North Queensland is a State of mind

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Proposed North Queensland flag. Designed by Edward Cattoni and used by supporters of statehood (Image via Wikipedia Commons)

Queenslanders may be united when it comes to State of Origin football, but up North there has always been discontent about the way Brisbane governs. 120 years ago, a separate state of North Queensland could have become a reality. One of the mistakes of our Federation is that North Queensland is not a separate state, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

POLITICIANS FROM NORTH of the "Marlborough stretch" have long complained about the neglect of tropical Queensland by Brisbane-based governments. It is from within the fertile soil of this more than century-old dissent that support for Bob Katter’s maverick brand of politics blooms. This is a populism manifested in calls for North Queensland independence. North Queenslanders have long seen themselves as political, economic and geographic outsiders to mainstream Australia — and Katter’s outsider stance meshes well with them. But North Queensland is more than a line on a map, it is a way of life — a state of mind.

In 2016, the world witnessed the UK vote to leave European Union and the outcome of the U.S. elections. Both were the culmination of a long-term trend of declining popular trust in government institutions, political parties and politicians, and in each case the electorate defied the political establishment.

On 3 September 2017, the Western Australian Liberal Party voted in favour of a motion to investigate the State seceding from the Federation. The non-binding "WAxit" policy motion, put forward by the Brand division, passed 89-73. Later that day, the motion was amended to becoming “financially independent”. The motion was symptomatic of the anger around the allocation of GST funds by Canberra, however WA has a long history of secessionist talk. Western Australia almost did not join in the Australian Federation in 1901 and in 1933 voted in favour of a referendum asking whether they wanted to withdraw from the Commonwealth of Australia. A petition was then sent to the British Parliament requesting that it amend the Australian Constitution, but a UK parliamentary joint committee ruled that it was invalid because it did not have the support the Federal Government.

Britain backed Brexit, WA is facing a WAxit push to cut ties with Canberra, so perhaps the time has come for NQexit?

It is more than 50 years since Geoffrey Blainey published The Tyranny of Distance (Macmillan, 1966) and almost 55 since Geoffrey Bolton wrote A Thousand Miles Away (Macmillan, 1963), the first large-scale history of North Queensland. In these titles, much of the independent streak and the suspicion North Queenslanders have towards the people in Brisbane can be sensed. A perceived loss of local control over many facets of governance becomes a source of significant political grievance for the Northerners.

In An Incredible Race of People (Murdoch Books, 2012), Katter spends most of the book skipping between his history telling and his hero-worship of EG Theodore, aka Red Ted, union leader and Queensland Labor premier, while attempting to define his version of Australian mateship:

The spirit of defiance, the idea of “us and them” of the Ned Kelly variety.’

In 1852, John Dunmore Lang had proposed, in his Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia, the division of the future colony of Queensland into three. In the wake of the formation of Queensland as a separate colony in 1856, it was widely believed that further subdivisions would take place. Since the establishment of Queensland as a separate colony, secession movements have arisen first in Northern and then in Central Queensland.

In 1887, the North Queensland Separation League sent a delegation to England to submit a case for separation to the Secretary of State, Sir Henry Holland. During the 1890s, the separation movement was especially strong in Charters Towers with the establishment of a Separation League. However, agitation for the separation of North Queensland reached a peak of intensity in Townsville during the 1880s and 1890s.

On 23 September 1897, a separate North Queensland state could have become a reality, when a proposal by MLA for Rockhampton, William Kidston was passed in the Queensland Colonial Parliament on the Speaker’s casting vote, after a 20 for and 20 against spilt vote. Victory was within the grasp of the people from North Queensland, but on the following day a number of absent members of the Legislative Assembly advised the Queensland Premier, Sir Hugh Nelson, in writing that the resolution was carried 'in a very thin house' after a late night sitting. They recorded their dissent, even though they had been absent from the house.

Since Federation, numerous efforts have been made to push the Queensland government into action. Groups who wish to see Queensland subdivided into new states have organised conventions and petitions to further their goals. At times, they have even been close to achieving their aims. In 1910, the Queensland Parliament passed a motion proposing that Queensland be divided into three distinct states. However, the motion was never enacted and, despite the efforts of many, those advocating splitting Queensland into smaller states have never again come so close to success. A lack of political will – both in Canberra and Brisbane – the existence of anti-secession groups, as well as divisions within new-state supporters, have all contributed to the retention of a single state.

As Brisbane’s population grew, a long-standing suspicion grew up: that the interests of the capital were being prioritised and that the Northerners were contributing more than they were receiving. This resentment still boils over from time to time.

In 2010, North Queensland Federal MP Bob Katter stated:

"We have been economically massacred in the north...it’s the tyranny of the majority being in South-East Queensland – the winner takes all."

Proponents hoped – and, as Katter’s statement reveals, continue to hope – that the further division of Queensland would lead to enhanced government and bring economic benefits.

At the 2010 North Queensland Local Government Association meeting, the fight for independence intensified, with 98 of 100 delegates voting in favour of the motion. At the time, Bob Katter called for a referendum on the issue at the 2012 council elections.

On 15 September 2016, Rob Katter, the MP for Mount Isa, moved in the Queensland Parliament:

'That this House supports, in accordance with section 124 of the Commonwealth Constitution, the separation of Queensland into two states, and that the boundary of the two states is to be as recommended by an independent body, such as the current Queensland Redistribution Commission.'

The result was 42 Labor MPs voted against the motion and only 28 LNP members cast a vote, with 14 abstaining. Independent MP for Cook Billy Gordon also abstained. As a result, a working committee was formed to investigate how North Queensland could become Australia's seventh state.

The Working Group for the Establishment of North Queensland brought together Katter Party MPs at both a State and Federal level, as well as LNP Federal MP George Christensen, Independent state MP Rob Pyne, economists, academics, local stakeholders and business and farming representatives. North Queensland MPs hold the balance of power in the Queensland Parliament and have vowed to use their influence to counteract the "historical neglect" the North and the state's regions have experienced from George Street.

The conditions for creating new states is set out in Section 124, Chapter VI of the Australian Constitution 

Formation of new States.

124. A new State may be formed by separation of territory from a State, but only with the consent of the Parliament thereof, and a new State may be formed by the union of two or more States or parts of States, but only with the consent of the Parliaments of the States affected.

​If the Queensland Parliament passed an act to separate North Queensland as a separate state, the Commonwealth would then have a role under s121 to establish the new state.

There is a clear case for North Queensland to establish its own state government. The sad fact is that the newest state is Queensland — created 158 years ago. The United States, in contrast, has created close to 20 in the same time.

We do not have enough states. As a result, we miss one of the advantages of Federalism, which is that states focus on local issues. Instead, our states are consumed by issues that often vary greatly within the states borders, ultimately creating tension and suspicion and ineffectual government.

You can follow history editor and native North Queenslander Dr Glenn Davies on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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