If at First You Don’t Secede: The Push for Westralia

As Scotland votes on independence, an unlikely coalition of billionaire miners and xenophobic libertarians want Western Australia to follow suit.

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18 September 2014, 12:26am

Matthew Lewis Moss, H.K. Watson, James MacCallum Smith MLA and Sir Hal Colebatch on top of the Savoy Hotel in London display the Dominion flag. Battye Library.

Wally Lewis’ voice crackles down the line from Perth, capital of Western Australia and the most isolated city on earth, over 2000 km from its nearest urban neighbour in Adelaide, where I’m calling from. We might be in the same country, but if this militant sandgroper had his way I’d be forking out for an international phone call right now. Wally, you see, is a nationalist of a nation that doesn’t exist: the never-realised dominion of Westralia.

The 72-year-old former secretary of the defunct Western Australia Secession Association has a very interesting case to make, and there are some very influential people who agree with him. The rest of Australia has kind of forgotten about it now, but in 1933 a depression-hit WA held a referendum to decide whether or not to break off and form its own country. The result was a landslide for the secessionists, with an overwhelming 68 per cent of the vote.

With Australia a part of the British Commonwealth, the Westralian contingent took off to London to sort out the details of how they would secede. Basically, the British told them it simply wasn’t going to happen, and so they returned to Perth with the bad news. There were some half-hearted calls to take up arms and fight for freedom and glory, but with West Australians being kind of, well, Australian about life, they really couldn’t be arsed taking it any further. Besides, the economy picked up and then World War Two hit, sending Australian patriotism into overdrive.

As Wally points out though, there weren’t any further referendums on the issue, so as far as he is concerned the result still stands, requiring only that a State Government musters enough courage to implement the will of the people, or at the very least, put it to another vote.

“No one annulled it, all the people there might have died off by now, but it’s still valid,” he said.

“If they don’t respect it, they should go to another referendum, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they got the same result.

“That’s why they don’t, they’re dead scared.”

Gentle and grandfatherly for most the conversation, Wally assumes a rather more menacing tone when discussing foreigners, and envisions a Westralia that slams the door on immigrants and encourages locals to return to a life of self-reliant subsidence farming.

He’s interested to see how the Scottish independence vote plays out, but says the situation is quite different to WA, in that the Scots have a few things going for their campaign that are kind of important, like an actual national identity forged over centuries, and a history of conflict with other areas of the UK.

That’s the thing about the Westralia dream: it is mostly about money. Back in the 30s WA nationalism was driven by the lack of cash during the Great Depression, while in modern times it is fuelled by the opposite: WA is earning the big bucks, and shelling out more in tax than it gets back from the Federal Government in public services. Via the state’s vast reserves of iron ore and offshore gas, Perth has become the Dubai of Australia, a glittering metropolis heaving with construction activity and overpriced everything.

Australia’s economy as a whole has powered through the global financial crisis, but only because of the west: just about every other state is mired in recession. That fact alone is enough to convince many WA natives they should break away from the Eastern seaboard parasites and not be forced to share any of the lucrative resources boom. Some of the state’s biggest names in politics and business are on board, including Norman Moore, president of the governing WA Liberal Party. He was particularly vocal about it during his spell as Minister for Minister for Mines and Petroleum, which ended in 2013 during the rule of the former Labor Federal Government. Labor introduced a carbon price and mineral resources rent tax, infuriating WA’s carbon-intensive mining industry, so the secession movement was useful for Moore to mention, the nation state equivalent of a partner threatening to break up and take all the money unless things improved. From Moore’s perspective the relationship did get better: the new Coalition government in Canberra has repealed both the carbon price and the mining tax.

Some of WA’s leading business figures have also thrown their support behind secession, including iron ore magnate Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest person with an eye-watering net worth of $16.9 billion. Her father Lang Hancock was the man who reignited the independence flame in 1974, forming the Westralian Secession Movement in response to federal trade barriers. Rinehart hasn’t spoken publicly about the issue in recent years, instead concentrating her energies on securing a “special economic zone” for the north and west of Australia, a change that would see her mining activities benefit from lower taxes and less regulation.

The Coalition government listened, and is currently mulling over the idea via a White Paper on Developing Northern Australia. But if the mining industry doesn’t get the special libertarian economic area it craves, then the secession drums might just start beating again. After all, as Wally says, the referendum still stands.

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