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North-south relations

Conflict and rivalry between the northern and southern halves of the island have been an enduring factor in Tasmanian life for two centuries. The division of the island into two coherent but competing northern and southern regions, with their sub-regions, is based on its geology and geography, and the resulting economic, demographic and political development.

From the beginning of British settlement, historical events conspired to develop a spirit of rivalry between the north and south of the island. In 1804 two colonies were established, divided at the 42nd parallel. The major settlement, at Sullivans Cove on the Derwent River, was made directly from England. The second, on Bass Strait at Port Dalrymple in the north, was made from Sydney. Both were established to prevent annexation of the island by the French, and to protect shipping lanes. From 1804 till 1813, each colony had a separate administration independently responsible to the Governor in Sydney. The 42nd parallel lay only a few miles to the north of the actual geographical divide between the two regions: the watershed between the Derwent River basin and the South Esk/Macquarie River basin. The human and economic activities of Tasmania were, for the first century of European settlement, centred in these river basins, the first looking towards Hobart Town, the second towards Launceston.

From 1813, the two colonies were united under one administration in Hobart. But Launceston was already accustomed to going its own way, and looked across Bass Strait, rather than to Hobart. The characters of the two settlements differed. Hobart Town, as the capital, was the centre of government activity, especially of the convict system. British government spending funded much of the development of the town. In contrast, Launceston and the northern region received minimal government expenditure, and was more dependent on private enterprise for economic development.

During the convict era, to 1853, Hobart's population was roughly twice the size of Launceston. In 1847 Hobart contained 9424 people, Launceston 3894; southern rural 4835, northern rural 2702. But once gold, tin and other metals were discovered in the north-west, north-east, west and north in the 1870s, and farming spread to the north-west and north-east, the northern half of the island began to develop more rapidly, and the mining boom benefited Launceston much more than Hobart. In 1901, the north and west contained 108,934 people, the south 63,541. In the twentieth century, the towns of Burnie and Devonport grew into cities (whose rivalry reflected that of Hobart and Launceston). Gradually, the balance of population and power changed to include these regions. This resulted in demands for more easily accessible facilities outside the capital. The tensions first experienced in colonial days continued. Almost all organisations with branches in the north and south have experienced such tensions, often over long periods.

In the 2001 census, the population of Tasmania was 455,726. Of these, 224,725 (49.3 percent) lived in the south, while 231,001 (50.7 percent) lived in the north and west. Tasmania has the lowest proportion of its population residing in the state capital: only 29 percent. Other state figures range from Brisbane (40 percent) to Adelaide (68 percent). With the exception of Tasmania and, to a much lesser extent, Queensland, population, government departments and economic activity in each Australian state are centred on the capital city. This pattern does not suit Tasmania, and when it is applied, regional tensions develop because of inequity in the delivery of services.

Because of the geology and topography of the island, distances between population centres in Tasmania are much greater than is commonly assumed. The island's compact shape disguises the effect of the Central Plateau on transport systems, causing unexpectedly long lines of communication. For example, both Newcastle and Wollongong are much closer to Sydney than Launceston is to Hobart. Devonport, Burnie and the towns of the north-west and north-east are similar distances from the capital as 'outback' towns in other states: Smithton is 450 km from Hobart, Burnie 350 km, Scottsdale 270 km. So accessing services centralised in Hobart involves time, travel and accommodation costs. From the 1970s, governments have done much to equalise this situation, for example in providing sporting, transport and university facilities.

Practically every major decision about the development and government of Tasmania has been affected by the problem of north-south rivalry. The cost of such controversy, in both practical and psychological terms, is considerable. It is also a problem in dealing with government and corporate bodies in other states and at the national level. The primary cause of the rivalry between the North and the South is the difficulty of providing accessible and equitable levels of government services to all sections of the population.

Further reading: G Hugo, Atlas of the Australian people, Tasmania: 1986 census, Canberra, 1989; A Beer, C Cutler and D Faulkner, Atlas of the Australian people, 1991 census: Tasmania, Canberra, 1997; G Hugo, Atlas of the Australian people, 1996 census: Tasmania, Canberra, 1999.

Judith Hollingsworth