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Common(wealth) Knowledge #85: Westralia - the country that almost was

Australia’ less violent and more successful secession movement.

Today marks the three-year anniversary of the January 6 storming of the US Capitol in 2021, as the US legal system is embroiled in a fight over whether Donald Trump should be allowed to run for office after his alleged role in the insurrection. Although Australia is not immune to the ideas of secessionism, our experience with it has been markedly less violent.

Colonial Australia saw several attempts at independence or secession, most famously the Rum Rebellion and the Eureka Stockade.

The Eureka Stockade was so popular that a jury convicted none of the miners accused of sedition or treason. Only Henry Seekamp, the editor and owner of the Ballarat Times, was convicted of seditious libel, and even he spent only a few months behind bars.

With many Australian states starting out as penal colonies, it is not surprising that there was unrest in the early days of colonial Australia. For example, there were a couple of attempts by Irish republicans, sent to New South Wales as convicts for rebellions back home, to overthrow the colonial government, such as the Castle Hill Rebellion.

However, by the 1890s, these movements had died out in the eastern colonies, with Tasmania, South Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria embracing the prospects of federalism.

Queensland held some reservations, including that its virgin manufacturing sector would be squashed by the much larger sectors of Victoria and New South Wales, and that its agricultural sector wouldn’t be able to exploit South Sea Islander labourers. Check out Common(wealth) Knowledge #1 for more on these concerns.

Western Australia was, by far, the colony most opposed to federalism, and was the last colony to agree to it. Even after Federation, many Western Australians sought independence. However, the secession movement now took on a much more peaceful nature, never returning to its more riotous roots.

Western Australian secessionism united Irish Catholic republicanism with labour movements that were inspired by American republicanism.

Ireland spent many centuries in conflict with the English. It did not experience the Protestant Reformation that hit England and Scotland, remaining a Catholic stronghold.

Ireland would eventually be brought under English control through war and the ‘plantations,’ where English and Scottish Protestants settled in Ireland in small pockets, which then became ‘anglicised’ peacefully.

However, Ireland continued to play second fiddle to Great Britain, even when it was officially brought into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. There were regular revolts, spurred on by British oppression of the Irish and Protestant domination over Catholics, who were even denied the right to vote and had to pay extra taxes.

Western Australia was the last Australian penal colony, so had a disproportionate population of Irish and Catholics when compared to the rest of Australia, as rebels and protesters were deported to the colony.


Western Australia, with its Irish Catholic working-class population, compared its separation from the east coast states with Ireland’s separation from Great Britain. It was only thanks to its mining boom in the 1880s and 1890s, which attracted miners from the eastern colonies, that the vote for Federation passed.

According to Professor Mark Finnane, the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 caused a split in Labor, which had maintained a power base in Western Australia since 1901, and with Irish republicans in Australia now opposing World War I and conscription, Prime Minister Billy Hughes blamed them for the conscription referendum failing.

In a nation so recently created, the anti-British sentiment being expressed by the Irish Catholic republicans concerned many Australian politicians. During 1919, many Saint Patrick’s Day parades were banned, and in Western Australia, former MP Dwyer White was arrested and nearly imprisoned for leading one such illegal parade.

By 1922, Great Britain had granted Ireland ‘Home Rule.’ Over the following decade, the tension created by Irish Catholic republicans in Australia began to fall, with the issue resolved. Labor MP James Scullin became the first Irish Catholic Prime Minister of Australia in 1929.

But 1929 also brought the Great Depression. Western Australia’s economy still lacked diversity. Its economy was so dependent on wheat that the military was brought in during the infamous Great Emu War to defend wheat crops from emus.

The 1920s saw massive subsidies for Australian wheat farmers to allow them to compete with the Canadian wheat economy. So when the wheat market collapsed during the Great Depression, the loss of subsidies meant that Western Australian farmers had even further to fall.

However, the wheat industries of Australian states remained separate from one another, despite Section 92 of the Australian Constitution existing to promote cooperation. This, coupled with the general dominance of the eastern states on economic policies, which gave Western Australia little support for new economic development, created a sense of isolation from the rest of the country.

Many Western Australians felt like they were shackled to a sinking ship.

The Dominion League, which led this secession movement, was desperate to distance itself from the Irish Catholic republican movement that had ended less than a decade ago.

Rather than wanting complete independence, the Dominion League remained staunchly imperialist, relying on the Balfour Declaration made at the Imperial Conference of 1926, which was discussed in detail in Common(wealth) Knowledge #47.

The Declaration stated that the “group of self-governing communities composed of Great Britain and the Dominions … are autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, … though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

Although seeking to remain as part of the British Empire as the ‘Dominion of Western Australia,’ more commonly referred to as ‘Westralia,’ the Dominion League nonetheless benefited from the independence streak cultivated by the republicans.

Among the leaders of the League were Keith Watson, the future Member for the Metropolitan Province in the Western Australia Legislative Council, and James MacCallum Smith, the Member for North Perth in the Legislative Assembly and the editor and owner of The Sunday Times.

A referendum in 1933, held alongside the state election, which voted in the anti-secession Labor government of Philip Collier, saw a massive turnout in favour of secession. The mining communities were no longer powerful enough to sustain a pro-Federation vote.

Under the Secession Act 1934 (WA), Watson and Smith were sent to the UK as part of a delegation to petition for independence, hoping that Parliament would recognise the will of the people.

However, at this stage, it became apparent that the Dominion League had misunderstood the Balfour Declaration.

The Balfour Declaration meant that the UK was surrendering its legislative power over the Dominions. Prior to 1926, the UK government could pass certain laws that would be binding on the Dominions.

Although Australia didn’t adopt the Statute of Westminster until 1942, with the imaginatively-named Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 (Cth), which made the Declaration binding, the UK had determined that although it still had that power over Australia, it would not exercise it.

The Balfour Declaration didn’t mean that any part of the Empire could become a Dominion, it meant that the UK was surrendering its legislative power over the Dominions. So, when the League arrived in London, Parliament told them that this was no longer something that they had power over.

London told the League that if they wanted independence, they would have to ask the Australian Commonwealth government.

And, of course, the Commonwealth government would never accept a non-binding independence referendum by one its States.

Although colonial Australia saw many violent insurrections by both prisoners and ‘free settlers,’ by Federation, an insurrection was no longer on the table. Although the Irish Catholic republicans did see several violent moments, they were nothing like the Castle Hill Rebellion, and by the time of the 1933 secession movement, the threat of insurrection was gone altogether, with peaceful and legitimate means sought instead.

Western Australia’s independent streak has never truly disappeared. The state refused to grant the Commonwealth government the power to create a Family Court with jurisdiction over the State, and there have been some smaller secession movements within the state, such as the ‘WAxit Party’ and talks of independence amongst anti-Covid lockdown activists, but never to the same scale as 1916 or 1933.

The only exception to this was the Principality of Hutt River, an unofficial microstate created by several farming families in the state in 1970, which became defunct in 2020. Its founder, Leonard Casley, like the Dominion League, never denied the sovereignty of the British monarch.

And, ironically, Hutt River, the only successful independence movement in Western Australia, was created in response to wheat policies set by Canberra and the eastern states.

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