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1925-1950

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From Federation to Thoughts on Secession

WA Couple - Home from the War June 1945
Home from the War June 1945 Courtesy of West Australian Newspapers uncredited images from archival and contemporary sources.

The depression years form something of a hiatus in the political history of Western Australia. Not only did they provide the sole interruption in more than twenty years of Labor dominance of the treasury benches but also a unique manifestation of western separatism, the overwhelming vote for secession in the 1933 referendum. Paradoxically it was also the depression that brought home to Western Australians their utter involvement in the national economy and dependence on decisions taken outside the state. [The Era of Labor Ascendancy, David Black.]

In 1900, the majority of West Australians took a giant leap of faith and voted to join the Federation. Of slightly more than 96,000 electors, around 64,000-people voted. It was an emotional vote; a decision to join the rest of Australia to become part of one country with a common and distinct national identity.

Most country electorates were against Federation, though Albany was for it and the Goldfields was a major influence in the 'Yes' vote.

But within a few short years of joining the Commonwealth, there were rumblings in WA about being short-changed by the East. Many felt that the central government was pandering to the business and power interests of its eastern cousins, and there was a growing mood that WA was fast becoming the 'Cinderella' State.

Tariff policies by successive Commonwealth governments bolstered industry in the East while making it hard for WA to sell its primary exports on a world market where it had no protection.

Western Australia's isolation and the effects of the Depression, led to a crisis of identity. Western Australians felt cut off and ignored by the East. Many blamed the 'tyranny of distance' for this demise. And many saw the only solution as a radical one: to secede.

WA meeting of the Dominion League for the secession movement.  Image Courtesy Battye Library BA 428/1
A meeting of the Dominion League for the secession movement. Image Courtesy Battye Library BA 428/1.

Out of this discontent grew the Dominion League of Western Australia in 1930 to agitate for secession. In April 1933, more than 91 per cent of the electors turned out to vote in what was to be a record poll. 237,198 people cast a vote, 68 per cent in favour of secession. Only the mining areas - keen Federalists - voted against the move.

The Commonwealth was disdainful of WA's position and prepared a strong opposing case for consideration by the British Parliament. Western Australians considered the case with suspicion and hostility. The battle lines were firmly drawn. But the crucial questions were legal ones:

Could WA secede? And could the British Government break up the Federation?

WA argued that it had every right to secede - in the same way it had chosen to join the Federation. The State argued that Britain should enforce that right.

The Commonwealth argued vigorously that the Australian Constitution was indissoluble and that Britain should not interfere to partition a Dominion.

However, the final decision - whether WA could secede, or would be allowed to, was still in the hands of the British Parliament, and it would take another four years to resolve.

The new State Government put together a delegation of men, including Agent General, Sir Hal Colebatch, James MacCallum Smith, the proprietor of the Sunday Times, and the leader of the Dominion League, Keith Watson.

The delegation was charged with presenting petitions and conducting all negotiations with the British Government on behalf of the 'people of Western Australia', to 'effectuate the restoration' of the State to 'its former status as a separate and distinct self-governing colony in the British Empire under its present Constitution'.

The delegation arrived in London in 1934; hopeful its appeal to the British Government would be heard favourably. Pro-Federationists argued the preamble to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act made it clear that the colonies:

'Have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and under the Constitution hereby established.'

However, they were doomed to fail and within two years had returned home, dispirited and empty-handed. After months of lobbying the governments of the day to have their petition received by the British Parliament, the delegation only managed to get the issue referred to a joint committee of the Houses of Commons and Lords.

The high-powered committee rejected to petition on the grounds that the British Parliament could not act without the Australian Federal Parliament's approval. It said that if Western Australians were allowed to secede then events would happen in the Commonwealth of Australia that would 'shake the empire to its very foundations'.

There was, though not widely understood, the fact that that Tasmania and South Australia had been watching from the sidelines and had WA been successful, may have followed suit, posing a threat to the Federation.

The secession movement fell away quickly after the rejection by the British Parliament of WA's petition for separation.The economy was recovering from the Depression and people turned their attention to rebuilding.

Ivanhoe Orchard
Apples being loaded in Bridgetown in the 1920s. Image Courtesy Department of Agriculture.