23/01/2013 - 08:16

Missed opportunity to put ‘Albert’ on map

23/01/2013 - 08:16


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Discussion of the value and administration of the Kimberley goes as far back as 1861.

Discussion of the value and administration of the Kimberley goes as far back as 1861.

MY cheeky suggestion in last week’s column that we cut off the Kimberley and give it to the Commonwealth had a fairly low-key reception by the standards I am used to. There were a few emails nudging me for stirring the pot but no irate responses from the region in question. How disappointing.

Either the wet season has left the Kimberley out of contact or the people of the far north of Western Australia really don’t care whether they answer to Perth, Canberra or Darwin.

When I suggested that, perhaps, Canberra might like to take the Kimberley and merge with the Northern Territory to create the state of ‘Northern Australia’ (well maybe not a state, the federal government doesn’t want another pesky problem), I was aware that this was not entirely new.

But I was astounded to read some correspondence on the matter dating back to 1861-62, when handing over what is now the Kimberley, the Pilbara and the Northern Territory to the administration of South Australia and Queensland (until such time as a new self-administering colony could be declared) was openly canvassed.

According to the copies of historic documents sent to me by an astute reader, the name ‘Albert’ was mooted for that proposed colony.

The correspondence in question was started by Sir Charles Nicholson, the president of Queensland’s first legislative council, and included Britain’s secretary of state for the colonies (Henry Pelham-Clinton, the 5th Duke of Newcastle), the Queensland governor (George Bowen), Britain’s Emigration Office, the Queensland parliament, and the state’s surveyor-general.

It offers some insight into the development of Australia’s frontiers at the time, when the north-western quarter of the nation was almost wholly unexplored.

Thus, there was considerable interest in developing the north and under which administration it might fall - be it WA, South Australia or Queensland.

“A superficial glance at the map would perhaps tend to the impression that Western Australia, within the nominal boundary of which a large extent of the proposed new colony of ‘Albert’ is comprised, would be first on the list, as regards the facilities for local management,” wrote Queensland surveyor-general Augustus Gregory, formerly a leader of an expedition to northern Australia in 1856.

Mr Gregory dismissed WA’s capacity.

“In support of this assertion, it may be remarked that the governor lately refused to allow intending settlers to occupy the available country northward of Shark’s Bay, on the ground that such an extension would only withdraw capital from the already occupied districts, and assist in the development of country which would practically belong to a different colony,” he wrote.

The thinking, even from the Queenslander, seemed to be that his own state had too much on its hands to administer the whole newly created region, or even any of it.

Queensland, then newly separated from NSW, was expanding rapidly to develop its own territory, partly because of economic opportunities and partly to stall proposals to create newer separate colonies in its northern regions. Most of this expansion was around grazing cattle.

Part of Queensland’s problem, according to Mr Gregory and others, was also about distance. Communication with the western portion of this proposed colonial area would have to take place by paddle steamer travelling across the top of the continent.

South Australia, by comparison, was in need of pastoral lands, having reached a certain amount of capacity within its boundaries.

It had a land-linked connection with the north, as discovered by the explorer Sir John Stuart, who had in previous years reached the centre of the continent in one expedition and eventually reached the northern coast, east of present day Darwin, on his sixth attempt, in 1861.

“ ... the desired objects are more likely to be attained by making it for the present a dependency of South Australia .,” Mr Gregory concluded.

So imagine that. About 150 years ago, WA came close to losing the Pilbara and the Kimberley to form a new state with the Northern Territory, administered ‘temporarily’ by South Australia.

From the way history could be read, this might have resulted in the tables being turned, with the Pilbara resources province turning modern-day South Australia (they would never have relinquished control would they?) into the national economic powerhouse, with WA a more rural state lacking development opportunities.

Perhaps the same lesson could be learned from the Kimberley. No matter how economically marginal its looks today, it may yet become self-sustaining or even a major economic force, notwithstanding current opposition to such development.

What’s in a name?

AS for the proposed colony’s name, Albert, after the husband of Queen Victoria, that suggestion was never taken up in Australia.

It is worth noting that the Canadians adopted a close approximation of the name for the province of Alberta, which was established in 1905. It was named after Victoria and Alberts’ daughter (Louise Caroline Alberta).

In discussing the potential naming ideas, George Bowen quoted well-known Australian political figure, newspaper publisher and radical republican John Lang, who was dismissive of the somewhat generic proposition to call the region ‘Northern Australia’.

Dr Lang noted the area did not contain the northernmost part of the continent (Cape York) and would be as equally absurd as the naming of South Australia, for similar reasons. Dr Lang purportedly suggested South Australia ought to have been named Williamsland (after King William IV). He also advocated that Queensland be called Cooksland.

Dr Lang noted that, under the same naming logic, the British colony of Demerara (now called Guyana) would have been called South America, even though it is located at the top of the continent that now bears that name.

“North Australia, forsooth!” Dr Lang was quoted as referring to an earlier aborted colony at Port Curtis (now Rockhampton) in Queensland.

“Why I have no doubt that, in a few years hence, there will be three or four British colonies along the northern coast of New Holland, all equally entitled to the same designation.”

Sam Walsh

IN the first half of last year, as we watched the resources world through rose-tinted glasses, we decided to drop Rio Tinto Iron Ore and Australia chief executive Sam Walsh from our top 10 Most Influential Western Australians.

We argued that, with oil and gas ploughing billions into new developments, there was only so much room for iron ore players. On the face of it, Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest had the edge. They were creating new projects that were eroding the power of the majors, including Rio Tinto.

They were locals, unlikely to move away at the whim of corporate head office because they were the true decision makers - often in more areas than simply mining projects.

By comparison, Rio’s intentions were well known, approvals gained, and Mr Walsh could quietly retire any day, on the back of a job well done.

All that changed in August last year. Iron ore price volatility altered the landscape. Mr Forrest’s plans were put on hold and his company, Fortescue Metals Group, lacked corporate composure for several difficult weeks.

Mrs Rinehart’s plans, too, looked vulnerable.

Rio, by comparison sailed through, largely unaffected.

Mr Walsh now heads to London where he will, potentially, have even greater influence over what happens in WA than he did when he left here.


• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au


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