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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The secession movement in Western Australia MacKirdy, Kenneth Alexander

Abstract

Both historically and geographically Western Australia has been separated from the rest of the Australian continent. Sixteen hundred miles of desert intervene between the settled south western tip of the continent and the main concentration of Australian population in the southeast. Partly owing to this geographic isolation, the Swan River colony (founded in 1829) passed the first sixty years of its existence with very little intercourse with the more flourishing eastern Australian colonies. It was not until the goldrush of the 1890’s that the eastern Australians began to display an interest in the far west. The presence of large numbers of these "T'othersiders" in the Western Australian goldfields played an important part in securing the colony's entrance into the new Australian Commonwealth which came into existence on January 1, 1901, The old settlers and the leaders of the colony's responsible government were none too eager to accept the terms of federation, maintaining that, under the proposed constitution, the new states would not have sufficient sources of revenue to meet their obligations, but their objections were over-ruled by the unanimous pro-federation sentiment of the diggers. From the first Western Australia's peculiar position — a state with a small population and a large, undeveloped area ... resulted in special financial concessions being granted to her. Such concessions mitigated, but did not completely obliterate, the separatist tendencies of the western state. In 1906 a motion was introduced into the state parliament favouring secession from the federal union but nothing came of it. The War-induced encroachment of the federal government on taxation fields which had formerly been state preserves intensified the irritation felt by state leaders toward the ever-increasing powers of the Commonwealth government. Such sentiments were mirrored in newspaper articles expounding the theory that the federal bond was preventing Western Australia from realizing her full potentialities. The reports of a number of federally-appointed boards in the 1920's indicate that, even during these prosperous years, secessionist sentiments were held by a sizeable portion of the state's inhabitants. Nevertheless, it was not until the depression fell, with a particularly severe impact on primary-producing Western Australia, that secessionism became the dominant factor in the state's politics. The cause of secession was adopted by the state administration, partly from a desire to use it as a means of exacting a more generous financial arrangement from the Commonwealth government. A referendum on the question of secession was held concurrently with the state elections in April, 1933.Although the state's electorate repudiated the parties sponsoring secession they recorded a two-to-one majority in favour of the state seceding from the Australian Commonwealth and becoming a self-governing Dominion. The newly elected Labour government redeemed their election pledge to attempt to give effect to the people's mandate, as expressed in the referendum results, by sending petitions to the British parliament requesting the passage of legislation which would release the state from the Australian Commonwealth. A joint committee of both houses, appointed to investigate the constitutional propriety of receiving the state's petition, reported that such a request could be entertained only if it came from the federal parliament. Following this rebuff from the British parliament the secessionist movement withered and died, leaving behind a better system of deciding on state grants in Australia, and a noteworthy decision defining the relationship of the state and federal governments with the British parliament in the ever evolving British Commonwealth.

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