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Federation

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Part Three

New limits on colonial/state Government
 

"I think it is `Hobson's choice' with  us. We must either join as an original State, or else trust to Providence in the future to get in on better terms. I am of the opinion that, if we do not join now, we shall probably enter in the future on much worse terms than those at present open to us - worse, at any rate, as far as representation is concerned."

H. J. Saunders, MLA, 1900.

WESTERN Australia was unique in gaining its political independence just as the movement for Australian Federation was strengthening. The other colonies had enjoyed self-government since 1859 and by the 1890s looked forward expectantly to political union. Western Australian delegates took part in the constitutional conventions held in 1891 and 1897-8, but there were many in the ranks of the colonial elite who were unimpressed at the prospect of federation. They believed that the creation of a new national government would necessarily involve their ceding some of the recent gains of self-government.

Opposition to the federation cause was strongest in rural areas and among some sections of the coastal population. Many pastoralists and others felt they had little to gain and everything to lose if Western Australia adopted uniform national measures on trade, for instance. However, the prospect of union with the other colonies had widespread support in the goldfields, where there were many immigrant diggers with personal ties to the east. The question of whether or not Western Australia would join the proposed Commonwealth of Australia became a battle between these two interests, mediated to some degree by parliamentary figures like John Forrest. However reluctantly, Forrest accepted that federation was inevitable and he set about trying to extract as many concessions as possible for Western Australia in the drafting of the Commonwealth Constitution.

The referendum on whether or not the colony should join the proposed federation was held in 1900, well after successful polls in other colonies. For a time it had seemed that the Forrest Government was stalling and might not put the issue to a popular vote at all. Goldfields supporters of federation reacted by threatening to separate from the colony unless the Forrest Government proceeded with the referendum. When electors did eventually go to the polls, there was a resounding vote in favour of Federation - 44,652 for, 19,636 against. That result ensured the colony became one of the original States in the new Commonwealth of Australia from January 1, 1901.

The reach of the Western Australian Government, which became a State government after Federation, was limited by the new Commonwealth of Australia. While the Western Australian Constitution was not amended to accommodate the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth Constitution did define the relationship of Federal and State governments. In simple terms, it spelled out the responsibilities of the Federal Government, and left control over everything else to the States. The Commonwealth Constitution also altered the direct relationship between British and Western Australian governments, by positioning the Commonwealth between the two in several areas of responsibility, though this did not affect the State's continuing loyalty to the British Crown. In all other respects, the Commonwealth Constitution became a new, important limitation on Western Australia's constitutional arrangements.

"Somewhat Janus-like, then, Governments in Perth looked to both London and Canberra for ultimate constitutional authority in a number of matters. After the demise of imperial suzerainty in 1986, the principal limitations that still operate upon the State's constitutional powers are those attributed to its federal relationship with the Commonwealth."

Peter Johnston, in House on the Hill, 1991.