The original inhabitants of the area were Aboriginal tribes who arrived in Australia approximately forty to sixty thousand years ago.
The European discovery of New South Wales was made by Captain James Cook during his voyage along the east coast of Australia in 1770. In the journal covering his survey of the eastern coast of the Australian continent, Cook first named the east coast of Australia “New Wales”, which he later corrected in his journal to “New South Wales”.
The first British settlement was made by what is known in Australian history as the First Fleet; this was led by Captain Arthur Phillip, who assumed the role of governor of the settlement on arrival in 1788, until 1792. During this time New South Wales was an entirely penal colony.
After years of chaos, anarchy and the overthrow of Governor William Bligh, a new governor, Lieutenant-Colonel (later Major-General) Lachlan Macquarie, was sent from Britain to reform the settlement in 1809. During his time as governor, Macquarie commissioned the construction of roads, wharves, churches and public buildings, sent explorers out from Sydney and employed a planner to design the street layout of Sydney. Macquarie’s legacy is still evident today.
During the 19th century, large areas were successively separated to form the British colonies of Tasmania (proclaimed as separate colony named Van Diemen’s Land in 1825), South Australia (1836), New Zealand (1841), Victoria (1851) and Queensland (1859). Responsible government was granted to the New South Wales colony in 1855.
Charles Darwin visited Australia in January 1836 and in “The Voyage of the Beagle” (chapter 19 of the 11th edition) records his hesitations about and fascination with New South Wales, including his speculations about the geological origin and formation of the great valleys, the aboriginal population, the situation of the convicts, and the future prospects of the country.
Federation of Australia
At the end of the 19th century, the movement toward federation between the Australian colonies gathered momentum. Conventions and forums involving colony leaders were held on a regular basis. Proponents of NSW as a free trade state were in dispute with the other leading colony Victoria, which had a protectionist economy. At this time customs posts were common on borders, even on the Murray River.
Supporters of federation included the NSW premier Sir Henry Parkes whose 1889 Tenterfield Speech (given in Tenterfield) was pivotal in gathering support for NSW involvement. Edmund Barton, later to become Australia’s first Prime Minister, was another strong advocate for federation and a meeting held in Corowa in 1893 drafted an initial constitution.
In 1898 popular referendums on the proposed federation were held in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. All votes resulted in a majority in favour, but the NSW government under Premier George Reid (popularly known as “yes–no Reid” because of his constant changes of opinion on the issue) had set a requirement for a higher “yes” vote than just a simple majority which was not met.
In 1899 further referendums were held in the same states as well as Queensland (but not Western Australia). All resulted in yes votes with majorities increased from the previous year. NSW met the conditions its government had set for a yes vote. As a compromise to the question on where the capital was to be located, an agreement was made that the site was to be within NSW but not closer than 100 miles (161 km) from Sydney, while the provisional capital would be Melbourne. Eventually the area that now forms the Australian Capital Territory was ceded by NSW when Canberra was selected.
In the years after World War I, the high prices enjoyed during the war fell with the resumption of international trade, and farmers became increasingly discontented with the fixed prices paid by the compulsory marketing authorities set up as a wartime measure by the Hughes government. In 1919 the farmers formed the Country Party, led at national level by Earle Page, a doctor from Grafton, and at state level by Michael Bruxner, a small farmer from Tenterfield.
The Great Depression which began in 1929 ushered a period of political and class conflict in New South Wales. The mass unemployment and collapse of commodity prices brought ruin to both city workers and to farmers. The beneficiary of the resultant discontent was not the Communist Party, which remained small and weak, but Jack Lang’s Labor populism.
Lang’s second government was elected in November 1930 on a policy of repudiating New South Wales’ debt to British bondholders and using the money instead to help the unemployed through public works. This was denounced as illegal by conservatives, and also by James Scullin’s federal Labor government. The result was that Lang’s supporters in the federal Caucus brought down Scullin’s government, causing a second bitter split in the Labor Party. In May 1932 the Governor, Sir Philip Game dismissed his government. The subsequent election was won by the conservative opposition.
Japanese POW camp in Cowra, 1944, several weeks before the Cowra breakout
By the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the differences between New South Wales and the other states that had emerged in the 19th century had faded as a result of federation and economic development behind a wall of protective tariffs. New South Wales continued to outstrip Victoria as the centre of industry, and increasingly of finance and trade as well. Labor returned to office under the moderate leadership of William McKell in 1941 and stayed in power for 24 years.
World War II saw another surge in industrial development to meet the needs of a war economy, and also the elimination of unemployment.Labor stayed in power until 1965. Towards the end of its term in power it announced a plan for the construction of an opera/arts facility on Bennelong Point. The design competition was won by Jørn Utzon.
Controversy over the cost of what would eventually become the Sydney Opera House became a political issue and was a factor in the eventual defeat of Labor in 1965 by the conservative Liberal Party led by Sir Robert Askin. Sir Robert remains a controversial figure with supporters claiming him to be reformist especially in terms of reshaping the NSW economy. Others though, regard the Askin era as synonymous with corruption with Askin the head of a network involving NSW police and SP bookmaking (Goot).
In the late 1960s, a secessionist movement in the New England region of the state led to a referendum on the issue. The new state would have consisted of much of northern NSW including Newcastle. The referendum was narrowly defeated and, as of 2011, there are no active or organised campaigns for new states in NSW.
Askin’s resignation in 1975 was followed by a number of short lived premierships by Liberal Party leaders. When a general election came in 1976 the ALP under Neville Wran were returned to power. Wran was able to transform this narrow one seat victory into landslide wins (known as Wranslide) in 1978 and 1981.
The Sydney Opera House was completed in 1973 and has become a World Heritage Site. After winning a comfortable though reduced majority in 1984, Wran resigned as premier and left parliament. His replacement Barry Unsworth struggled to emerge from Wran’s shadow and lost a 1988 election against a resurgent Liberal Party led by Nick Greiner. Unsworth was replaced as ALP leader by Bob Carr. Initially Greiner was a popular leader instigating reform such as the creation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Greiner called a snap election in 1991 which the Liberals were expected to win. However the ALP polled extremely well and the Liberals lost their majority and needed the support of independents to retain power.
Greiner was accused (by ICAC) of corrupt actions involving an allegation that a government position was offered to tempt an independent (who had defected from the Liberals) to resign his seat so that the Liberal party could regain it and shore up its numbers. Greiner resigned but was later cleared of corruption. His replacement as Liberal leader and Premier was John Fahey whose government secured Sydney the right to host the 2000 Summer Olympics. In the 1995 election, Fahey’s government lost narrowly and the ALP under Bob Carr returned to power.
Like Wran before him Carr was able to turn a narrow majority into landslide wins at the next two elections (1999 and 2003). During this era, NSW hosted the 2000 Sydney Olympics which were internationally regarded as very successful, and helped boost Carr’s popularity. Carr surprised most people by resigning from office in 2005. He was replaced by Morris Iemma, who remained Premier after being re-elected in the March 2007 state election, until he was replaced by Nathan Rees in September 2008. Rees was subsequently replaced by Kristina Keneally in December 2009. Keneally’s government was defeated at the 2011 state election and Barry O’Farrell became Premier on 28 March.
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