"Westralia Shall Be Free" - the Western Australian Secession Referendum in 1933

Gerard Foley Thursday, April 4, 2013 - 17:43

On 8 April 1933, a referendum was held on the issue of Western Australia seceding from the Commonwealth of Australia. Two questions were posed; the first asking whether the voter was in favour “the State of Western Australia withdrawing from the Federal Commonwealth”, and the second asking voters if they were in favour of a Federal Convention of all the Australian States to propose alterations to the Australian constitution to allow for WA’s secession from the Commonwealth.

Held on the same day as the State election, the first referendum question received a two to one majority vote in favour of WA’s secession from the Commonwealth; the second question failing to gain the approval of voters. Ironically this vote for WA’s secession occurred on the same day Western Australians threw out the government of Sir James Mitchell (also removing Mitchell from his own parliamentary seat), which sponsored the referendum and campaigned for the secessionist cause. A State Labor Government was elected, led by Philip Collier who had actively opposed secession during the election and referendum campaigns.

Given the resounding nature of the vote, Philip Collier’s government, though not in favour, still pursued the referendum outcome. State Archives reveal the State government’s moves to prepare and present the case for WA’s secession from the rest of Australia, to the UK Parliament at Westminster, detailed in a Premier’s Department file titled “Secession – Preparation of Case for submission to the Imperial Parliament”, and also the appointment of the delegation that was sent to London to pursue the case and present the secession petition in a file titled “Secession - App't of delegation to submit case to the Imperial authorities”.

Eventually the case for secession was rejected by the UK Parliament and the Western Australian secession movement died away, certainly overtaken by the events of World War 2. But since the 1933 referendum murmurings about Western Australian secession occur from time to time, especially when there are perceptions that WA may be getting a ‘raw deal’ from the Federal government in Canberra.

Historians investigate and debate the reasons for the resounding vote in favour of secession in 1933, citing, in the main, economic factors, most obviously the Great Depression. But State Archives held by the SRO reveal a great deal of detail about the blooming secession movement during the 1920s, before the Depression, and also government and community responses to the results of the 1933 referendum. A search of the SRO’s online catalogue, using the term ‘secession’, reveals 40 archived files. Some of these are files of press clippings of Western Australian and British newspapers, outlining the development of the secession movement from the 1920s (e.g. Consignment 1496, item 1926/0017).

One particular file (Consignment 1496, item 1933/0129) is about the visit of a Federal delegation, headed by the then Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, campaigning against secession. It contains a report on a “riotous meeting" at Perth’s Theatre Royal, where the Prime Minister and his delegation was shouted down by the crowd with chants of “Poor Old Joe”, coins also being tossed onto the stage, with one hitting the PM's wife, who withdrew from the meeting. 10 years later Mrs (later Dame) Enid Lyons became the first woman elected to the Australian House of Representatives.

Another set of files are those compiled by the Agent General, Sir Hal Colebatch, who was heavily involved in presenting the case for WA’s Secession in London. These include a ‘confidential’ file (Consignment 1150, item 2313.1) with correspondence from the chief secessionist group, the Dominion League of WA, to the UK Prime Minister lobbying for secession as late as 1938.

A particular file full of lively secessionist promotional material is Consignment 1496, item 1931/0102. Containing much correspondence it also includes photographs, pamphlets, posters and the program of the Dominion League of WA’s “Grand Victory Festival” held in Perth on 10 May 1933, to celebrate their success in the Referendum.

This program includes a Toast List, a poem by “Dryblower” Murphy, and the lyrics for a victory song - the first stanza being:

“Land of the vast horizons,
Land where the reef-gold gleams;
For chains awaits thee glory,
Dominion of our dreams.
We will heal thy wrong
By a justice strong,
And our victor song
‘Westralia! Westralia! Westralia shall be free’.”