Western Australia: a state of secession?

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According to media reports earlier this week, the State conference of Western Australian Liberals this weekend will consider a motion to establish a ‘WAxit’ committee to examine the ‘costs, benefit and merits’ of their state’s membership of the Australian Federation. If the motion succeeds, the committee would present its (non-binding) recommendations next year.  The proposal has not been warmly received. However, while the preamble to the Australian Constitution speaks of ‘one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth’, the idea of secession has been a recurring theme in Western Australia even before Federation.

Western Australia had been reluctant to join the Federation: it did not take part in the 1898 or 1899 Federal Constitutional Referenda held by the other colonies; it was not party to the petition to Queen Victoria asking that the British Parliament enact the draft constitution Bill; and had not yet held a referendum on the draft constitution when Queen Victoria signed the Royal Commission of Assent to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (UK) on 9 July 1900.[1] Three main factors were at play. The colony had only been granted responsible government in 1890 and ‘there was a reluctance to give up the autonomy only so recently attained from the Imperial Government’.[2] Then too, it was geographically remote from the eastern colonies with which its early settlers felt little affinity.[3] Finally, almost half of Western Australia’s revenue derived from inter-colonial customs duties which would be abolished under the new Australian Constitution.[4]

Despite these issues, however, Western Australia was finally persuaded to join the Australian Federation. A 1898 amendment to the draft constitution added a special provision (s. 95) allowing Western Australia to maintain customs duties for the first five years of Federation, as long as it  entered as ‘an Original State’.[5] A further inducement was the promise of a new railway to link Western Australia with the eastern states.[6] However, perhaps the greatest factor was pressure from the population of the Goldfields in and around Kalgoorlie. The discovery of gold in the 1890s saw a rapid influx of immigrants from the east, increasing Western Australia’s population from around 47,000 to over 179,000.[7]  When it seemed Western Australia ‘might not join the proposed federation’, the settlers formed ‘the Eastern Goldfields Reform League’ and took steps to establish a separate colony.[8] Following an intervention from British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, the Western Australian Parliament finally enacted legislation providing for a referendum on the constitution Bill.[9] The outcome of the referendum was 44,800 for, 19,691 against: of the 44,800 ‘yes’ votes, 26,330 were from the Goldfields.[10] And on 21 August 1900, the Western Australian Parliament passed an address to the Queen, ‘humbly’ praying that West Australia be ‘declared by Proclamation’ an ‘Original State of the Commonwealth’.[11]

Post-federation secession rumbles

While finally campaigning in support of federation, Premier John Forrest asserted that, while the Commonwealth is ‘not only for to-day nor tomorrow, but for ever’, ‘an Act of the Imperial Parliament could sever us as it unites us’.[12] Only five years after federation, following the end of the state’s exemption from the free trade provisions of the Constitution, the Western Australian Legislative Assembly resolved that federation had ‘proved detrimental to the interest’ of the state and called for a referendum to canvass public support to withdraw from the Commonwealth. The resolution passed the Assembly but was supported by neither the Premier nor the Opposition Leader and no action was taken.[13] 

However, in a referendum in April 1933, West Australians voted in support of leaving the Commonwealth; and the British Parliament was petitioned in November 1934 to enact legislation to ‘reconstitute Western Australia as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire’.[14] In 1935 a Joint Select Committee of the British Parliament was appointed to hear submissions from Western Australia and the Commonwealth.[15] It concluded that the petition was not receivable as the British Parliament did not have jurisdiction to act ‘except upon the definite request of the Commonwealth of Australia conveying the clearly expressed wish of the Australian people as a whole’.[16]

However, while the movement lay dormant for many years, the idea of secession continues to re-emerge every few years as the state’s economy waxes and wanes, and Western Australians perceive that they are being unfairly treated by the national Government, particularly regarding the formula for allocating GST revenue.

While the Australian Constitution makes provision for an increase in the number of states in the federation (section 121), it does not contemplate existing states seceding from its ‘indissoluble union.’  Commentators suggest two potential avenues, both legally contested. The first is to amend the Constitution in accordance with section 128 to provide for secession. But history tells us that proposals for Constitutional change rarely succeed. The second option would be for a state to secede unilaterally. ‘This would entail an Australian state passing an Act of its own parliament declaring its withdrawal from the federation and asserting its status as a fully sovereign nation. Such an action is regarded by many legal scholars as unlawful.’

[1] T Musgrave, ‘The Western Australian Secessionist Movement’, Macquarie Law Journal, 3, 2003, pp. 95-112, p. 96.

[2] D Harrop, ‘The Republic of Western Australia: The Legal Possibility of Western Australia's Secession from the Australian Federation’, The Western Australian Jurist, 2, 2011, pp. 233-250, p. 234.

[3] Musgrave, 'The Western Australian Secessionist Movement', p. 96.

[4] AGL Shaw, The Story of Australia, 2nd edn., Faber and Faber, London, 1961.

[5] 'Official Record of the Debates of the Australasian Federal Convention, Third Session, Melbourne, 20 January - 17 March, 1898', 1898, p. 1243.

[6] ED Watt, ‘Secession in Western Australia’, University Studies in Western Australian History, 3, 1958, pp. 43-86.

[7] C Besant, ‘Two Nations: Two Destinies: A Reflection on the Significance of the Western Australian Secessionist Movement to Australia, Canada and the British Empire’, University of Western Australia Law Review, 20(2), 1990, pp. 209-310.

[8] Musgrave, 'The Western Australian Secessionist Movement', p. 96.

[9] Musgrave, 'The Western Australian Secessionist Movement', pp. 97-98.

[10] Quick & Garran, The Annotated Constitution, p. 250.

[11] John Forrest, 'Federal Commonwealth - Admission as an Original State, Address to the Queen', Western Australia Legislative Assembly, Debates, 21 August 1900, accessed 12 May 2017, pp. 34-35. 'Federal Commonwealth - Admission as an Original State, Address to the Queen', Western Australia Legislative Council, Debates, 21 August 1900, accessed 12 May 2017, pp. 17-20.

[12] J Forrest, 'Federation Bill: Second Reading', Western Australia Legislative Assembly, Debates, 23 May 1900, accessed 12 May 2017, p. 77.

[13] Musgrave, 'The Western Australian Secessionist Movement', p. 100. G Craven, Secession: The Ultimate States Right, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1986, p. 31ff.

[14] Harrop, 'The Republic of Western Australia', p. 238.

[15] Musgrave, 'The Western Australian Secessionist Movement', pp. 110, 115.

[16] Musgrave, 'The Western Australian Secessionist Movement', p. 123. Joint Committee Appointed to Consider the Petition of the State of Western Australia, Report by the Joint Committee of the House of Lords and the House of Commons Appointed to Consider the Petition of the State of Western Australia, Together with the Proceedings of the Committee and Minutes of Speeches Delivered by Counsel, His Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1935, pp. x, 13.


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