Secession still on our mind

"Westralia shall be free" they sang on the streets and in the town halls in 1933 as the people of WA prepared for a referendum that had been on the simmer since Federation in 1901.

Exactly 80 years ago come Monday, the issue came to the boil at the ballot box.

Australia and the world watched and waited, the word "secession" on everyone's lips, as WA voters pondered the question on the compulsory voting card: "Are you in favour of the State of Western Australia withdrawing from the Federal Commonwealth?"

Two-thirds of West Australians marked the box that said "yes", and the vote in favour of breaking away from the rest of the nation passed resoundingly.

Eight decades on, WA remains a State of Australia but, according to some, the undercurrent of discontent has never fully disappeared.

The chairman of the WA Parliament's history advisory committee, Professor David Black, said WA was from the outset a reluctant participant in federalism.

At the turn of the century, having only recently been granted self- governance, many in WA were wary of handing over power to a Federal government.

Professor Black said the belated referendum on whether West Australians would join the Commonwealth - held in 1900 after all the other States had decided to sign up - only passed because a high number of people from the Eastern States, working and living in places such as the Goldfields, tipped the balance with their votes.

But by 1902, the matter of secession was being discussed in the WA Parliament, and in 1906 a resolution for a referendum on secession was passed but never acted on.

World War I suppressed the breakaway movement for a time, and while it was back on the agenda in the 1920s, it took the economic strife of the early 1930s to bring it to the fore. "It probably wouldn't have got any further than that if it wasn't for the Great Depression," Professor Black said.

Westralia Shall be Free, circa 1934. Picture: State Library of WA

In the 1930s, the main agitators for secession, the Dominion League, enjoyed a groundswell of support from struggling West Australians whose economic woes were exacerbated by Federal tariffs that benefited Eastern States businesses to the detriment of WA.

The advent of continental free trade, which left WA's primary industries unprotected, was another strong motivator.

In 1930, Liberal premier James Mitchell declared his support for the secession movement, and the stage was set for the 1933 vote.

Locked away in the State Records Office of WA, correspondence to and from Sir Mitchell paints a picture of support for WA to strike out on its own.

Senior archivist Gerard Foley said the volume of records relating to secession had not been "examined in detail for some time".

Notes of support from regional towns inquiring what they could do to aid the movement are sandwiched between letters from the Perth Chamber of Commerce, which wanted the premier to form a working committee to investigate "the State's capacity to pay its way if it separated from the Federation".

While the people of WA voted for secession in 1933, in a strange contradiction on the same day, they also voted out Sir Mitchell's pro-secession government.

Professor Black said this was proof that people in WA were not really serious about seceding, but were merely lashing out in protest at both the Federal and State governments which had failed to improve the dire economic situation.

The issue of the 1933 secession referendum was put to bed in 1935, when a British Parliament joint select committee told a WA delegation it would not amend the Commonwealth Constitution without Canberra's consent.

Secession meeting on the Esplanade, 1933. Picture: State Library of WA

Professor Black conceded secession had continued to rear its head, "whenever Western Australia thinks it's being pushed around".

Unlike in the 30s, when WA was struggling, modern flare-ups for independence have largely been based on the reasoning that the economic boom State gives much to the rest of Australia and receives too little in return.

Secessionist rumblings in the 1970s, backed by mining magnate Lang Hancock, were in this vein.

The Barnett Government's stoush with Canberra over the share of GST distributions has revived secessionist comments.

Liberal MP Norman Moore, one of the most outspoken supporters of secession in recent times, said he was concerned about the centralisation of power in the Eastern States and decisions being made there that were not in the best interests of WA.

"I personally want to get us back into a Federation which gives the States meaningful authority, and lets the States get on with doing the job they can do better than anybody else," he said.

But Mr Moore believed that was "never going to be achieved".

"The only ultimate solution is secession if we want to be serious about managing our own affairs," he said.

Wally Morris, 70, is the former secretary of the now defunct Western Australia Secession Association.

Formed in 1993, the association had about 3000 members and supporters at its peak but wound up in 2011 after attempts to gain a foothold in political office were unsuccessful.

Mr Morris said the 1933 referendum "still stands".

"It still remains in force, it hasn't been resolved; it needs to be taken to a conclusion," he said.

Premier Colin Barnett disagrees.

"It's been a topic everyone likes to talk about but at the end of the day, we are Australians first and proud Western Australians second," he said.