of written history is in fact the history of groups and, more importantly, of group institutions. However, there is a problem here. It is much easier to see and describe the formal, the explicit, than to break through and to attempt to understand the underlying world views beneath them.

To extend this argument let's start with a historic fact, transport costs.

In the Tyranny of Distance, the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey noted that transport by land was twenty times more expensive than by ship. In 1820 it cost more for a Sydney merchant to send a barrel of whale oil (whaling was then a major Australian industry) 100 miles inland than around the world to London. This simple statistic helped dictate Australian (and New England) history.

Access to water determined the initial patterns of European settlement because it determined what could be produced and sold. High land transport costs meant that only commodities that were extremely valuable on a per ton basis could afford transport from areas more than 40 miles from deep water. Early European settlement spotted the coast.

Wool changed this by providing a high value commodity that could justify high land transport costs. Settlement now spread rapidly in two streams - inland from the Hunter Valley; along the coast and then inland. These streams reflected geography and were to create enduring human patterns that still exist today.

Now here I want to pause to illustrate a point about the impact of current human perceptions. Those who know Australia today have to put aside current population structures - they mislead.

Newcastle, now the largest population centre in New England, was not the dominant centre in the Hunter Valley. Coffs Harbour, now the second biggest city, did not exist. The huge dominance of the coastal strip in population terms was still 130 years in the future. Nearly every element in thinking determined by current structures - and these are deeply embedded -is incorrect in historical terms.

Geography dictated results.

On the coast, the bigger river valleys and especially the Hunter, Clarence and Richmond Rivers became significant population centres because they were relatively large areas linked by water. The two major competing entrepots shipping goods in and out to service the growing inland populations were Maitland and its nearby river port of Morpeth and Grafton. This is very different from today's structures.

Rail changed this structure.

The progressive construction of the now defunct Great Northern Railway north from Newcastle, one of Australia's engineering marvels of the 19th century, favoured Newcastle over Maitland. A rail spur was built to Morpeth, but the silting river port could not compete with the deep water outlet at Newcastle.

As the line extended north goods flowed to and from Newcastle, creating what Lazlo has called an economic commonwealth centred on Newcastle. The merchants and shipping interests in the small river ports to the north and especially Grafton fought back. With rail freight rates set so as to attract traffic from coastal shipping, they needed better east-west links (road and rail) to compete. These moves failed.

It should not come as a surprise that the strongest outbreaks of separatist agitation, moves to create a new colony or state in the North, in the 19th and early twentieth century were centred in Grafton.

Now I would like to jump forward in time to the 1930s.

I said that when the Nicholas Royal Commission was drawing up boundaries for the area of Northern New South Wales considered suitable for statehood, he had to take into account into account geographic and economic considerations. One key issue here was the inclusion of the Hunter Valley.

In geographic and historical terms, the Hunter was clearly part of the North. Further, the industrial base in the lower Hunter added to the economic strengths of New England, while the junction point for the two Northern rail lines was at Maitland. All this made the inclusion of the Hunter logical. Once the Hunter was included, then it was also logical to include the Lake Macquarie and Tuggerah Lakes catchment area just to the south since this was linked to Newcastle rather than Sydney.

These boundaries made sense then, and still do. However, they also suffered from a stubborn political divide that was to doom the 1967 referendum on self-government.

Newcastle resentments about Sydney are just as deep seated as those further north.

The economic commonwealth created by the Great Northern Railway proved short lived.

The 1880s' economic boom in Sydney and Melbourne was, in terms that will be familiar today, a building bubble. Large sums of capital poured into city building in pursuit of capital gains. In turn, this led to population growth in those cities as people were attracted from regional areas. In protest, Decentralisation Leagues sprang up, the first use of this word that I am aware of.

Newcastle was not immune. There, too, a Decentralisation League was formed that in fact called for the creation of a new state. Then when the railway line was completed to Sydney, rail freight rates were set so as to attract Northern rail freight to Sydney from Newcastle. This ended Newcastle's brief economic reign.

Over the years, Newcastle resentment of Sydney and NSW has constantly simmered and re-surged. We saw this at the last state elections in the rise of the independents, most recently in the call by the Lake Macquarie City Council for the abolition of the states.

Given the commonality of this type of view with those further north, you would expect greater union in self-government views between Newcastle and the Lower Hunter and areas to the north. The reality was very different, a difference created by the combination of geography and history.

Coal is the key, the great coal deposits of the Hunter Valley, recently the only economic bright spot for the NSW Government. This led to the development of mining and then provided a base for the development of a steel industry. The industrial workers of Newcastle and the Lower Hunter became key elements in the emergence of the Union Movement and of the Australian Labor Party.

Of itself, this need not have been fatal, although the adoption by the ALP of a unificationist platform pledged to the abolition of the states was a problem. Frank Forde, later ALP Australian PM for a brief period, was a Queensland New Stater despite the platform

Of more importance, were the deep political divides between the Labor view of the world and what I have called New England populism, the dominant world view further north. This created a divide that could not be bridged.

The divide was remarkably consistent over time.

During the newspaper campaign for self-government during the 1920s when over 100 New England newspapers campaigned to support Northern self government, just one newspaper in the Lower Hunter (at Cessnock) was a member.

Thirty years later, a majority of Newcastle residents said yes when asked if Newcastle should be part of New England should this be created. Told in a follow up question that the Labor Party was opposed to self-government, the yes vote dropped to a third. Ten years later with Labor strongly opposing a yes vote, around one third of Lower Hunter residents voted yes, offsetting the higher yes votes elsewhere.

Many Newcastle people did support self-government, including Frank Purdue who was a member of Newcastle Council for almost thirty years, mayor for ten. Yet this was not enough.

This post is not an argument for New England self-government, That is a different issue. Rather, I am trying to tease out some of the influences of geography and the way this interacts with other perceptions to affect events.


Neil said...

Thanks for following up on my remark, Jim. The point I made is one I recall my (maternal) grandfather making a long, long time ago... I was just curious.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Neil. I always like an excuse to extend my analysis!