Monday, May 31, 2010

New State arguments 6 -sharing the benefits

This one has come up a little earlier than I expected.

Those arguing against self-government for New England used to say that new states offered no benefits. Alternatively, and at the same time, they argued that one place would benefit over another. This implies that self-government for New England must be a zero sum game; if one goes up, another must go down.

In 1967, those in Newcastle said that if Newcastle was not capital, Newcastle must suffer. Those further north who wanted decentralisation said that if the capital was in Newcastle, what's the point. We will simply have another Sydney. The first group was wrong, the second right.

Consider what would have happened in 1967 if we had self-government with Armidale as capital. Assume for the purposes of argument that state government activities were centralised in Armidale as in the current model. Armidale would now be bigger, as would the inland New England population. But would Newcastle be smaller or less developed? The answer is no. In fact, the opposite is true.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think that we can say that it is hard to identify a single thing that Newcastle would not have today, a single thing that would have been lost that was not already lost, with self-government. So no downside. On the other side, Newcastle's share of the vote, its position as New England's biggest city, would have brought benefits.

How do I know this? Well, its actually pretty self-evident.

Consider tourism. Instead of being Sydney's second cousin, a New England government would have promoted Newcastle and the Hunter as a major state tourism destination, not a sub-set of brand NSW. Or Newcastle airport. It would make no economic sense to grow Armidale airport as a major hub. It would make sense to grow Newcastle at the expense of Sydney. Similar arguments can be mounted across a range of Government activities.

However, the new staters did not stop there. They pointed to the fact that in many US states the capital was not the biggest place. Sensitive to arguments about the capital, they tried to argue for a Governmental system that would spread the benefits. From my current perspective, the arguments were not very sophisticated, but they were there.

I think that  one of the things that we have to do, and this has already been reflected in comments on this series, is to work out the systems we want that might give us the best result. This links to may last post, New State arguments 5 - the power of imagination. We are not bound to any structure.

Of course, all this depends in part on there being net benefits. I will pick this one up in my next post in this series.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

4th Dungog Film Festival - New England films

The Dungog film festival is now on.

For those who don't know Dungog, it's a little town (population around 2,500 people) 74km north of Newcastle and set in beautiful surrounds. This is the fourth festival in what has become a very considerable success. The Festival describes itself in this way:

The Dungog Film Festival is something wholly unique to this country - a festival that celebrates Australian films exclusively in a non-competitive environment. Our principle objective is to increase the appreciation of Australian screen culture and heritage. We showcase new Australian screen content, honouring leading Australian filmmakers, and create a context for contemporary Australian works by getting the classics out of the vaults and back into the cinemas. By hosting the biggest celebration of Australian films in the world, Dungog has become a key event on the screen industry’s calendar and a must for lovers of Australian screen culture.

I suspect that this is a pretty fair description. In his report of the Festival in the Sydney Morning Herald, Young filmmakers drive forward into the past, Garry Maddox focuses on the return of the Australian horror genre. I suspect that's fair enough. However, I also looked for films with a New England connection as part of my current writing.lou-lrg

    The Festival Program describes Lou in this way:

Eleven-year-old Lou's life was instantly turned upside down when her father walked out on her mother and two sisters. She has coped by building a tough shell around her heart - afraid to let anyone hurt her again. Lou blames her mother for her father's departure and refuses to let her in. Life suddenly changes when her estranged Grandfather moves in to the family's rented home. Doyle is ill and befuddled and in his confused state, Doyle mistakes his granddaughter for his long departed wife. Lou, intrigued, plays along with the fantasy, using her bond with Doyle against her mother. As the game progresses, Lou's tough exterior is chipped away and ultimately she understands what it is to be loved - in the most unexpected of circumstances. Shot around the North Coast of NSW and inspired by Chayko's own family, Lou is not to be missed.

Checking the film's official site, I found a little more;

The film was made in and around the northern NSW town of Murwillumbah. The main location – Lou’s home – was an old farmhouse in a dairy farming and cane-growing area just outside of town. The beach scenes were filmed at the beautiful Cabarita Beach nearby and the scenes when Lou and Doyle run away were shot within the town of Murwillumbah itself. Murwillumbah is the hometown of writer/director Belinda Chayko and, she says, it’s a great place to make movies.

The movie opens in cinemas June 17. I will do some stories later when I know more about cinema details.

There was also a reading of a script by Marcus Waters. The plot is described in this way:

After being reared in the Aboriginal boxing tents by his grandfather, Elijah Waters, in his early 30’s, returns home after 17 years to find his grandfather’s legacy in tatters. A drunken useless father has died leaving the family property under foreclosure and Elijah discovers he has a younger sister (Katie) trapped in an abusive foster care system. The biggest problem is that Elijah himself is also in ruins. Once successful in business, he has lost everything. But now he has found Katie. He breaks her out and together they go on a journey of discovery with only Elijah’s two fists to rely on. The only way that Elijah can support them is to become part of the brutal and violent world of underground bare fist boxing, where gambling and high stakes dictate loyalty and support.

I hadn't heard of Marcus Waters. A Kamilaroi man, he is a writer who is lecturing now at Griffith University. I was interested not just because of the Kamilaroi connection, but also because the plot links to the show boxing round. This was one way in which Aboriginal people could achieve success.

Another New England linked work in progress was the showing of the rough cut of Bathing Franky. Described as the edgy debut feature of director Owen Elliot and writer Michael Winchester (both also produced), the film was shot in Dungog and around the Hunter Valley The plot is described in these terms. This:

is a contemporary romance with more than a pinch of surreal comedy. Steve, (Shaun Goss) a young man on parole, is finding it hard to deal with his time in prison. On a new job, he meets Rodney (Henri Szeps), a wildly irrepressible older man, who is the full time carer of his mother Franky (Maria Venuti). Rod is a 'backyard magician' who flies kites, tap dances, tells stories, juggles and speaks many languages. He brings the same vaudevillian exuberance to the way he 'cares' for Franky. Steve is captivated by the pair's eclectic and fanciful world. An intimate friendship between Steve and Rod develops, leaving Rod torn between the love and the loyalty that he feels for his ailing and dependent mother, and his desire to lead his own life.

In addition to these sessions, the Festival also featured re-runs of a number of films by Charles Chauvel, a film maker with strong New England connections.

This film festival has been on my must do list for some time. Next year?

Friday, May 28, 2010

New State arguments 5 - the power of imagination

One of the remarkable things about the spread of new state agitation in the 1920s was the way it encouraged new ideas. Once you propose fundamental changes to existing systems, then you are free to develop alternative ideas in their place. Not all those ideas were sensible, but together they provided an alternative view.

The same is true today. Do we want rotating Parliaments, how should Government be structured, what do we want our Government to focus on, how do we capture the talents of our area?

At a purely personal level, one of my frustrations has been that as a New Englander I really have no way of contributing directly to the area that I love.

Assume that I want to use my skills in public policy and public administration to benefit the North? How can I do it?

If I join the NSW Public Service and want to stay in the area, then I am locked into lower level positions. If I go to Sydney, then I am locked into a system that makes it hard for me to focus on my regional interests. I cannot in all conscience argue a New England position when I have to take broader state interests into account, including the positions of my political masters. The most I can hope to do, and this is actually not a small thing, is to ensure that New England is not actively disadvantaged.

Now that we have a revival in new state interest, now that we are tracking in towards the possible reformation of the Movement with the aim of forcing another referendum, we can again think of what we might want New England to look like.

As in the 1920s, some of the ideas are not going to be sensible or doable. But they do give us a chance to look afresh, freed from the bounds imposed by increasingly rigid existing structures.        

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Belshaw's World - New England's rich film history

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 19 May 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010

There was a stir in our household recently when eldest found the trailer for Tomorrow: When the War Began.

John Marsden has always been one of my daughters’ favourite writers. Youngest, an aspiring writer, even went to a writer's session at his farm near Melbourne.

Both girls especially like the Ellie/Tomorrow series, so there was considerable excitement when they found out that the first book in the series was to be filmed. Now the movie is scheduled for release on 2 September.

For those who don't know the story, it centres on a group of teenagers caught up in an invasion of Australia by an unspecified foreign power. The novels are told in first person by the main character, a teenaged girl named Ellie Linton, who is part of a small band of teenagers waging a guerrilla war on the enemy soldiers in their fictional hometown of Wirrawee.

As so often happens with things like this, I started doing some digging around, thinking that I might be able write a post on the film.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found that the film was shot in Maitland, Raymond Terrace and Dungog as well as the Blue Mountains, making it in my terms a New England film.

The question of what constitutes a New England film is slightly complicated.

In his chapter on film in High Lean Country, Neil Rattigan helpfully distinguishes between films made in New England using New England stories as compared to those that just happened to be shot here. Then there are films using New England stories that have been shot elsewhere.

From my perspective, a film is a New England film if it has some connection with New England. Beyond that point, it is a matter of classification.

Growing up, Captain Thunderbolt was the only New England film I knew. As late as the 1980s, I thought that there were only a small handful of New England films. It wasn’t until I started digging into our history that I realised just how many films there were.

The first New England film so far identified is the 1921 production, The Guyra Ghost Mystery, one of a number of films produced by writer and director John Cosgrove in the early 1920s.

The film centres on the apparent haunting of William Bowen's house in Guyra.

Over several weeks, windows were broken, rocks were tossed onto the roof and the Bowens were kept awake by banging on the walls. Apparently one of the Bowen children confessed to tossing some rocks on the roof to scare a younger sibling, but this didn't seem to account for the extent of the phenomenon, especially as these things kept happening even when the place was surrounded by policemen.

The Bowens themselves appear in the film and John Cosgrove stars as Sherlock Doyle, a psychic investigator modelled on a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle's.

I haven’t seen the film, but Neil Rattigan suggests that Cosgrove was somewhat tongue in cheek. Still, the story of the original events has certainly survived the years.

On 25 January this year, ninety years later, the Guyra Argus reported that the ghost was to be a chapter in a new book!

Between 1921’s The Guyra Ghost Mystery and 2010’s Tomorrow: When the War Began, I have so far traced some twenty films with New England connections. I have seen perhaps six of these.

In a lot of cases, and even with films that I have seen, I did not know of the New England link.

Many years ago I saw and enjoyed Ken Hall’s 1933 epic The Squatter’s Daughter without knowing that most of the exterior shots (but not the spectacular bush fire scene) were shot on Goonoo Goonoo Station near Tamworth.

In similar vein, I did not know that the successful 1977 release, The Picture Show Man, was not only based in part on a Tamworth story, but was also shot on the Liverpool Plains and the Clarence.

Does this lack of knowledge matter? I think that it does.

To my mind, it takes away some of the potential richness in New England life. I think that that’s a pity.

I am not saying that we should jamb New England films down peoples’ throats, simply that the information should be available for those who are interested.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

New State arguments 4 - party politics

I had intended to write this post later in the series. However, following the formation of the North Queensland Party to campaign for self-government for North Queensland, there have been suggestions that we should do something similar in New England. I thought therefore that I should bring it forward.

There is no right or wrong answer. I doubt that Scotland would have achieved devolution without the Scottish Nationalists. However, the adoption of political party stances also has costs. We can see some of the problems here from the history of the New England Movement.

Historical Background

When the twentieth century New England Movement began it was non-party political. However, the political party that benefited most was the Progressive Party, a little later renamed as the Country Party.

This happened because the Progressives were new and had no political baggage. They identified with and campaigned for statehood.

The adoption of a unification platform by the Labor Party created some difficulties for members of that Party. This need not have been an impossible difficulty: Frank Forde, for example, who would later be Australian Prime Minister for a brief period was a strong supporter of new states in Queensland. However, in New England in the competition between Progressives, Labor and Nationalists, the close linkages between the Progressives and the New State Movement created an impossible barrier.

The turmoil of the Depression saw the rapid spread of country protest movements including especially new state movements. In the turmoil of the time, these new movements were strongly anti-Labor. Their merger with the Country Party to form the United Country Movement further cemented divides.

The UCM had swept country NSW, becoming a major political force. Its new state leadership was determined to bring about the subdivision of NSW into new states. However, this proved to be a far more complicated task than arguing for statehood for discrete areas such as New England or Riverina with their own sense of identity and new state traditions.

There were conflicts and compromises over suggested boundaries that left many dissatisfied. Some UCM branches in areas such as parts of the central west of NSW with traditionally close links to Sydney were actively opposed to subdivision. Further, as part of the governing UCM/Nationalist coalition, the UCM leadership were all concerned as well with practical governing matters.

The relationships between the new staters and the Progressive/Country Parties and then UCM had brought direct political benefits. These included two NSW Royal Commissions on New States, the Commonwealth Peden Royal Commission into the Constitution, as well as a range of electoral benefits including the Armidale Teachers College and the New England University College. Nevertheless, the formation of merged United Country Movement proved to be something of a poisoned chalice from a new state perspective.

By the time the Nicholas Royal Commission into boundaries reported in 1935, and with the easing of the Depression, political patterns were returning to normal. Support for new states had diminished, the merger of the New England Movement into the UCM meant that it no longer had an independent structure, while many new state supporters who were not necessarily Country Party supporters felt uncomfortable within the UCM structure.

Following the Nicholas Commission, Sir Michael Bruxner as Parliamentary leader of the UCM was offered a referendum in New England, the first step recommended by Nicholas. Bruxner, concerned now that a referendum might be defeated without a renewed education program, declined the offer at that point.

Bruxner would come to regret this decision as did other UCM leaders. However, at that point he had no idea that the Government would lose power at the elections in May 1941, that he would never again be in Government. Regardless of the outcome of any referendum, it was a lost opportunity. Many ordinary new staters also felt betrayed.

Given this history, when the New England Movement was reformed following the Second World War it was consciously non-party political. It also appointed staff to provide campaign continuity.

The non-party political stance did make it easier to attract non-Country Party support. However, Labor remained opposed. The Party was in Government, it had no interest in a separation that meant loss of power and risked putting it into a permanent minority position in a new New England state, while historical enmities remained.

The decision to appoint staff meant that there was now a continuing new state campaign along side the normal political cycles. This led in turn to the launch of Operation Seventh State in 1961, a major fund raising effort that supported greatly increased campaigning. Then, in 1965, the 24 year period of Labor rule finally came to an end. A referendum was promised and delivered.

The Labor Party campaigned hard for a no vote; the plebiscite was lost on the votes in Labor's industrial heartland and in dairying areas that feared loss of their preferential access to the Sydney milk market.

Following the defeat, the Movement entered a new phase when it decided to run new state candidates in selected seats at the 1968 elections in opposition to Country Party members. This caused bitter dissension. The Country Party had delivered on its promise of a plebiscite, while both the parliamentarians and Party members had been strong new state supporters.

The decision to run also provided a test of electoral support in circumstances where every established party was opposed. There was a dedicated new state vote independent of party, but it was not enough at that point to elect candidates in the face of combined party opposition. Exhausted, the Movement largely collapsed.

Issues Arising

While I have discussed some of this history before, I am repeating it here because it shows the interaction over a long period between party politics and the separatist cause.

The linkages between the Country Party and New State Movement gave the Movement added power and brought tangible benefits, but also made it difficult to attract the support it needed across party divides to carry a majority of the electorate in circumstances where one or more of the established parties was opposed.

The landscape today is different. None of the existing parties including the New England independents are strongly new state, but then none of them are strongly anti either. The issue has simply not been on the agenda. Further, with the shift in political fortunes, no political party now has the electoral base to be a natural governing party.

The formation of a specific New England Party faces number of difficulties. Among other things, the NSW Government has introduced rules that make it harder to form parties. For example, under the rules it is already too late to run a Legislative Council ticket at the next election. You have to be ready to go twelve months before an election. There are also difficulties in gaining agreement on policy where the political views of new state supporters span the spectrum from far left to far right.

On the surface, the single most important issue is to gain the promise of another referendum. This is also something that candidates can commit to without necessarily supporting a new state themselves. It's simply a case of let the people decide.

For that reason, my feeling is that a non-party political stance is the best way to go. This would then hold out the possibility at the next election of seeking support from candidates of all parties to support a referendum if elected. At the election itself, how to vote cards could be handed out simply asking people to choose among candidates who have agreed to support a new referendum.

A non-party campaign on New England development and representation would, as it has done in the past, force all parties to consider New England issues. Of itself, that would be a huge gain.        

Monday, May 24, 2010

New State arguments 3 - geographic basis of government

The new state movements throughout Australia challenged the existing basis of Government. In doing so, they faced a major challenge from those committed to the status quo.

It is a hard fact that all existing political institutions will defend themselves by all the means in their power, supported by those who for reason of sentiment or self-interest favour the status quo. The new state movements were required to develop arguments that would explain their case to a broader audience on emotional and logical grounds, that would challenge the arguments put forward by those opposing change. 

This led the New England Movement to develop the concept of the geographic basis of Government, a view later amplified by Professor Macdonald Holmes, Professor of Geography at Sydney University, in The Geographical Basis of Government (1944).

There were considerable links between Macdonald Holmes and the Movement's leadership. Macdonald Holmes saw geography as  'the study of land in relation to people'. This fed into Movement thinking and not just at the constitutional level.

Many of the senior Movement people had a deep interest in the conservation as well as the development of the land and in the application of science to conservation and primary production. In addition to the establishment of the New England National Park, this interest manifested itself not just on farm, but in the provision of direct financial support, including donation of land, to the University of New England to encourage the development of rural science. Macdonald Holmes himself promoted techniques such as contour ploughing as a way of reducing erosion, while maintaining moisture.

The idea behind the geographical basis of government was a simple one: geography helped determine the pattern of life; a geographically linked area was more likely to have the community of interest required for successful government.

NSW contained very distinct regions with limited commonality of interest. Further, it was dominated by one population centre with its own distinct interests that were very different from those holding elsewhere in the state. The inevitable result was a tendency to bad government in which the centre would tend to override, ignore or be unaware of the interests of the other parts of NSW.

By contrast, New England had a higher degree of community of interest in geographical terms because it consisted of the Tablelands plus the rivers originating on those Tablelands to the east, west and south, geographically linked entities. Further, those linkages in combination with its smaller size would made it easier for Government to understand and respond to community needs.

Like all simple concepts, the idea of the geographical basis of Government can be challenged by exception or argued in different ways. As an example, what do you do if history or particular aspects of geography have led to very different peoples occupying the same territory? Further, if New England has a commonality dictated by geography, wouldn't this be truer still of, say, the Northern Rivers or the Hunter Valley?

New England's geography has been central to its history.

The various names used to describe it during European times - the North, Northern Districts, Northern Provinces and New England are all geographical descriptors. The use of the word North defines location in regard to Sydney. The adoption of the name New England, the name originally applied just to the Tablelands that form New England's central geographic core, replaces a Sydney related descriptor with another geographical term.

During the long period of Aboriginal occupation of New England, the area's geography created a pattern of east-west and north south linkages and movements. This pattern was subsequently replicated during European times. The creation of Queensland put a political boundary through the top end of the unity, but otherwise left the pattern unchanged.

Within New England, the combination of history with geography made for divisions. This held true in Aboriginal times and is equally true today. However, the underlying entity keeps peeping through. If you map all the various and changing boundaries used for administrative purposes by the NSW Government and its various agencies and then overlay them on the New England new state area, New England still exists, however dimly.

NSW, by contrast, is a political not geographic entity. Outside history and constitutional structures, there is very little to unite. What unity that does exist is imposed. Further, that unity has become increasingly fragmented, a process that I described in The fragmentation of NSW.

If you want to test this, have a think about about NSW symbols. What symbolic things or even common ideas unite NSW? State of origin in the League is the one most commonly cited, but this only holds in part of the state.

Tourism is one of the most striking practical examples of problems that arise as a consequence, something that I dealt with in Why I remain New England New Stater 6 - conflicts in NSW tourism branding. Tourism is all about perception. It is very hard to sell NSW as a tourism destination because there is no unifying element. In tourism terms, if you ask people what NSW is you either get a complete blank or a list of specific localities or attractions.

This post is one of a series discussing issues associated with the creation of a New England New State. If you would like to look at the whole series, you can either search on new state arguments or go to the introductory post where you will find a full list of posts.  

Saturday, May 22, 2010

New State arguments 2 - no states or new states

Discussions on the possible revival of the New England New State Movement has already raised the question why not just abolish the states altogether?  Leaving aside the constitutional difficulties involved, there are other issues to be considered.

Writing in 1926, the Movement's constitutional expert, David Drummond, suggested that there were then three schools of constitutional though in Australia - no states, new states and states' righters.

The no states' school suggested that all states should be abolished and replaced by a devolved system of provinces or regions working under central control. The new states' school suggested that the existing state system should be replaced by a larger number of states more closely related to community of interest. The states' right school believed in the preservation of the existing system.

Drummond dismissed the states' right school out of hand. They had failed to recognise, he argued, that Australia was now a nation. The question of the appropriate distribution of powers between Commonwealth and states had to be addressed, while existing state boundaries did not properly reflect geography.

The distinctions between no states and new states was more complicated because there were common arguments. Most no state supporters believed that there had to be some form of provincial or regional administrations because of the country's great diversity. What, then, was the difference?

To Drummond's mind, the difference lay in the powers to be accorded to the new states, provinces or regional administrations. Practical politics dictated that, with delegated powers, the centre would always override as political considerations dictated.

To support his case, he pointed to the experience of local government in NSW. This, he suggested, suffered from constant interference. To avoid this, state or provincial powers needed constitutional protection. However, there also needed to be a degree of flexibility to allow for distribution of powers to be changed as needs change.

Drummond was writing against a background set by the 1924 NSW Cohen Royal Commission into New States. New States supporters had forced its establishment and indeed had a representative on it, but the then Premier (Sir George Fuller) did not intend it to succeed. Importantly, he appointed William Holman KC as counsel assisting. Holman, a former Premier, had good reason to dislike the new state cause.

The Commission concluded that there were problems with the NSW system. However, those problems could be best addressed by an effective system of regional governments within NSW. The evidence presented and the subsequent report canvassed most of the arguments that you will find today.

Discussions on regional councils then rested until towards the end of the Second World War. Discussions on post-war reconstruction re-energised the debate. What type of country do we want? How should it be organised and governed?

In Armidale, two academics at the New England University College - James Belshaw (Economics) and Alan Voisey (Geology) - launched a movement to create regional councils as a way of encouraging effective decentralisation. Unlike his son, Belshaw was not a new stater. He believed that regional councils within the existing system could achieve results.  

The new movement quickly gathered strength. When it became clear that the NSW Government would never grant the councils real power, the regional councils movement turned into a renewed New England New State Movement. The non-new state Belshaw found himself briefly as secretary of the new state movement!

Convinced that regional councils were a dead end, but still not convinced about new states, Belshaw turned to the concept of selective decentralisation. Why not concentrate available resources on building up a few country centres to critical mass, he argued?

This idea was picked up by Max Neutz and others at ANU and became the basis of the later Whitlam Government's growth centre strategy.

My point in all this is that Drummond's 1926 arguments still provide a valid analytical framework. Again leaving aside the difficulties of changing the existing constitution, if we are to abolish the states and replace them with regional or provincial councils, how do we ensure that Canberra  doesn't simply override when political exigencies dictate?  

This post is one of a series discussing issues associated with the creation of a New England New State. If you would like to look at the whole series, you can either search on new state arguments or go to the introductory post where you will find a full list of posts.     

Friday, May 21, 2010

Round the New England blogging tracks 15 - protests, politics and a taste of nostalgia

Starting with matters political, at Bellingen, the Save Bellingen Hospital Campaign continues to gather strength. That is one energised community! Bellingen young people have now composed their own protest song. I quote just the chorus:

Because a town is built of wood and stone
But it takes commitment to build a home
The river changes, but it still flows on
Community grows, but it still stays strong

You can see the full words and hear the song here. The Bellingen Hospital Action group also organised a very successful 350 strong protest demonstration. The video follows, showing also the young composers singing part of their song. 

For those who don't know Bellingen, Lynne's new (well, relatively new) Bellingen blog provides a picture of a slice of life in Bellingen Shire.

Continuing with matters political, the New England New State Movement Facebook Page and indeed this blog are now generating a bit of discussion on matters new state. Mark Zaicos picked up a reference to the registration of a new political party in North Queensland dedicated to gaining statehood for that part of Queensland. The new party's web site can be found here.

Peter Firminger also provided a link to an a very well done protest video from Gloucester opposing the extension of coal mining, one of the environmental wars now raging across New England. I provided one perspective on these in four consecutive Armidale Express columns.

There are no easy answers. What we can say, I think, is they have become further complicated as a consequence of the Federal Government's proposed resources tax.

Staying with linked matters, North Coast Voices has been much concerned with the proposal to build a McDonalds in Yamba.You can read NCV's reaction to the go-ahead decision by Council here; it includes a link to the various NCV pieces on the issue.

In McCaffery says councils don’t buy Minister’s Joint Regional Planning Panels spin, NCV also picks up Sydney's decision to wind back to some extent the role of the Joint Regional Planning Panels.

Turning to other matters, congratulations to Archives Outside on turning one. This NSW State Records blog, one much to be praised, has run a lot of stories with New England connections, including Bill Oates material on the New State Movement. Some of their stories include:

Paul Barratt had a nostalgic piece, What a privilege it was ..., remembering his time at the University of New England. My own post Walking down nostalgia lane had a similar feel to it.

It's hard now to remember the days before the mass universities when so few New England students had access to university education. The establishment first of the New England University College and then Newcastle University College, gave many students their first real access to university. Even now, the proportion of regional young going to university is below the city average.

Staying with Paul, he has begun investigating the remarkable war story of Jock McDairmid, school sergeant at The Armidale School (here and here), who was in the SAS. Digging around for some material that might help Paul, a lead from Harry Pidgeon led me to the story of Popski's Private Army. This has absolutely nothing to do with this post or probably with Jock, but is quite fun to read!

Dear me, I have run out of time this round and have barely scratched the surface!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Belshaw's World - what say you to transparent government, Sir Humphrey

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 12 May 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010

I am always interested to see which headline appears on my column. Sometimes they are the ones I used; sometimes the editor thinks that there might be a better one.

I have no objection to this; the revised headlines often capture the content better. However, I had to grin at the last one, “weigh the true cost of populist policy”.

You see, while that’s fair, I am really a populist, a supporter of the constitutional populism developed in New England over the first half of the twentieth century.

I guess that I should warn you to weigh the costs of my own policy suggestions!

Last week I talked about the constitutional views of David Drummond, the man who articulated the constitutional underpinnings within New England populism.

I should note that Drummond did not use the term New England populism, nor did his colleagues. I use this label because it best describes a particular thread in Northern thought.

To overcome the problems in the Australian constitution as he saw them, including potential misuse of power leading inevitable oppression of the minority by the majority, Drummond put forward a number of suggestions.

These included the creation of more states directly related to community of interest; constitutionally entrenched powers to limit cental government interference in matters properly belonging to the states; and flexibility in the distribution of powers so that roles could change as needs change.

Drummond was a practical politician. He did not think these steps would solve all the problems inherent in our system of government. Rather, they were a way of making government more responsive to varying needs across a diverse continent.

Putting this in the context of New England’s environmental wars, New England lacks any constitutional or organisational structure that might allow those living in the area to address all the many issues involved in any inter-connected way.

Accepting this, there are things that might be done to make things work better within existing structures.

Many commentators have a barely concealed contempt for the intelligence of the Australian public. Just look at wide use of punter instead of voter; an example is “your average punter.”

In fact, Australian voters are far more capable of making judgements than many commentators allow. You can see this in a very old political joke.

“Gentlemen, we face a wily and devious foe.” “What, the Labor Party?” “No, the electorate!”

Not all people are interested, nor do they have the knowledge, to make immediate informed judgements. However, over time common sense weeds out many of the sillier political suggestions.

Political parties have no interest in making factual information available to assist people to make informed judgements. Rather, they want to sell.

As an example, look at the initial press releases on the resource rent tax. Even though I am reasonably well informed, there was no way I could work out just how the scheme was meant to work from the information provided.

One simple thing that would greatly improve clarity would be the requirement that each major policy statement be accompanied by a plain English explanation as to how things are meant to work.

Further, and as Drummond pointed out, most Government actions impose costs on individuals and areas. Government policy statements focus on the perceived benefits. Costs are rarely mentioned, nor does any mechanism exist for reimbursing those who might suffer costs for the claimed greater good.

If Governments were forced to identify costs and those bearing the costs in any policy explanation, then they would be forced to address those costs in their thinking.

There is also room for new types of analysis.

At present, environmental impact statements are essentially project by project. Where, as in the Hunter Valley, you have a large number of similar projects, project based EIS can ignore the compounding effects of decisions.

In these circumstances, there is a case for regional EIS that allow the interactions of a large number of projects to be addressed.

There is also no present mechanism that will allow inter-regional interactions to be taken into account. This is especially important in New England because the area contains a substantial number of relatively large, traditionally interacting, regions.

Again, specific inter-regional studies would help by providing information.

I do not suggest that any of these things would prevent environmental conflicts. I do suggest that they would make them easier to manage and give better final results.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Problems with New England statistics

Greg wrote in a comment on New State arguments 1 - introduction:

Much is made of Australia's "two speed" economy with WA cited as the boom state on the back of mining. Meanwhile an accusing finger is pointed at NSW as being a drag on the national economy.

However, I cannot find any data about how New England fares in the scheme of things. I suspect that it is doing a great deal better than the rest of NSW. Hunter coal is certainly a vital contributor. If NSW looks sick despite having such a strong regional performance in the north then the rest of the state must be in an even poorer shape than the figures show.

Is there any data that shows the relative performance of NSW regions and how that impacts on planning and infrastructure investment for the regions and for NSW as a whole? If it is there then it is hard to find. The statistics all seem to be compiled on a state by state basis without regard to relative diversity of state economies and their respective regional areas. That makes it hard to get a feel for what is really happening.

Greg's comment goes to a heart of a problem that I have talked about before on this blog. Because New England does not exist as a constitutional entity, it is not recognised in the statistics. We have less statistics for New England, population 1.4 million, than we do for Tasmania, the ACT or the Northern Territory,

The general state wide statistics are dominated by Sydney.

Around 63% of the NSW population of around 7 million lives in what is called the Sydney Statistical Division. This is not quite the same as the traditional definition of Sydney, for it includes the Blue Mountains and Central Coast. Further, because most of the higher level jobs are in Sydney, this pulls up Sydney averages.

The census data provides a snapshot of conditions at a point in time. Census data is collected on a  collection district basis, and then totaled to, for example, LGAs. You can get ABS to do special runs by specifying coverage. I generally work by aggregating LGAs because this is simpler, although you have to watch changing LGA boundaries.

Census data forms the basis for much state government planning because it is the most complete. Between censuses, the State Government uses projections based on past trends for planning purposes. This is usually done at a regional level, although in some cases small area studies are used. Some but not all the regional data is published.

A particular problem here is that the Government uses various regional definitions depending on its purposes. An example is the frequent inclusion of the Clarence Valley in the Mid North Coast as compared to the Northern Rivers. This can make it hard to put the data into a consistent structure.

Between census periods, very little social or economic performance data is available on a sub-state level. This actually creates significant planning problems where resource allocation decisions are involved.

Some small area tourism data is collected by ABS, while ABS also provides building approval data on an LGA basis plus some LGA population estimates. Housing NSW rent and sale reports provide some rental and sales. This is on an LGA basis for the Greater Metropolitan Region (this includes the Lower Hunter), regionally aggregated for the rest of the state.

The NSW Business Chamber/Commonwealth Bank publishes a survey of business conditions. This includes a break-up for both Illawarra and Hunter regions, as well as aggregated data for the rest of the state outside Sydney, Hunter and Illawarra. The most recent data did indeed suggest that business conditions in the Hunter were more positive than those in Sydney.

As you can see, it's quite difficult to build up a clear picture of key variables and trends across the North. Quite a bit of my own analysis over the last year or so has been concerned just to lay down a base for further analysis. See, for example:

I have at least one more post to go to complete this current series.  

Sunday, May 16, 2010

New State arguments 1 - introduction

In discussing the renewed calls for state government in North Queensland, I said in part:
I can understand why some delegates at the NQLGA meeting suggested that more detail was required to give the idea (of self government) credibility. It's not that the information and arguments are not there. It's just that all the detail of past arguments has been lost in historical terms.
Then in a comment on Belshaw's World - scoping New England’s environmental wars Mark wrote:
I think back when I was a young apprentice and I once heard an old toolmaker speak about the failed referendum over the proposed "New State".
I'm glad that I stumbled across your blog Mr Belshaw. The more that do read, the more I'm sure will see that there can be an alternative to what we have now.
It is now 47 years since the loss of the New England New State plebiscite and the effective collapse of the New England New State Movement in the sometimes bitter in-fighting that followed. By the time that Mark was born, that loss was 12 years in the past. By the time that my eldest daughter was born, that loss was 20 years in the past. You can see why I say that the detail of past arguments has been lost in historical terms.
I have begun outlining some of the history of the Movement to help bring this part of our history alive.

However, there is a broader issue.

Creation of new states involves a mix of constitutional, technical, political and public policy issues. It also involves imagination, the act of imagining what might be done and done in new ways in a new constitutional arrangement freed from the trammels of the past.

In 1915 in Grafton, a public meeting was called to protest the decision by the Holman Government to remove the free steam ferry Helen that had linked Grafton and South Grafton. Attended by around 250 people, the meeting unanimously carried a motion suggesting that the time had now come for the North to consider separation, either alone or in connection with the southern portion of Queensland. While it would be still be a little while before sustained new state agitation emerged, that meeting marked the effective start of twentieth century new state agitation.

Over the 52 years between the Helen incident and the plebiscite, the arguments for and against new states were fought out.

While often dismissed by the metropolitan press, we sometimes forget that papers like the Sydney Morning Herald are just as parochial as their country cousins, the new state supporters had sufficient firepower to challenge opponents on an intellectual as well as political level. Their support came not just from local or regional activists, but also from city based academics, professionals and writers, as well as staff from the newly created New England University College and then University of New England.

Wearing my historian's hat, I am not a great believer in the lessons of history as such. However, I do believe that those who forget the past are inclined to repeat the mistakes of the past. In this context, I can't help noticing how discussions on issues such as constitutional change or regional development over the last thirty years have consistently ignored previous discussions.

Things change.

Since 1967 economic and demographic change, together with changes in the balance of power between Commonwealth and States, means that some of the things that a New England State might have done in 1967 are no longer possible. The power is no longer there, while the barriers to effective regional development have grown.

To my mind, this does not invalidate the idea of new states in general nor of self-government for New England in particular. However, it does mean that past arguments have to be tempered in light of the changes since.

Taking all this into account, I thought that it might be interesting and helpful if I explored past discussions on  the constitutional, technical, political and public policy issues associated with new states. Some of it's pretty dry stuff, but it will go some way towards answering the concerns of some delegates at the NQLGA meeting that more detail was required to give the idea of separation credibility. The detail is there. We have just forgotten!

Other posts in this series: 

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Walking down nostalgia lane

In April I reported on the death of Cherry Robertson.

This morning I had to take eldest to netball. Just before we left I grabbed a book to read, Cherry's Long Youth Long Pleasure: Adventures Behind the Scenes at the University of New England 1956-1980 (Lightning Press, Armidale, 1982). Talk about a walk down nostalgia lane!

The book covers Cherry's working life from her nervous return to work as a secretary through her time as secretary/administrative assistant at the newly formed Robb College.

It covers part of what, in many ways, is now seen as UNE's golden period before the combination of Government policy changes and internal university games threatened the University's very survival.

This is not an academic work, but more a diary, organised on a year by year basis. It's value lies in the uniquely personal perspective on the culture and life of what was then a completely unique Australian institution, one that was almost fully residential so far as full time undergraduates were concerned, yet was also an institution pioneering external distance education.

During the first part of the book I was still at school. My perspective of UNE was formed through my family with their close and intimate connection with the University. Then, for part of the book, I was a student, seeing things from a different perspective. Now, so many years later, I am writing as an historian.

It is not possible for me to be fully objective about UNE. The connections are just too close. That said, as an historian I am fascinated by what UNE life tells us not just about New England, but about the changing culture of one university at a time of major social change.

I will do a full review of the book later. For the moment, I just wanted to record that as I read the names and descriptions of events, I thought what a unique social record her book was. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Do you know of any photos of the Jimmy Sharman boxing troupe?

I am running this story on a number of my blogs just to get then best coverage I can.

Back in July 2009, I ran something of a nostalgia story on my personal blog, Memories of Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Stadium. In response, kellso100 has just written:
Hi am looking for photos of sharmans troup in the late 40's and early 50's as my dad fought for him he fought under the name curly ryan before sparing for dave sands until daves unfortunate death.
When I got the comment, I did something of a web search on Jimmy Sharman photos and on Curly Ryan, but found very little.

Can you help kellso100? There must be some photos around.


In a comment, pellethepoet wrote:

If you search "dave sands" on PictureAustralia there is a set of photos from Newcastle Region Library of Dave Sands sparing with someone in a training session in 1950. You never know - could be Curly Ryan ...

I did as suggested and found the photos that pellethepoet referred to. My thanks.

Maybe the photos will help kellso100.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

North Queensland demands self government

I see that the North Queensland Local Government Association in conjunction with the Western Queensland Local Government Association has launched a campaign for separation and self government for North Queensland. While the motion was passed, several delegates at the NQLGA meeting spoke against the motion, with a common theme being more detail was needed to give the idea credibility.

It's interesting to look at the North Queensland resolution in a historical context.

Within Australia's existing constitutional entities, there have been four areas that have consistently and persistently argued for statehood. They are Riverina and New England in NSW, Central and North Queensland in Queensland. Each has common features: they are big areas with a common sense of self-identity who feel that existing constitutional structures disadvantage them.

I can understand why some delegates at the NQLGA meeting suggested that more detail was required to give the idea credibility. It's not that the information and arguments are not there. It's just that all the detail of past arguments has been lost in historical terms.

I think of part of my role as recovering our shared past. Whether one supports new states or not, we should not lose sight of our own shared histories.

In fighting for what is now James Cook University, the local university movement drew not just from North Queensland's sense of identity, but also from the success of the equivalent movement in New England.

That's the measure of success, the way in which collective action can achieve things despite the institutional barriers.    

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Belshaw's World - beware oppression by majority

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 5 May 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.

My last column scoped the environmental wars presently raging across New England.

Since I wrote, the Federal Government has deferred action on any ETS, while also announcing the proposed introduction of a resource rent super tax on mining companies.

The constant flurries in policy at state and federal level make it quite difficult to come to grips with the on-ground effects, more difficult still to work out coherent responses. However, our own history provides us with some principles that we can use to steer our way through the mess.

In 1926 David Drummond, then one of the Northern Tablelands Parliamentary members and the main New England constitutional thinker, published a series of articles in Country Life, a farm newspaper. These were subsequently published in a booklet, Constitutional Changes in Australia. Current Problems & Contributing Factors

Constitutional Changes in Australia can hardly be classified as literature:

Drummond's lack of formal education (he left school at 12) was still apparent in his sometimes clumsy phrasing, while the articles were repetitive and written in a popular style. Nevertheless, the results present a developed structure, one that was to provide an evolving framework for one stream of Australian constitutional debate over the next forty years.

If Governments have power, Drummond argued, they will exercise it, even if they have to override other bodies. Here he gave local government as an example, citing the way in which the Government in Sydney constantly intervened. Does that sound familiar?

Drummond then suggested that all Government actions involved costs, including restrictions on individual actions.

This was not what would now be called a Libertarian position. Drummond was not opposed to Government actions, just the opposite. Rather, he wanted the fact that there were costs to be recognised.

The presence of costs, combined with Governments willingness to use power, could and did lead to what Drummond called oppression of the minority.

To stay in power, Governments would adopt positions that appealed to the majority, overriding other interests. Where minority interests were continually oppressed in the interests of the majority, major political and social trouble could result.

We can see Drummond’s principles working themselves out across New England at the present time.

In the case of Toorale Station, we have a Commonwealth-NSW intervention justified on national interest grounds; the environment must be protected, while Adelaide requires water. However, nothing is done to help those who suffer the direct costs, the loss of 100 or so jobs in an area already suffering in economic terms because of drought.

One somewhat farcical side-effect is that both Commonwealth and the State government continue to spend money in Bourke attempting to address the symptoms of Aboriginal disadvantage, ignoring the causes of that disadvantage, loss of jobs.

Mr Turnbull’s proposed diversion of the Clarence to meet Brisbane’s water needs provides another example. Here we have a proposal justified in the interests of the majority – the need to provide water to South-East Queensland’s population – that would preclude use of that water within New England. There is no recognition of the

costs involved, no mention of compensation.

The Clarence case raises another issue, one that I referred to in my last post.

In defending their river, Clarence protestors opposed any diversion of water at all, even including use for Tablelands’ town needs. The practical effect was to divide those with a direct interest in the water, increasing the chances of an outcome that would cost all.

An issue such as the use of Clarence water will always be difficult. However, those difficulties are compounded by the absence of any mechanisms that could at least allow common issues to be explored.

The difficulties are further compounded by the gobbledy gook that passes for official language.

When I hear PM Rudd or Treasurer Swan use words like “stronger, fairer, simpler” to sell something, I want to know why it is stronger, fairer to whom, simpler for whom and what will be the costs and to whom?

In my last column in this series I will look at Drummond’s suggestions for reform. However, because those suggestions require constitutional change, I will also put forward some ideas as to immediate steps that might at least assist clarification of issues and challenges.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tomorrow: When the War Began

One of my daughters' favourite writers at school was John Marsden. Youngest in fact went to a writer's session at his farm near Melbourne. Both like the Ellie/Tomorrow series, so there was considerable excitement when they found out that the first book in the series was to be filmed. Now the movie is scheduled for release on 2 September.

For those who don't know the story, the series centres on a group of teenagers caught up in an invasion of Australia by an unspecified foreign power. The novels are told in first person perspective by the main character, a teenaged girl named Ellie Linton, who is part of a small band of teenagers waging a guerrilla war on the enemy soldiers in their fictional hometown of Wirrawee.

This is one Australian movie that is likely to be a major commercial success. Not only does it start with an exciting book, but it has a huge fan base among the young and at least some of their parents. This has allowed what is essentially a viral marketing campaign well in advance of release.

This may seem some distance from New England. However, the film was shot in Maitland, Raymond Terrace and Dungog, as well as the Blue Mountains.

I have made the point a number of times on this blog that one of our problems is that New Englanders do not have proper access to their own past, including visual imagery in films that shows the area in which we live. There have in fact been quite a lot of films shot in New England or which link to New England life and history. We just don't think of them as New England films.

I am going to enjoy the film not just for its own sake, but also playing spot the location!

Some time ago, I began an entry page for New England films. Looking at it, its time to update it.

For those who are interested, the current trailer follows.  

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sydney's 1995 electricity heist

I had been putting together another New England blog round-up when my eye was caught by a story in the Armidale Express. Sadly it's not on-line.

Essentially, the message in the story was that mandated state increases in water charges in regional centres might be paving the way for an eventual state takeover of water resources. In Armidale's case, that would mean loss of the Council owned Malpas dam.

The story was linked to Sydney's earlier smash and grab raid on New England's electricity county council assets

In writing this story, I tried to check on-line sources to find out more details of exact funding arrangements for Malpas, as well as more information on management arrangements. I am glad that I did, for the two are not quite the same.

However, in checking I also dug back into the electricity story and decided to focus in this post on that, picking up water in a second post.

As it happened, at the time Sydney seized New England county council electricity distribution assets, I was doing some work on national electricity marketing.

I said to a colleague in the NSW Treasury that I thought that what had been done was wrong in principle. I did not receive a sympathetic response. They were, he said, assets finally owned by all NSW taxpayers. NSW taxpayers as a whole would benefit.

I leave it to you to judge.

The story begins  

The original idea for county councils was developed by Earle Page, then Mayor of South Grafton. The idea was to assist councils to develop new and shared services via entities controlled by participating councils. From this original start in the Northern Rivers, county councils spread rapidly including electricity supply.

By the early 1990s, electricity distribution throughout New England was carried out by a network of county councils. These arrangements were now to be transformed through the combination of National Competition Policy with NSW Government actions intended to extract the maximum cash from the system.

Introduction of National Competition Policy

In 1992 Australian governments established the independent Committee of Inquiry into a National Competition Policy for Australia[1]. Known as the Hilmer Committee after its chair (Frederick Hilmer) the committee reported in August 1993. It recommended:

  • extension of the coverage of the Trade Practices Act 1974 to unincorporated businesses and state and territory government businesses
  • extension of prices surveillance to state and territory businesses to deal with circumstances where other competition policy reforms had proven inadequate
  • application of competitive neutrality principles so government businesses do not enjoy a competitive advantage over their private sector competitors simply as a result of public sector ownership
  • restructuring of public sector monopoly businesses
  • review of all legislation that restricts competition
  • provision for third party access to nationally significant infrastructure.

On 25 February 1994, the Council of Australian Governments accepted the competition policy principles set out in the Hilmer report. Next year, 11 April 1995, the Council of Australian Governments reached three intergovernmental agreements; the Competition Principles Agreement, the Conduct Code Agreement and the Agreement to Implement the National Competition Policy and Related Reforms. . The agreements set out a national microeconomic reform program, the National Competition Policy. They also contained undertakings to implement pre-existing intergovernmental reform agreements in the sectors of electricity, gas, water and road transport.

Importantly, clause 7 of the Competition Principles Agreement extended the reform agenda to local government. States and territories undertook to work with local government in applying legislation review and reform, competitive neutrality and structural reform principles.

As part of the overall package of agreements, Governments also agreed to:

  • restructure their electricity sector, apply competitive neutrality and review electricity regulation that restricts competition
  • introduce a fully competitive National Electricity Market (NEM) in southern and eastern Australia, extend competition in supply so that all consumers could have choice of supplier and provide for specific bodies to have operational responsibility in the market[2].

This led to agreement to on the following objectives:

  • the ability for customers to choose their supplier, including generators, retailers and traders (full contestability)
  • non-discriminatory access to the interconnected transmission and distribution network
  • no discriminatory legislative or regulatory barriers to entry for new participants in generation or retail supply
  • no discriminatory legislative or regulatory barriers to interstate and/or intrastate trade.

Turning now to water, on 25 February 1994, the Council of Australian Governments adopted a strategic water reform framework which was later incorporated into the National Competition Policy agreements. The main objectives were to establish an efficient and sustainable water industry and to arrest widespread natural resource degradation, for which water use is partly responsible. The framework covered pricing, the appraisal of investment in rural water schemes, the specification of, and trading in, water entitlements, resource management (including recognising the environment as a user of water via formal allocations), institutional reform and improved public consultation.

Application to the NSW electricity sector

In May 1995, NSW Treasurer Michael Egan released the NSW Electricity Reform Taskforce Electricity Reform Statement[3]. As part of the changes:

  • The existing 25 Electricity Distributors would be amalgamated into a small number of distributors and restructured.
  • Distributors would be corporatised and operate under a commercial framework. This would cover aspects such as rate of return, asset valuations, capital structure and financial distributions to government.
  • Each Distributor would have two subsidiary corporations, dealing separately with distribution network ("wires") and retail supply ("energy trading") operations. This structure reflected the distinctive nature of the two businesses: network being a regulated monopoly and retail supply being subject to open market competition.
  • Electricity consumers would be able to exercise choice of energy supplier, as retail competition developed.

The arguments for the change can be summarised this way:

  • Small operators could not survive in the new deregulated market
  • NSW had to comply with National Competition Policy
  • Economies of scale meant that retail electricity prices would fall in real terms from 9.3 cents per kwh in 1995 to 7.4 cents per kwh in 2000
  • There was presently no incentive for county councils to maximise returns on assets.
  • Financial arrangements governing county councils gave them preferential positions as compared to private sector firms.

In a remarkably revealing statement, the Statement said[4]:

A commercial framework requires that all distributors have an appropriate capital structure. Current debt levels of most distributors are relatively low, with an average gearing of approximately 13%, compared to the proposed 50% to 60% gearing of Victorian distributors.

Despite low profitability, rural distributors have been able to accumulate significant cash reserves as they have little debt and are not currently required to pay tax and dividends. In the absence of a commercial cost of capital, distributors are provided with strong incentives to eliminate debt and over invest in network assets. Local Government governance structures have contributed to the development of inefficient capital structures.

In conjunction with an increase in network sector returns to commercial levels, there is also an opportunity to review debt levels in order to achieve a commercial capital structure appropriate for mature, low risk utilities.

For example, financial modelling indicates that a 10% per annum regulated return on network assets will generate sufficient cashflow to support gearing levels of up to 50% for network businesses.

There was a need for change. However, the new arrangements completely ignored existing ownership arrangements. These were not Sydney assets. They were assets owned by country councils who were in turn owned by local councils. Further, those assets had been largely been built up by tariffs paid by local consumers that covered operating costs, interest payments and loan repayments.

Outcomes of the changes

The NSW Government did very well out of the deal. It:

  • Was able to extract money by borrowing against assets, increasing gearing.
  • Maximised dividend and other payments, forcing distributors to reduce costs regardless.
  • Is now looking at privatising the assets to get a final return.

Consumers were not so fortunate.

While some consumers in some areas did experience lower real prices (this depended on starting prices), the higher financial costs imposed on distributors limited these gains. Further, in cutting costs, distributors cut key staff, maintenance and investment.

By the early 2000s they were scrambling to find replacement staff such as linesmen. Now in 2010 electricity prices are being greatly increased to overcome past under-investment.

I have not been able on on-line information to check price movements. However, the current Country Energy price for a retail consumer of 19.62 cents per kwh excluding GST can be compared with the 1995 average of 9.3 cents,

Local areas were least fortunate of all. They lost local jobs, they largely lost the support for local projects that had been funded from county council profits, and they got no return for the assets seized by Sydney.

New England County Council Case Study

I no longer have my copies of the NECC annual reports, so I have not been able to validate all my information[5].

The Electricity Development Act, 1946 established an Electricity Authority, empowering it to recommend the constitution of new county districts and the alteration of existing boundaries. Prior to this date, electricity generation and distribution in the area was carried out first by a private company and then Armidale City Council.

In 1948 the New England County Council was formed. The new Council decided to buy additional bulk electricity from Tamworth Council and to build its own hydro generation scheme at Oakey River. This was completed in 1956.

New England County Council tariffs were initially high by NSW standards in part because of the need to fund the Oakey Scheme. However, by 1995 the County Council was quite profitable, while tariffs were below the NSW average. The Council saw part of its role in keeping consumer costs down, while profits were being used to fund local activities.

I said earlier that financial arrangements with county councils needed to be refined independent of the changes actually introduced. One sign of this is that the County Council’s growing cash flow created a difficulty. There were no formal frameworks in existence as to how this money should be spent.

When NECC was expropriated by the NSW Government, Armidale lost head office jobs, the funding that had been going to community activities within the NECC area was lost, the chance of building a bigger business was lost. Local councils as owners received no payment, locals ratepayers and in a sense council shareholders received no local benefit, while there was little if any consumer gain via lower electricity prices.

[1] National Competition Council, National Competition Policy, Major Areas of Reform,, accessed 10 May 2010

[2] National Competition Council, National Competition Policy, Related Reform - electricity,, accessed 10 May 2010

[3] accessed 10 May 2010

[4] Ibid pp18-19.

[5] The historical material in this section is drawn from an Armidale City Council document on the history of electricity in Armidale - accessed 10 May 2010. Material on later events is drawn from my own experience at the time.

Friday, May 07, 2010

A pause for breath

Blog Performance Just a pause for breath.

The graphic shows the combination of visits and page views on this site. The yellow represents visits, the combination of red and yellow, the number of page views. You can see the big pickup from the start of January.

Two things have happened.

The first is that the blog has started to get a degree of traction among those interested in current New England events. I like that because it means that I am starting to write to a more defined group.

The blog along with its companion history blog is also gaining some traction among those interested in New England History. I like that too because when I started I felt that there was no-one out there who was interested. I was trying to create interest.

In fact, people were interested. I just didn't know who they were. That said, I do think that there has been a growth in interest over the last two years. That's nice.

One of the things about my writing is that a lot of it depends upon my previous research. While I do do some current reporting, I also try to combine this with interpretive material. In all this, I try to make my own views (my biases) clear.

This approach can be rewarding. It's nice, for example, that the Save Pambula Hospital Campaign picked up a health post I wrote using Bellingen Hospital as am example.    

All this takes time. For example, I am a member of the Aboriginal Language Revival Movement Facebook page. I am so because I have a general interest in the topic, with a special focus on New England's Aboriginal languages. Cheryl Riley (creator) asked for greater support. I can provide this, and have some material that I can provide at once. But beyond this, I have to do some research and writing. Consider, for example, Introduction to New England's Aboriginal languages. That took time.

One thing that has suffered in all this is my purely professional writing. This is quite important. Not only do I have to earn a living, but my professional writing forms part of my interpretative strength. So some re-balancing required.

In all this, there is a sense of excitement. I do like the feel that I am making a contribution.  

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Belshaw's World - scoping New England’s environmental wars

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 28 April 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.

This column continues my discussion on the environmental battles now raging across New England.

Driving up to Armidale recently via Gloucester, I passed a coal train. Next to it on the road side was an anti-mining sign. I couldn’t stop, but it made a good photo.

On 23 March, the third Newcastle coal loader saw the docking of its first ship. This was briefly interrupted by members of the Rising Tide group who chained themselves over the wharf to try to stop the ship.

Environmental protestors arguing that coal mining must be phased out for climate change reasons frequently try to disrupt shipping.

At the other end of the spectrum, the NSW Government acted to take over the 120 year old Camberwell Common to facilitate mining expansion. A spokesman for NSW Lands Minister Tony Kelly stated that the Government had intervened because negotiations with the community had broken down.

On the Liverpool Plains, the NSW Government acted to reverse a court win for those protesting against possible coal developments by attempting to introduce new legislation that would overturn the decision.

Coal is big business.

In 2,000, Hunter Valley coal production was 67 million tonnes, rising to 112 million tonnes in 2007/2008. Coal royalties paid the NSW Government have risen from $197.03 million ten years ago to $1.227 billion in 2008/2009.

With seven new mines under construction, five proposed expansions of existing mines plus two new proposed mines, you get a feel for the way the industry is exploding. You can also see why mining royalties are so important to Sydney, for this is the Government's main growth revenue. Without this growth, the recent drop in State revenues from other sources would have had even more calamitous effects.

The State’s position is far from secure.

The Federal Government is also eying tax revenue from mining. While Mr Rudd has already said that this will not affect mining royalties, the reality is that it would put an effective cap on increased state royalties from this source.

In the Upper Hunter, protestors argue that the area is not getting a sufficient return from mining, that the Hunter bears the costs, Sydney gets the cash.

Some call for separation and a re-created New England New State movement, calls repeated by others after the Camberwell expropriation.

Staying in the south, the Tilegra dam proposal is part justified on climate change grounds. Hunter people argue with justice that there are no real reasons for the dam, that it is a political response.

In the north-east, Malcolm Turnbull, then Federal Water Minister, calls for the Clarence to be damned to provide water for Brisbane. Again, climate change is given as one reason.

A local protest movement is born objecting to any diversion of water, including diversion of water into western rivers as sought by some irrigators.

In the west, the NSW and Commonwealth Governments acquires Toorale Station and turn it into a national park. One hundred full and part time jobs go in an area with already high unemployment. This is followed by other water purchases.

Irrigators protest that the approach by the Murray Darling Commission to water planning across the total basin does not pay sufficient attention to social and economic factors, a position supported by the Productivity Commission.

Long held concerns about the way that land is being tied up in red tape lead to a rural protest movement. Farmers argue, among other things, that environmental approaches ignore the important role that might be played by carbon sequestration in soil, that simply locking country up in forests or national parks is not a good way to go.

Operating below the normal metro media horizons, these concerns play into the hands of those arguing against climate change fuelling a revolt that will ultimately derail Rudd Government plans and cost Malcolm Turnbull his leadership.

Meanwhile, at Glen Innes wind farming proposals create anger. Sydney is accused of ignoring due process in its desire to get things through.

Down on the coast, Byron Bay Council loses a legal battle over its right to stop people protecting their homes from rising sea levels. More broadly, all coastal councils have to decide how to respond to Government rules limiting development in areas considered to be at longer term risk from rising sea levels.

In my next column I will look at some of the policy and organisational confusions all this has created.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Round the New England media 4 May 10

Another of my periodic New England media round-ups.

ABC New England North West is on Twitter. Mind you, there are some frustrations. One twitt read:

The state government has denied access the records surrounding the death of Bush ranger Captain Thunderbolt - stay listening after ten.

I couldn't listen, so am still wondering what all this was about. I knew that there had been a request for official papers from the period, but I would have thought that this was archival material open to the public.

In Lismore, the Northern Star reports that the Northern Region Community Services NSW - this runs from Tweed Heads down to Port Macquarie, has seen an influx of reports filed by police, teachers, community workers and others that swamped any capacity to respond. The paper says in part: 

With no emergency youth accommodation and no adolescent foster care programs in Lismore, young people between 10 and 16 years old included in these rising statistics are taking to sleeping it rough in an attempt to leave their dysfunctional homes.

“I’m horrified at the kind of things kids go through,” Lismore City Council youth development officer Lizette Twistleton said.

I have written a little on this one. I will give a summary with links in another post. Following the introduction of mandatory reporting and the subsequent effective collapse of the child welfare system, then an official inquiry,  Sydney introduced new approaches.

The stats quoted in the story are 08-09 stats. I wonder how much has changed since. Perhaps not a lot form Lizette's words.

Staying with the Northern Star, there was a rather nice story on a get together of isolated students from different parts of the Northern Rivers. In all, there are about 60 primary-aged students whose families are from isolated areas enrolled in the distance education program across the Northern Rivers.

In Grafton, the Daily Examiner had a story that surprised me. This said that The Clarence had not experienced the recent Sydney real estate price surge; the market was flat. Why did this surprise?

Well, while it has been true that country real estate price changes lag Sydney, inland centres such as Armidale and Tamworth have recently experienced considerable price surges. This was influenced by first home buyer grants under the stimulus program that essentially stripped out lower price homes, but then spread to other house categories. Part of the reason, I think, is that parts of inland New England are experiencing faster population growth than has been the case in recent years.

Just at present, the North Coast Area Health Service cannot take a trick. After the troubles further south at Bellingen, the Examiner reports trouble at Grafton and Maclean Hospitals (here and here). I cannot comment on the detail. However, we should not assume that the abolition of the NCAHS and its replacement by local hospital networks will solve problems.

Jumping up that beautiful if winding mountain road to Armidale, that university city has been experiencing some remarkable successes with major sporting events, beginning with the Koori Knockout.

Now here I have a frustration, one that I have shared previously with Armidale Express Editor Christian Knight. It is difficult to write about these things because so many of the stories are not on-line and I cannot therefore give links.

These are not small events. The NSW Academy Games attracted 1,000 participants, the smaller TAS Rugby Knockout Carnival attracted forty teams.   

I guess that Christian and I will continue to chat about these issues. In the meantime, I just note that Armidale's superb sporting facilities continue to bear fruit.

The decision by the the Rudd Government attracted a fair bit of press coverage.

On the New England New State Movement Facebook Page, Nathan wrote:

Maybe the Hunter be its own Country after the Government has announced it's Super Profits tax. With the state and federal Governments getting in on the action there will still be nothing for the Hunter except chicken feed plus will distroy a lot of the new investments that could occur in the Hunter.

Nathan put his concerns quite strongly, but there is a fair bit of confusion and concern. The Northern Daily Leader reports that Gunnedah Shire Mayor Adam Marshall is still trying to ascertain what the government’s response to the Henry tax review means for the mining industry and the Gunnedah basin. The heading of the story - Not a dollar of mining tax would go to region: mayor - is a little stronger than the story itself, but presumably reflects the Mayor's views.

The Mayor is not alone in his concerns. Down south at Singleton, the Singleton Argus reports:  

Mayor of Singleton Sue Moore said she is concerned that the money is being taken from mining and distributed Australia wide for infrastructure purposes.

“It is not what we have been fighting for and until I learn more, I am at this stage a little concerned about what benefits Singleton will get,” she said.

“I am concerned for the mines and any impact this tax might have on employment in our area.”

The difficulty is that all the councils affected by mining have been fighting for a greater share of royalties to address local costs and increase local benefits. Once money is redistributed across Australia, local areas lose their chance of getting a greater share.

In the meantime, mining continues to create environmental conflict. Here I was fascinated by two stories in the Northern Daily Leader (here and then here) about an apparent gaffe by a Chinese executive on mining in the Mooki River area. I blinked!

One of my difficulties is that even though I know New England quite well, its such a large area (bigger than England) that I sometimes simply don't know local geography well enough to make sensible comments. It's also quite hard to integrate things when everything is so fragmented.

Environmental issues are always difficult, more so when government constructs make it difficult to compensate those directly affected.

I am trying to pull some of this together in a three part series in my Armidale Express column on Nee England's current environmental wars.

Finally, down in Newcastle, dispute over CBD development continues. I must say that the anger of locals against Sydney on this and other issues is quite remarkable. The number of comments that the Newcastle Herald attracts on its stories is also quite remarkable.