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. In fact, there was a growing mood that WA was fast becoming the ‘Cinderella’ state.
The Federal system was dominated by Victoria and News South Wales. While the rest of Australia benefited from the enormous primary industry contribution from WA, there seemed to be few benefits in return. 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.
By 1925, a Royal Commissioner, Mr J Entwistle, appointed by the Federal Government to inquire into the disabilities of WA under Federation wrote:
‘In my opinion Western Australia should never have entered the Federation, but having done so, there is, I feel convinced, only one complete and satisfactory remedy for her present disabilities, viz., Secession.’
Sir William Francis Latham, one-time Lord mayor of Perth, spoke strongly against federation as a witness to that Royal Commission. ‘Twenty-five years ago we all boarded the good ship Commonwealth for a lifetime voyage, with the full assurance that there would be only one class for all the passengers,’ he told the commission. ‘During the voyage we found to our great surprise that there were four classes. Victoria and N.S.W had secured all the saloon cabins, South Australia and Queensland the second class, little Tasmania was put in the steerage, whilst W.A. is compelled to work for her passage in the forecastle.’
In 1926, the then editor of the Sunday Times James MacCallum Smith [see picture page 79 “A Centenary of Sundays”] set up the Secession League, hoping to draw on people’s sentiments to split from the Commonwealth. But it was not so successful.
However, just four years later, Western Australia’s isolation and the effects of the Depression, led to a crisis of identity. Perth was the most isolated city in the world, and Western Australians had become distinctly aware of their apparent separation from the rest the nation.
They felt cut off and ignored by their Eastern cousins. Many blamed the ‘tyranny of distance’ for this demise. And many saw the only solution as a radical one: to secede.
Out of this discontent grew the Dominion League, formed at a public meeting at His Majesty’s Theatre on 30 June, 1930. The League was established to agitate for secession and soon harnessed support under the leadership of its secretary, H.K. ‘Keith’ Watson, who later became a Liberal Party MLC. It claimed at one stage to have a membership of 10,000, and campaigned actively for the secession cause. Members spoke on the streets and organised public meetings, appealing for support at a grassroots level, while capitalising on the fact that the State was under extreme social and economic pressure.
The League wanted WA to be a Dominion within the British Empire, a sentiment expressed in the 1930s secession song ‘Liberty Light’:
Westralia’s law. Westralia’s will;
Our loyalty, ‘England and Empire’ still.”
In December the same year, former Royal Commissioner Entwistle was moved to write to the Dominion League of Western Australia:
‘I wish your league every success in your fight for freedom. The longer you continue in federation the greater will be your financial disability – or even ruin.’
The year 1932 was the winter of Western Australia’s discontent. [GC Bolton] The community had been gripped by the Depression and no end seemed in sight. The once-optimistic Premier, Sir James Mitchell, was bearing the brunt of people’s fear and hardship, and ‘seemed to spend half his time on the train commuting between Perth and Canberra to haggle for funds form the Commonwealth’. [A Fine Country to Starve In, G.C. Bolton]
Finally, after much public debate, Sir James – himself an ardent secessionist – called for a referendum on the issue that same year.
He wanted the people to decide whether they favoured secession or an Australian convention to revise the Constitution. 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. Paradoxically, though, Mitchell’s pro-secession government was swept out of office by support for the anti-secessionist Philip Collier’s Labor Party.
A booklet, ‘The Withdrawal of Western Australia from the Australian Federation’, was printed by the State Government following the referendum to reinforce the case for secession. West Australians, it said, had expressed their desire to withdraw from the Federal Commonwealth but ‘in the most honourable and friendly manner and without leaving any trace of resentment or bitterness behind it.’ The government claimed that prosperity could not come to ‘this great island’ continent by the ‘aggrandisement of a few highly industrialised cities on the eastern seaboard’.
But the matter did not rest there. The Commonwealth was disdainful of WA’s position and prepared a strong opposing case for consideration by the British Parliament. In that document, ‘Case For Union’ – A Reply to the Case for the Secession of the State of Western Australia, the Prime Minister of the day, Joe Lyons, argued for the federal union, saying it had already forged the way for industrial development of the continent, and strengthened the powers of the people ‘to cope with the difficult social and economic problems of the day, but also in giving to Australia a national outlook and an assured status in world affairs’.
Western Australians considered the case with suspicion and hostility. It seemed to many that it was a narrow and parochial line. The London Times commented also that the Commonwealth attitude was unlikely to improve relations by belittling the State’s grievances.
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…