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Oxford Companion to Australian Politics

Greg Craven


A classic Federation, Australia faced the conceptual question of secession from the time of its formation in 1900. As a conglomeration of pre-existing political entities, in what circumstances might those entities withdraw and revert to their former independent or quasi-independent status?

Virtually all Federations have had to overcome one or more secession crises. These may generally be categorised either as movements that are economically driven by regions dissatisfied with their financial position within the Federation or, typically, more serious events propelled by ethnic, cultural, or religious tensions. Examples of attempted secessions from federal states include the establishment of the Confederate States of America at the outset of the US Civil War, the secession of Biafra from Nigeria in the late 1960s, and the perennial agitation of Quebec for secession from Canada. In the West Indies and Central Africa after World War II Federations disintegrated as member states seceded.

Those who drafted the Australian Constitution in the 1890s were well aware of the danger of secession, largely from their observation of the USA. Nevertheless, the topic was little discussed at the Federal Conventions, partly from a desire to avoid a potentially difficult subject, and partly because delegates (rightly) assumed that secession would in any event require the sanction of the Imperial Parliament. They did, however, insert an essentially poetic, legally irrelevant reference to the ‘indissoluble’ nature of the Federation into the preamble.

Predictably, there have been secessionist rumblings around the Australian Federation throughout most of its history. These have come particularly from the large outlying states of Western Australia and Queensland, where in the 1960s and 1970s premiers Sir Charles Court and Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen made threats to take their states out of the union. Though heartfelt, none of these threats was particularly significant.

Entirely different was the Western Australian secession movement of the 1930s, which posed a real threat to the integrity of the Australian Federation. Western Australia was the last colony to agree to Federation, and it did so only after some pressure from the United Kingdom. It worried that its financial position would be adversely affected by the Commonwealth's monopoly over customs and excise, and that its sparse population and vast distance from eastern population centres would marginalise it within national debates. Both these fears were realised, and the state parliament was formally debating secession by 1906.

Resentment was fuelled by the continuing effects of Commonwealth tariff policy. That policy meant Western Australia was unable to obtain desperately needed agricultural and mining machinery cheaply from overseas, and was forced to rely upon heavily protected products from Melbourne and Sydney instead. When Western Australia sought to develop its own industries they were ruthlessly undercut by these same protected operators. The state thus bore the full brunt of external protection and internal free trade, with few of the benefits.

The situation greatly worsened with the coming of the Depression, which crystallised and intensified the perception that the Commonwealth was responsible for Western Australia's woes. A Dominion League was formed to agitate for secession in 1926; by 1930 it had converted the conservative premier, Sir James Mitchell. He agreed to hold a referendum on the subject, simultaneous with the state election, which occurred on 17 April 1933. The proposal for secession was agreed to by an almost two-thirds popular majority, although the Mitchell government was replaced by Labor under Phillip Collier. Collier, himself anti-secessionist, had no choice but to proceed with a petition to the Imperial Parliament to excise Western Australia from the Federation by an amendment to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act.

Only at this point did the Commonwealth government show serious signs of alarm. It pledged to oppose the reception of the petition with all its might, and rushed a ‘Case for Union’ into print by way of reply to Western Australia's own ‘Case for Secession’. This was distributed to every elector in the country, making matters significantly worse with its hectoring and intolerant tone. The Commonwealth's nerves clearly could not have been helped by the fact that other states—including South Australia and Tasmania—were watching Western Australia's progress with close interest. Deeply embarrassed by the petition, the Imperial Parliament appointed a Joint Select Committee to hear argument on the question of whether or not it properly could be received. Both Western Australia and the Commonwealth were represented before the Committee. Each made threats as to the consequences for Imperial unity were its views not preferred. On 24 May 1935, the Committee predictably reported that the petition could not be received—on the grounds that only the Commonwealth authorities could request an amendment of their own Constitution. With the Depression passing and war gathering, Western Australia let the matter rest. There has been a tendency to dismiss the secession movement as an eccentric by-blow of resentment produced by Depression. In reality, it represented a troubling but logical culmination of a long history of grievance—economic and social—which the Depression merely fuelled to the point of ignition.

The actual constitutional position in relation to secession is reasonably certain, but somewhat complex. The colonies were united by virtue of covering clauses 3 and 4 of the Constitution Act, and could only be released as states by an amendment to that Act. Prior to the passage of the Australia Acts this would have necessitated an Act of the Imperial Parliament, as the s 128 referendum procedure seems to have applied only to the Constitution proper, and not to the covering clauses of the British Act that contains it. After the Australia Acts and the renunciation of power by the British Parliament it seems likely that the High Court would take the view that the power to amend the covering clauses must reside somewhere—the logical repository being the referendum mechanism of s 128. On this basis, secession would only be possible after a successful national referendum—an outcome unlikely to the point of impossibility. There always remains the possibility of extra-constitutional, unilateral secession. The circumstances that might give rise to such an eventuality are almost, though not quite, inconceivable.

Greg Craven

Further reading

Craven, Greg (1986), Secession: The Ultimate States RightFind this resource: