Branding the Macarthur region

Ian Willis reports on a paper he presented at the 12th Australasian Urban History/Planning History Conference at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. The paper examined the identity of the Macarthur region southwest of Sydney and its sense of place.

What is Macarthur’s regional identity?  This seems a fairly safe question but if the response to editor of the Campbelltown-Macarthur Advertiser Jeff McGill’s ‘Careful what you call southwestern Sydney’  in The Sydney Morning Herald is any indication it is quite a sensitive issue for some. The article generated over 200 blog comments and considerable discussion in the local media. Macarthur residents objected to being labelled as part of Sydney’s west and south-west.

While the Macarthur family of Camden Park were iconic colonial pioneers of the Australian wool industry the use of their name for a region covering Campbelltown, Camden and Wollondilly is contested.

The first official use of Macarthur as a regional identity came with the proclamation of the Federal seat of Macarthur in 1949. This was followed by a 1958 business decision by local media baron Syd Richardson to re-badge the Camden Advertiser as the Macarthur Advertiser, which became the first free regional weekly newspaper. Since then its main use was as the arbitrarily chosen name for the state government’s failed 1970s Macarthur Growth Centre headquartered in  Campbelltown.

Localism and parochialism is strong and well on Sydney’s urban fringe. The ownership and usage of place names is a hot-button issue, stemming from people’s emotional investment in a particular landscape. The concept of place is based on an organic growth of community identity and public memory. Multiple layers of meanings are built on hope and loss and a host of other elements ranging from  landform, economic to socio-cultural factors, which include histories, heritage, cultural background, ethnicity and language.

In Sydney’s edge communities the official dreams of town planners crashed into the disappointment created by artificially concocted notions of regionalism. Moral panic generated by planned  ghettos of welfare housing  have encouraged stereotypical labels of bogans and westies that re-shaped Campbelltown’s identity in the late 1970s.

In recent decades Sydney’s ex-urbanites have been drawn to the urban fringe, looking for an imagined rural arcadia promoted by land  developers in master-planned estates.

Macarthur residents state that they are not part of Sydney’s west or south west, which they perceive as some sort of ‘cultural wasteland’. Yet the remainder of Sydney, in the eyes of McGill’s bloggers at least, do see Macarthur residents as part of that so-called wasteland.

Willis’ paper illustrates how the Macarthur region, and the three former parochial country towns of   Campbelltown, Camden and Picton, have been re-shaped by the juggernaut that is Sydney’s urban sprawl. Their community identity and sense of place have been re-constructed in terms of regionalism by locals and newcomers alike through the use of an arbitrarily chosen regional place name. The place name is contested. It has been caught up in the stereotypes applied to Sydney’s west and south west, with McGill and others seeking ownership of their identity by using the Macarthur place name.

Regionalism is a touchy issue in the Sydney area. Identity, place, stereotypes and perceptions are realities for some but not for all. Authenticity is a slippery concept that generates more heat than light for many in Sydney’s peri-urban communities.

BY phanswblogeditor IN Issues in Historical Work ON 4 MARCH 2014

2 Comments

  1. Some interesting observations Ian, probably reflected in similar experiences and attitudes in the Hills Shire to the north west of Sydney and the Blue Mountains LGA to the west. Yet the three LGAs of the Macarthur region (Macarthur Region Organisation of Councils – MACROC) and the 11 members of the Western Region Organisation of Councils (WESROC) continue to comprise the 14 LGAs of of the region designated Greater Western Sydney – an area roughly 80 kms east/west and 100 kms north/south – with a population of 2 million. In recent years, the Hills Shire has withdrawn from WESROC, but I believe that it has done that before and later returned to the fold. It may do so again.
    You are right that regionalism is a touchy issue, but 40 years ago, it was recognised that unless councils advocated jointly for better funding, infrastructure etc, through ROCs, their solo efforts had insufficient power to bring results. It’s an ongoing issue and one that causes continuing frustration and anger for many people in the region – see my recent blog posting ttp://westsydneyfront.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/stop-blaming-locals-for-government-dysfunction/?preview=true&preview_id=243&preview_nonce=90eabcec35&post_format=standard

  2. Bruce Baskerville says:

    Thanks Ian, much to think about in a regional place name. I have been looking (on and off) and the origins of the place name Western Sydney, which it seems has largely moved with the urban edge as a description rather than a place name. In the form of West Sydney it initially meant the western side of the City of Sydney in the 1850s, and an electorate name for many years (Billy Hughes being one if its more memorable federal MPs).

    In the inter-war years West Sydney or Western Suburbs or western suburbs or western Sydney meant what we now call the Inner West. The earliest use of Western Sydney (with capital W and S) that I have so far found is in 1961 when Prospect County Council used the term to describe the region in which its distributed electricity. In a 1962 advertisement (Nepean Times 18 October 1962) the County Council included a map of Western Sydney where it supplied 114,000 consumers in the Parramatta, Penrith, Liverpool, Blacktown, Fairfield, Holroyd, Windsor, Baulkham Hills and Colo council areas. Interestingly, they did not include Camden, Campbelltown and Picton areas.

    Much more work to do, but Western Sydney as a place name is, I think, historically quite recent and, as you note, contested in many places to which it is applied. I would like to look at the decline of Cumberland as a regional name (the County of Cumberland was formally established on 4 June 1788) and its replacement with Western Sydney – I suspect the relationship is not that simple or straight forward. I wonder if Cumberland will rise again once day to indicate a region with its own identity rather than being an appendage of Sydney as the name Western/western/west Sydney implies, and perhaps a name which its constituent areas could more readily identify with? Cumberland International Airport anyone!

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