The Riverina Movement was launched on the banks of Wagga Wagga beach on 28 February 1931, when 10, 000 people gathered in an anti-government rally aimed principally at NSW Premier J. T. Lang (1876-1975). Representatives from across the Riverina, including leading pastoralists, graziers, businessmen and politicians joined an army of local protesters, and heard Charles Hardy jnr (1898-1941), leader and chief organiser, deliver an ultimatum to both State and Federal Governments that was, in their eyes, long overdue. In summary, the ultimatum demanded immediate reduction in taxation and financial relief to primary producers. It also stipulated that if neither government acted by 31 March, a referendum would be held deciding the right of Riverina to determine its own affairs.
Much of the enthusiasm at the rally was in support of the charismatic Hardy jnr, who, at aged 33, possessed a magnetic personality and a charm which appealed to the emotions of country people. Born in Wagga Wagga in 1898, Hardy jnr worked at his family's firm, a successful building company, C. Hardy & Co., in Wagga Wagga, which he took over after his father died in 1934. Outside work Hardy jnr took a keen interest in politics, forming the Riverina Development League in 1928, joining the United Australia Association in 1930, and becoming leader of the Riverina Movement a year later.
The success of the river bank rally was repeated in Narrandera a week later. This time 5,000 people attended to hear the same resolutions carried with equal enthusiasm. In the following months other meetings were staged at Deniliquin, Hay, Tocumwal and Jerilderie, which prompted Smith's Weekly to comment: "the countryside is blazing more and more with dangerous passions of resentment against city politicians".
Country people turned on Premier Lang soon after his 1930 plan to repudiate interest repayments from overseas loans valued at just over £950, 000. Lang was already under fire for his mismanagement of the NSW economy. Excessive taxation, mass unemployment and a fall in world prices for primary products only exacerbated the situation in country areas. Lang's repudiation proposal soon became, what biographer Bede Nairn described as, "the epicentre of a social and political earthquake" which brought to the fore a flurry of right-wing, anti-Lang, anti-Labor and anti-Communist forces.
One week after the Narrandera rally about 200 delegates met again and formulated a policy to place the Riverina Movement on a more permanent footing. Hardy jnr had already softened his stance on action. He was no longer advocating secession. He also downplayed the idea that the Riverina would break away and form its own state. What Hardy jnr did want was to abolish all state governments and replace them with self-governing provincial councils. The New England Movement, which had been active since the 1920s, rejected the provincial plan, and instead, continued to push for new statism in the north. Over the following months, Hardy came to blows with the New England Movement leaders on just what model would suit provincial and regional NSW should both regions break away from the rest of the state.
As the 31 March approached, neither State nor Commonwealth Governments seemed to act on the resolutions set forth at the riverbank rally. Riverina Movement leaders now feared that if they did not carry out the threat of secession they would lose support. Some had little idea of how they were going to carry out this task when the time came. The date did arrive, and the movement failed to act. Inevitably, by early April support for the movement began to wane.
By July 1931, up to 60, 000 had signed a petition asking for the abolition of state parliament and the creation of provincial units. In September, a deputation of fifteen men from the Riverina Movement, including Hardy jnr, presented the petition to the Prime Minister, James Scullin (1876-1953). A month later, Scullin resurfaced and denounced the petition, much to the disappointment of Hardy jnr and his fellow new staters in New England. By this stage, the Riverina Movement had already joined forces with the New England, Western and Monaro-South Coast movements as the United Country Movement (UCM), to press for reforms and to establish a political base. Shortly afterwards, consensus was reached between the regional movements to merge the UCM with the Country Party. Not all within the Riverina Movement were happy. For many, the politicisation of the UCM represented a step back from its anti-political idealism.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere in Sydney by early 1932 had become tense. After Lang announced that NSW would be half a million pounds short of meeting its interest commitments, the new Commonwealth government, made up of the conservative-led United Australia Party (UAP), introduced legislation to recover moneys from the State's revenue. Lang contested this in the High Court in April, but the legislation was found valid. Lang responded by locking the doors of the State Treasury, preventing the Commonwealth from viewing its official records. He also tried to appeal to the Privy Council, but to no avail. The State's finances seemed to be on the verge of complete collapse. As a desperate measure to put the State's finances back on track, Lang rushed through parliament a bill imposing a 10 per cent capital Levy on all mortgages. Business leaders were up in arms. A petition was sent to the NSW Governor, Sir Philip Game (1876-1961), pleading that he reserve his assent on the grounds that it would destroy the business community. In response to Lang's recovery bill, the Commonwealth passed legislation to nullify it. On 10 May, Lang issued a circular to all NSW government officials aimed at ensuring that State public moneys be withheld from the Commonwealth. This was the final nail in the coffin for Lang. Governor Game learnt of the circular on 12 May, and the next day, dismissed Lang from office on the grounds that the premier had issued and refused to withdraw a circular which contravened Commonwealth law. A Provisional Government made up of the UAP and Country Party was also formed, and within weeks things settled down.
In August 1933, under the new Provisional Government of NSW, a Royal Commission was convened to inquire into, and report on areas of New South Wales suitable for new states, and to ascertain the opinions of electors in those areas proposing self-government. The Commission met on 18 October, and heard evidence from each movement for approximately fourteen months. When the Commission released its findings in early-1935, it found that three areas, including southern New South Wales (Riverina), were suitable as states, and recommended that a referendum be held to determine the voice of the people. Nothing was done. The NSW Government did not act.
With Lang out of the picture, much of the enthusiasm and idealism, which was witnessed in the early days of the Riverina Movement, had well and truly disappeared. Once the Riverina Movement was subsumed by the Country Party, its programme tended to follow more orthodox lines of piecemeal improvements.
Compiled by : James Logan.
Sources : Blacklow, Nancy, Regional Support for Riverina New State Movements in the 1920s and 1930s, BA (Honours) Thesis, Charles Sturt University, 1992; __, "'Riverina Roused': representative support for the Riverina New States Movements of the 1920s and 1930s", Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society: Special Riverina Issue, Vol. 80, Parts 3 and 4, December 1994, pp. 176-194; Ellis, Ulrich, The Country Party: a political and social history of the party in New South Wales. F. W. Cheshire: Melbourne, 1958; Moore, Andrew, The Secret Army and the Premier: conservation paramilitary organisations in New South Wales 1930-32. NSW University Press: Kensington, 1989; Morris, Sherry, Wagga Wagga: a history. The Council of the City of Wagga Wagga, 1999.