A Separate Australia
Western Australia’s desire to secede as ‘Westralia’ in 1933 was undermined by a change in Britain’s attitude towards its Empire.
The 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union and Scotland’s 2014 independence vote were just the latest in a long line of similar events. While Scotland joined Quebec (1995) in voting for the status quo, others such as Norway (1905) and Montenegro (2006) voted in favour of separation. One theme that seems common to all referendums is that ultimately the voters get what they vote for. A majority for separation means separation. Yet there are exceptions to this rule. On April 8th, 1933, Western Australia voted in favour of seceding from the Australian Commonwealth, though it remains together to this day. What allowed the democratically expressed will of the people to be ignored? And what did it mean for Australia and its relationship with the British Empire?
Western Australia’s independent spirit appeared the moment it gained the right of self-government. This was in 1890, a year after talk of federalisation began. Not wishing to give up its newly acquired sovereignty, Western Australia did not attend the 1891 constitutional convention (although New Zealand did) and only sporadically and half-heartedly attended later conventions.
The secessionist movement would always claim that Western Australia was cajoled into federating and in some sense this is true. It was a gold rush that tipped the balance. Settlers flocked in from the east, bringing with them pro-federal opinions. When they heard that the Western Australian government was against federation, they started their own separatist movements. Thus Western Australia had a choice: refuse to federate and potentially see its gold-rich lands break away, or federate and maintain its territorial integrity. They opted for federation. But it did not take long before Western Australians began to regret their decision.
Before the end of 1902, the Australian parliament heard the first calls for secession. By 1919, the Sunday Times (one of Western Australia’s leading newspapers) had taken an openly secessionist stance and public demonstrations were held. The movement inspired rousing political rhetoric, poems and songs. It even received support from the governments of Tasmania and South Australia, which threatened their own referendums. And when the Western Australian electorate went to the polls, they voted 68 per cent in favour of secession.
And yet secession never came. In just a few years the secessionists’ faith in the British Empire was shattered and their movement had crumbled.
At the same time as the referendum, Western Australia held state elections. Despite overwhelmingly backing secession, the electorate simultaneously voted to oust the pro-independence Liberal government and elect the pro-union Labour Party, who promptly tried to stall the secession process. But the new government could not stop things completely and, after a year of dithering, finally pressed ahead with a plan to attain independence.
The method they chose to achieve this was a near 500-page petition filled with maps, arguments and the democratically expressed will of the people. The idea was to deliver this to the British Parliament which, they supposed, would pass a bill granting them independence. A delegation led by Keith Watson, chairman of the secessionist Dominion League, left Perth for London with much fanfare and everyone expected things would proceed smoothly.
The petition was presented to both Houses of Parliament in December 1934 and a joint committee was formed to examine it. But the committee’s task was not to judge the merits of the case for secession; its task was to determine whether or not the British Parliament had any right to receive the petition. This is where the secessionists misjudged Britain’s attitude to its Empire.
The 1926 Imperial Conference had resulted in the Balfour Declaration (which led to the 1931 Statute of Westminster). The declaration carried one important passage; it declared Britain and its Dominions:
Autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Britain had effectively given up any control over the Dominions. They were on their own and Britain would no longer interfere. The joint committee therefore rejected the Western Australian petition on the grounds that it had no authority to receive it. Western Australia would have to negotiate with the parliament in Canberra, which was not inclined to listen.
‘History will record this as the greatest and most despicable abdication of all time’, was Keith Watson’s response to the joint committee’s report. Even the anti-secessionist state premier Philip Collier claimed it was not the end of the matter and predicted that if major constitutional change did not come, the Australian Commonwealth would not last ten years.
The Dominion League did not immediately accept the joint committee’s report. It continued to lobby and pushed for a debate in Parliament. Questions were even put to Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, who was noncommittal in response. The British authorities stalled and nothing happened. A dispirited Watson and his delegation returned to Australia and vowed to continue the struggle, but the mood in Western Australia had shifted.
An economic recovery had begun and popular opinion blamed the incompetence of Watson’s delegation for the failure to deliver independence. Thus, just as life in Western Australia began to look brighter, the reputation of the secessionists was dented.
In 1935 the Dominion League introduced a bill into the Western Australian parliament calling for unilateral separation, but interest was waning. The same year the Sunday Times saw a change of ownership, editor and opinion. Without this mouthpiece the secession movement dwindled to nothing.
It was Western Australia’s loyalty to Britain and the Empire that derailed its move towards independence. Had the Dominion League taken a stronger stance, perhaps issuing a unilateral declaration of independence in 1933, the outcome might well have been different.
Jack Peacock is a researcher with a particular interest in environmental history.