Last weekend’s Liberal Party conference has put Western Australia secession back in the news.
Whether it’s back on the agenda is another matter. Yes, Liberal Party state president and long-time secessionist, Norman Moore, had an almost-win in getting support for a non-binding motion for a committee to look into financial matters associated with a “WAxit”.
But it wasn’t the investigation of the state becoming completely independent Moore wanted. It only passed 89-73. And Liberal leader Mike Nahan wasn’t even prepared to support the damp squib the motion had become.
Premier Mark McGowan probably summed up the view of many West Australians in dismissing it as “a lot of bluff and bluster”.
But many Western Australians (or West Australians, as they call themselves) aren’t happy with WA’s GST share, and secession has never disappeared completely as an issue over here. So here we are again.
West Australians were reluctant participants in the federation from the beginning. Representatives turned up to the 1891 Constitutional Convention, but were only occasional participants in the conventions held in 1897 and 1898.
Most Australians wouldn’t know that the state isn’t named in the preamble to the Constitution, because the referendum in which West Australians decided to federate was held too late for the paperwork to be done.
West Australians even voted to leave the federation in a 1933 referendum. A delegation went to the British parliament to get it to amend the act it had passed to allow the creation of the Australian federation (Australia’s constitution is an act of that parliament, after all). The members of the select committee created by the House of Commons took 18 months to decide that it wasn’t their problem, and sent the WA delegation packing.
Secessionism quietened down after that, until iron ore mogul Lang Hancock founded the Westralian Secession Movement (WSM) in 1974 because he didn’t like the tariffs the federal government imposed and the cost to the foreign exchange WA earned through mining and wheat exports.
However, the WSM’s candidate in the 1974 Senate election couldn’t get the votes he needed to win a seat. So you’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t that much support for secession.
It was back on the agenda in the late 2000s, when WA’s GST share started to fall below the amount WA contributed. And it’s stayed on the agenda as the Commonwealth Grants Commission has further reduced WA’s share of the GST collected here.
The GST carve up is no minor matter for West Australians. WA’s had a state debt for many years (A$33 billion in 2017 and growing to A$40.19 billion in 2020) and an annual deficit since 2015 (it’s now more than A$4 billion, though we’ll find out the exact number when the new treasurer, Ben Wyatt, delivers the state budget next week).
State debt is like your mortgage: you’re lucky if you can afford it, and the annual deficit is how well you’ve done in balancing your household budget this financial year.
Government debt has affected the state’s credit rating, which Moody’s downgraded to Aa2 last year. And one way state governments respond to deficits is to increase charges for water, electricity and other state provided amenities. So deficits hit home.
Careful readers will have noticed that I’ve written “they”, not “we”. This is because, when preparing a presentation about the Commonwealth Grants Committee treating WA as raising revenue from gambling it doesn’t actually raise, a colleague told me that I had to tell my audience that I’d only lived here for 25 years.
But I get it. WA is a long way from “over east”, and people here feel like nobody “over east” knows that we/they exist.
It doesn’t help when politicians from “over east” make clear that they’ve no idea what’s happening in WA. As Pauline Hanson did during the last state election when, after allowing a preference deal between the Liberals and One Nation, she discovered – on actually turning up here – that Liberal premier Colin Barnett and his government were on the nose.
As a Queenslander, though, I’d better leave the last word to whoever is responsible for the Secession WA Facebook page. It has only 16 likes and 19 people follow it, but it pretty much sums up the attitude of many people over here. (They don’t actually want secession. They’re just hurting):
The West Australian newspaper is writing about secession because of the GST carve up mess. I am saying secession because we all know in WA that Canberra doesn’t give a shit about us except for our mineral and petroleum royalties. Let’s give Canberra the flick and keep our money for our people.
Authors: Ian Cook, Senior Lecturer of Australian Politics, Murdoch University