Political progress and economic prosperity?
Sir William Robinson, in the cockaded hat of a colonial governor,
with other dignitaries on the grandstand
at the Esplanade on Proclamation Day.
"It is necessary that with one hand and one voice the colonists should use their best energies to launch the ship of State in deep waters. I trust that every good wish that I am now addressing for the future progress of this colony will be amply realised ..."
Sir William Robinson, Governor of Western Australia, 1890.
THOUSANDS of people welcomed the dawn of self-government in Western Australia in 1890. Emboldened by a sense of civic pride, they took to the streets and gathered in town halls to celebrate proclamation of the Constitution Act 1889, the legal document which established a new colonial parliament. That they may not have known the precise form or extent of the Act was immaterial to most. More significant was their sense that this political change was a token of colonial achievement and advance, sentiments keenly fostered by leading citizens of the day.
Sir William Robinson, the new Governor sent from London to guide the colony through the early years of self-government, made his first landfall at Albany, the colony's main port, on October 18. Disembarking from the steamship RMS Orient, Sir William was feted by townspeople who had decorated their streets with bush flowers and banners that fluttered in the southerly breeze. At a meeting in the town hall, he referred to the new constitution . . . "now I think we can venture to say, with all sincerity, and in the full conviction that it will be realised, "At last she moves". With these words, Sir William reflected on the colonists' long wait for self-government; after all, Western Australia was the last British territory in Australasia to win the right to elect its own parliament, well after its colonial cousins on the east coast.
Sir William travelled to Perth by special train, a journey of 17 hours through the forests and farming districts of the south-west. People at country stations and small sidings turned out in welcome, and every few miles along the track bonfires blazed in the night. For many, it seemed fitting that the new Governor made the trip by train, as railways were widely regarded as symbols of progress and development. A correspondent wrote in The West Australian newspaper that Sir William's journey by rail was . . . "in every way indicative of that more rapid but none the less sure progress which we all unite in believing is to be the characteristic of the new era now dawning". At Perth, the Governor was greeted by scenes of popular celebration. Flags and bunting stretched along roads and buildings, and several street corners were spanned by triumphal arches elaborately woven with fronds of palms, ferns and eucalyptus. "Success to the New Constitution" trumpeted a banner at the town hall, while the National Bank in St George's Terrace was adorned with another promising "Progress and Prosperity".
Proclamation Day was a mixture of formal ceremony and people's carnival. On October 21, more than six thousand men, women and children crowded onto Perth's riverside park, the Esplanade, to hear the constitution officially proclaimed after church services and a civic procession through city streets. The Proclamation - the dry and legalistic preamble to the Constitution Act - was read out by the colony's Acting Chief Justice, Sir Henry Wrensfordsley, and the new Governor led three cheers for the Queen. There was a festival for children with games and a circus, while parents and others lunched at a "300ft-long table piled high with "vegetables and potatoes, beer from four hogsheads, and the meat of an ox, four sheep, three pigs . . .300 loaves of bread, 600lb of cake and 80lb of cheese". Then came public sports with bicycle and foot races, and novelty events like 'climbing the greasy pole' and 'catching a pig with a greasy tail', followed by gala balls, a torchlight procession and fireworks at night. The next day Governor Robinson travelled to Fremantle, where another round of celebrations ended with the ceremonial planting of a Constitution tree. Other celebrations were held in town centres and rural villages throughout the colony. One of the most imaginative was the "burying of the old Constitution" in Geraldton, where "over 400 people joined in a torchlight procession from Hosken's Club Hotel to the Recreation Ground, the band playing a funeral march. Bearers carried a huge coffin to the ground, where a grave was dug and coloured lights were burning". In Bunbury, the almost obligatory procession was one of the few to include Aboriginal people, who "also engaged in the sports - running, jumping and hockey". Four hundred people gathered on the "beautiful recreation ground" in Northam for a sports carnival which included the running of an aptly-named "Proclamation Handicap", followed by a "Championship of Northam" and, lastly, an "Old Chaps' Race".
Proclamation of the new constitution was an important symbolic episode in Western Australia's history. Not only did it herald a real change in the form and composition of government, but it was also contrived as the moment when the colony finally came of age. Newspaper reports emphasised this broad sense of colonial development, rather than the details of political change . . . "What it is all about perhaps we scarcely realize", ventured The West Australian's editorialist. "Still it is a time for gladness and thanksgiving when Western Australia after her long eclipse, her patient trying to rise from comparative obscurity, is going to be proclaimed a full-grown country, is going to begin governing herself entirely at her pleasure and to carve out her destinies with the sole aid of her own sons, born of her and adopted." Newspaper correspondents actively fostered a sense of common interest and collective celebration, and this in turn encouraged colonists to 'imagine' themselves as part of a distinct community. These published reports also suggested that self-government was a confirmation of colonial development and that it beckoned a bright economic future. Yet Western Australia was not a seamless society, nor was it consensual or egalitarian in the way that members of the colonial establishment liked to claim. Like all societies, it was made up of varied, disparate peoples, whose differences of ethnicity, class and gender determined their experiences and opportunities in all spheres of life, not the least politics. Despite the triumphalism of the popular accounts of Proclamation Day, the change to self-government did not confer political power on eveyone in the colony, nor did it promise prosperity for all.
". . . by the time of the Great War, Proclamation Day had undergone several transformations. From the early 1890s Perth was populated by 't'othersiders' who cared little for Proclamation Day and who, when they thought about the constitution, regarded it less an achievement than a hindrance to better life in the West."
C. T. Stannage, People of Perth, 1979.