Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The political importance of New England - a primer

Today's post, Sniffyness abounds in New England - Joyce, Windsor, Torbay, Katter and McIntyre - and the Express has fun!, was triggered by a conversation I had with a cousin who is a journalist in the Canberra press gallery. It's partially tongue in cheek, but there is also a serious element, for I find that the Australian political significance of New England is not recognised, leading to some sometimes silly reporting.

This post provides a simple political primer. I have tried to write it so that it can be understood by readers with no knowledge of New England.

What and where is New England? 

The term New England has varying meanings. It can refer to the England Tablelands often called the New England, it can refer to a broader area as defined by the NSW State Government that includes the Western Slopes, it can refer to the Federal Electorate called New England. Its boundaries have varied greatly with time, but have generally centred on the Tablelands and Slopes. It can also be used in a broader sense to cover all the North East of NSW. I use it in that sense.

Defined in the way I define it, it covers the Northern or New England Tablelands and the surrounding river valleys to the east, west and south. Geographically, this is a large area equivalent in size to a substantial European country. In population, while diminished in relative terms over the last sixty years, it remains a major unit.

My usage of New England is less common that it was, for the name was attached to the last stages of the self-government or new state campaigns that declined after the 1967 plebiscite loss and the subsequent in-fighting. I use it now in part because of sentiment, more because alternative terms such as the North carry no meaning to those outside NSW. I could say Northern NSW, but that's ambiguous too.

New England's Political Make-up

Up until the 1970s, New England as I define it, was dominated by two political groups, the Labor Party in Newcastle and the coal fields electorates of the Lower Hunter, elsewhere the Country Party. Both Labor and independents had successes further north, but this was Country Party now National Party heartland. This was the Party's most stable base at state and national level.

You can get some feeling for this from the national leadership. Since the Country Party's formation in 1920, it has had twelve leaders, five from New England. Of the nine Country Party/National Party leaders in NSW, six have come from the area that I define as New England. If you look at the ministerial mix, the New England presence is even more pronounced.

If Barnaby Joyce replaces Warren Truss as in due course, he will the sixth Party Leader from New England and, probably, the fourth Deputy Prime Minister or Prime Minister to come from New England.  

Decline of the National Party

From the 1970s and particularly the 1980s, the National Party in New England began to struggle. Part of the reason was due to demographic change, but there was more to it than that.

In demographic terms, inland New England declined quite sharply. As late as 1980, the inland towns were as big as or bigger than the coastal towns. The subsequent explosion of the coastal population both reduced the number of inland electorates and brought in new voters with little traditional affiliation to the National Party. Labor benefited, especially on the Far North Coast.

I said that there was more to it than that. New England was large enough and far enough from Sydney to develop its own sense of identity. This was expressed partly in cultural and political terms, but was also reinforced by the presence of the self-government or new state movement. This waxed and waned in strength over the first seventy years of the twentieth century, but had the effect of creating a sense of New England identity that could best be captured by the Country Party. While it was not clear at the time, its removal took a critical underpinning away from the National Party.

The Rise of the New England Independents

I am presently trying to write a proper historical piece on the rise and fall of the New England independents. Almost by accident, they became a political movement without becoming a political party, something that they could not do. At their peak, they controlled a swath of New England state and Federal seats, networked with other independents and tried to support other independent candidates in New England and, as we are seeing now, well beyond. Their activities were well recognised in New England and especially by the Nationals, but less so beyond. They were effective because they could most effectively capture elements in the New England political tradition. 

The progressive collapse of the Labor Party in NSW, the consequent polarisation of the electorate, weakened the independents' position. Then the decision of Messrs Windsor and Oakshott to support the Gillard Government set in train a series of political events whose affects are still working themselves out. This is not a criticism, just an observation. This included the severe damaging of the entire electoral machinery underpinning the independents success. 

Return of the Nationals

I don't think that the Nationals can believe their luck in all this, although I doubt that they would put in quite that way. With Federal Labor on the nose and the independents severely weakened, they now have a chance of restoring their electoral position in New England to a level not seen for decades.

Whether they can hold it is another question, for the National brand in New England (to use that dreadful political cliche) has become indistinct. The Liberal Party has been extending its influence north. Electoral arrangements may prevent them running again on the Tablelands or elsewhere for the moment, although the desire is there. And nobody should assume that Labor will not regain strength, drawing from the Green vote as well.

Can Tony Windsor hold his seat and thus hold the immediate tide? I don't think that Rob Oakshott can, although I'm not really close enough to on-ground conditions. Its hard to see it. But it all remains very interesting.                        


Anonymous said...

Personally I hope Barnaby gets in and then rolls Warren for the Nats' leadership.

He will provide occasional light relief from the drear of politics, and it might also mean that Mr Truss will list his Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak on eBay.


Jim Belshaw said...

Nice turn of phrase, kvd!

Anonymous said...

Well, I was going to make a jokey comment about Abbott and Costello morphing into Laurel and Hardly, but this is a serious blog concerned with serious matters.

Oh well; light relief from the rain I have to work in very shortly :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Absolutely, kvd. I hope that the rain waasn't too bad!