A brief history of New South WalesTo History
The land and its first inhabitants have been here for hundreds of thousands of years, but New South Wales as we know it only came into existence when Captain James Cook gave it that name in 1770. Not long after, in 1788 a colony to relocate convicts from overcrowded British gaols at Botany Bay was established on the shores of Port Jackson where Sydney now stands. It was originally intended that the convict settlement should be self-supporting, but before long it became clear that the fertile coastal river valleys, magnificent stands of timber, extensive grasslands in the interior, splendid fisheries and abundant reserves of coal would sustain a substantial colony. The convict settlement survived till 1840 but by then, much of the land was explored and appropriated at the expense of its Aboriginal inhabitants, agriculture became viable, and fine wool and coal were established as exports. Most of the convicts were re-located to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) or Moreton Bay. In 1851, the land south of the Murray River became a separate colony called Victoria. The northern settlements became Queensland in 1859.
Gold discoveries in 1851 stimulated both immigration and capital investment and were followed in 1856 by self-government. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the New South Wales population and economy grew slowly in comparison with Victoria, but it was solid growth, based mainly on the export of wool, coal and other minerals, and the construction of valuable infrastructure, especially railways and telegraph lines. Because it was thought that education was the key to future development, it was planned to standardise primary schooling, which was to become ‘free, secular, and compulsory’. Catholic Church leaders, especially, objected to the idea of secular education, and at great cost maintained a parallel system of church schools. Though the quality of education in general was probably improved by the competition thus created, the fact that upward mobility depended on passing a series of state-run public examinations, leading to a small number of scholarships, bursaries and university places, created resentment and a sense of disadvantage that lingered well into the 1950s among the Catholic population.
New South Wales escaped the worst of the bank crashes and the economic depression of the 1890s. However, the arguments of New South Wales trades unions for greater protection of working conditions as well as the surprise election of 35 labour candidates in 1891 strengthened an embryonic labour party. In parliament the new labour members sought ways of being effective and devised, as part of their strategy, a regular caucus to decide their position on any legislation of significance. They then pledged to vote solidly as a bloc. In this way they quickly came to hold the balance of power between the other more fluid factions in the parliament and were able to extract policy concessions in return for their support. In 1910, the labour party in New South Wales first won government in its own right under the leadership of James McGowan and his deputy William Holman, by one seat.
The idea of federation had been enthusiastically promoted in the late nineteenth century by New South Wales Premier Sir Henry Parkes, but the constitution that was devised during the 1890s caused some concern, mainly because it seemed clear that New South Wales’ strong free trading economy based on the export of raw materials would be undermined by the economic protection required by all the other colonies. And indeed, New South Wales seemed weaker after federation. Able politicians like Barton, Reid, Lyne, Hughes, and Watson moved into federal politics where hardline free trade policies were abandoned in favour of protective tariffs. In New South Wales, Joseph Carruthers tried to re-shape the anti-labour forces as a liberal party reforming health, education and the rights of women, but this made it easier for Labour to focus on wages and working conditions and win government in 1910.
The involvement of Cardinal Moran and the Catholic Church in labour politics provoked a sectarian reaction and attitudes hardened after 1910. Thereafter, the troubles in Ireland, the debate in Australia over conscription for WW1, the revolution in Russia, and the foundation in Sydney of an Australian Communist Party led to suspicions of disloyalty or revolutionary aspirations among labour supporters. Serious divisions appeared in New South Wales’ society. Bitter disputes between the trade unions and the employers produced harsh, even punitive reactions. As the 1930s slid into depression, unemployment was worse in New South Wales than elsewhere in Australia. This was partly because of the extent to which New South Wales was indebted to overseas borrowing and dependent on exports which declined dramatically. Charismatic Labour leader, Jack Lang’s defiance of the demands of international capital and his defence of the New South Wales working class who had voted him into office, was eventually seen as a threat to the savings of the respectable middle classes. In May 1932 he was dismissed as premier by the governor, Sir Philip Game, and replaced by a moderate, conciliatory, accountant, Bertram Stephens.
Despite the political turmoil of the first half of the twentieth century, care and attention had been given to the expansion of agriculture through the development of railways for transport, irrigation to open up new areas for farming, and the application of scientific research to soils, crops, and agricultural education. By the mid-twentieth century, the sheer size of New South Wales and the strength and variety of it industries, made it not only almost self-sufficient in foodstuffs and general manufacturing, but left a surplus for export, of not only wool, wheat, and coal, but butter, dried and canned fruits. Most industry was carried out on a scale large enough to need a substantial workforce and the workers were unionised. Railway workers, school teachers, and public servants all shared a belief in the values of union membership, and in return for supporting labour governments, by the 1950s their wages and working conditions were among the best in Australia. From 1941 when William McKell became premier, labour governments became the norm in New South Wales. Even the non-labour government led by Robert Askin 1960-1970 seemed often like a mirror image of labour.
Government involvement in the supervision, regulation and marketing of agricultural products like eggs, bread, and milk had produced impressive results, however, by the second half of the twentieth century it had also become inefficient. The possibility of exploiting known resources was reaching its limit. It became necessary to look for new ways of maintaining economic growth. There was considerable expansion of crops grown by irrigation like rice and cotton. Surplus electricity in the Hunter made available as the Snowy Hydro scheme came on stream was used to set up aluminium smelters for imported ore. The growth of Sydney after the 1960s when it came to house more than half the state’s population, produced increasing numbers of jobs in the building, transport, and service industries. Transformed by high-rise buildings which were increasingly contested as historic buildings were demolished, Sydney was on the way to becoming Australia’s financial capital as well as the gateway to Australia for increasing numbers of immigrants now arriving by air.
There were other changes in the air. The Labour government under the leadership of Neville Wran elected in 1976 showed clearly the influence of a decade or more of television in its management of public affairs. Computers soon began to change both business and the public service. The old extractive industries, mining, grazing, agriculture, timber, fisheries, were giving way to a financial and service-based economy in which entertainment, tourism, and lifestyle provided much of the employment now increasingly based in Sydney. Wran was sensitive to a shift in community attitudes away from the exploitation of natural resources to the preservation of increasingly scarce areas of wilderness, old forests and coastline for the enjoyment of all. Aboriginal people were recognized through land rights, and women were welcomed into the public service. Wran’s reforms were reinforced by the non-Labour premier elected in 1988. Nick Greiner, the archetypical young businessman in a hurry with the latest American economic management, and accounting practices, asserted that as premier he was merely the chief executive of NSW Inc. managing it for its shareholders, the people. However, as governing New South Wales became more a matter of corporate style and public relations, the honesty and accountability of its executives came under a different kind of scrutiny from that formerly available through the press and at election time. The people of New South Wales were becoming more wary and less trusting of politicians as corporate executives.
The Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000 created an immensely favourable impression of Sydney and New South Wales all round the world. Some of this was translated into trade and tourism as its promoters had hoped, but as the effects wore off, the cost, especially to infrastructure and rural and social policies became more evident. With its great range of immigrants, many of them non-English-speaking, an aging population making greater demands on health services, and the problems of providing for an increasing spread of population along the whole coastline, to the north and south of the old urban concentration in Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong, the demand for, and cost of, government services could not easily be contained. Health services and transport, both roads and railways, came under strain. In the schools there was a greater emphasis on quality and accountability and a demand for tertiary education for all who were capable of undertaking it. In a world obsessed with credit ratings, New South Wales’ governments turned to private partners to finance major construction projects but they were hampered by the generally short-term view of profitability now prevailing in the business world. Both Sydney and rural New South Wales began to feel the consequences of economic stringency, sharpened by one of the most persistent droughts on record and the underlying fear that the climate, hitherto a mostly benign aspect of life in New South Wales, might be changing for the worse.
By Beverley Kingston, historian.