07/12/2020 - 08:00

It’s not me, it’s you: let’s talk about secession

07/12/2020 - 08:00

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Secession has again entered political discussion in WA, but how exactly would the state go about breaking away from the rest of Australia?

It’s not me, it’s you: let’s talk about secession

What leads an unassuming, 45-year-old farmer to declare war on his country of birth and take on the mantle of prince of his own, self-proclaimed micronation of two-dozen inhabitants and 20,200 hectares of farmland?

In the case of Leonard Casley, founder of the Principality of Hutt River, it was wheat quotas, introduced by the state government in the late 1960s.

Troubled by intervention that would significantly lessen his annual yield and leave his farm financially unsustainable, Mr Casley strenuously fought attempts to artificially increase wheat prices, taking his campaign all the way to Western Australia’s governor and premier.

When ignored, he referred to an obscure precedent in international law that allows those at risk of losing their property or economic livelihood to secede.

He declared his formal intention to secede in 1970, and on April 21 1972 deemed his farm, located about 500 kilometres north of Perth and dubbed Hutt River Province, to be a legally valid nation.

In the decades after its formation, Mr Casley’s property would welcome tens of thousands of tourists annually, all the while paying no taxes to either the federal or state governments.

Mr Casley passed away about 18 months ago. 

Not long after, his 50-year experiment in self-styled monarchy came to an abrupt end as the Australian Taxation Office pursued his family for millions of dollars in outstanding tax.

While widely considered a humorous anomaly complete with bizarre behaviour, typified by a five-foot bust of Mr Casley on his property, the so-called nation was by most accounts semi-serious, issuing its own currency and hosting a diversified but nevertheless export-dependent economy.

More than that, though, Mr Casley’s declaration of sovereignty is not without wider precedent. After all, for 100 years WA has maintained a tense relationship with the rest of Australia.

Despite secession often being viewed as a fringe political stance, wrapped up in historical associations with the US’s formerly slaveholding southern states, locales as diverse as Quebec (Canada’s only majority French-speaking province) and Catalonia (Spain’s largely autonomous community) have also made serious attempts to secede during the past two decades.

And while these efforts were largely based on a patchwork of cultural and economic factors, WA has, for the entirety of its existence, struggled with its position within the federation.

Historically, the state’s existence owes to British expansion at the expense of French colonisation, while its distance from the eastern states – about 4,000km – kept it apart from the concerns of the rest of the country.

Add to that a perception that WA was seen as rich in gold and ready for exploitation, and resentment towards the eastern states appears baked in from the start. 

“For most of those in the eastern states, WA just doesn’t appear on their radar much,” Ian Cook, senior lecturer of Australian politics at Murdoch University, told Business News.

“We get the sense that they don’t get the complexity and variety of the state.

“There’s an underlying sense that nobody’s paying attention.

“It doesn’t cause [Western Australians] to become secessionists, but you can see how it makes secession make sense.”

WA voted to secede from Australia by a two-to-one margin 1933, following a successful campaign to bypass a convention and declare nationhood. Photo: State Library of WA

Secession is seen as a largely conservative stance, with figures such as Norman Moore having championed the cause in recent years, arguing secession was necessary given the extent to which power had concentrated in the federal government.

Most of WA is less concerned with the devolution of power, however, and secessionist sentiment has historically arisen from economic conditions, most notably in 1933 when a loose alliance of state parliamentarians, newspapermen and businesspeople lobbied successfully for a referendum on the question in light of plunging wheat prices and record unemployment.

Portraying the eastern states as elitist and distant from the concerns of Western Australians, a motion in favour of seceding returned two-to-one approval, with a delegation sent to the UK to argue the case to the Crown.

They returned empty-handed after the British parliament deemed it imprudent to tamper with Australia’s constitution, and momentum for secession fizzled.

The matter re-emerged periodically in the decades after, making a comeback in 1974 when mining magnate Lang Hancock canvassed the state in support of such a move.

His effort similarly fell short, with the political party formed in aid of the movement failing to have any candidates elected to the Senate in that year’s federal election.

The issue has continued to percolate on the fringes, with a collaborative effort by former Labor Party staffer Scott Cowans and former diplomat John Goodlad at the 2010 federal election winning just 1,400 votes.

The next test of public opinion on secession will come at the upcoming state election, at which a new secession party will field candidates.

They may be planting a seed in fertile ground, given the overwhelming popularity of the state government’s domestic border closure which, by most accounts, has kept citizens safe and economically prosperous. 

And while business leaders, such as Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce and mining magnate Clive Palmer, have joined figures within the federal government in calling for WA to at least partially reopen to the rest of the country, approval for the state’s tight restrictions has remained high.

That appears at least part of the reason behind polling that shows a shift in sentiment towards secession, with 28 per cent of voters supporting such a move, according to a recent poll by Utting Research.

WA’s relative economic prosperity was part of what motivated Russell Sewell and Peter McLernon, formerly candidates for Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party at the 2019 federal election, to champion the cause at the next state election with their WA Republic Party (which has agreed to merge with the WAEC-registered Small Business Party).

Speaking to Business News, Mr Sewell described the past six months as a trial for secession; proof that, once divorced from the eastern states, WA could maintain comparatively low unemployment and high economic growth.

His reasons for becoming a secessionist are far more nuanced. Despite a strong family connection to WA, Mr Sewell spent much of his professional career overseas.

When he left in the 1980s, he recalls a highly diversified economy, replete with manufacturing jobs and a robust services industry. Upon his return two decades later, the state’s economy had adopted a far narrower base.

“We’d just become a mining support centre in Perth and the regions were just mining bases,” Mr Sewell said.

“That decline with what little was left became worse, and we’d become more reliant on trade with primarily one customer.”

Mr Sewell’s approach with the party is straightforward: earn enough of the vote in the legislative council to sit on the crossbench, and then condition support for the state government’s policies on holding a referendum.

While the state government has ruled out any referendum on the subject, the WA Republic Party’s approach appears to have garnered some support, having attracted the membership of notable individuals such as former City of Perth lord mayor Chas Hopkins.

As he looks towards March 2021, Mr Sewell argues the most compelling case for secession lies in the economic argument, pointing to how royalties and other federal taxes are drawn from the state at the expense of its own residents.

“That’s mineral wealth all Western Australians deserve to benefit from,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean they have to be at the coalface working for it.

“The little shoe shop, the petrol station, the tyre dealer or the burger store need to see the flow-on through the economy so they can benefit from that.

“Until we can take hold of that and start doing our own economic development, we’re on shaky ground.”

Dominion League founder Henry Watson (left) and politician and businessman James Smith present their petition to state parliament officially requesting succession. 

Readers of Business News may be familiar with this argument; businessman and conservative thinker Jonathan Huston articulated the mathematics behind a potential Westralia in September of this year.

Mr Huston’s rationale lies in the economic calculations. If WA took its share of tax revenue, both federal and state, he argued, and subtracted an estimate of how much the Commonwealth government spent in WA – about 10 per cent of all federal expenditure, in line with the state’s share of Australia’s population – a sovereign WA would be not just operational, it would finish about $17 billion in the black.

Mr Huston said that money could be used to finance tax cuts as well as the effective financing of a universal healthcare system through elimination of the Medicare levy.

Mr Huston freely admits his view of secession is as much an exercise in tax reform as it is any parochial love of WA, telling Business News he feels the most compelling argument for secession is an economic one. 

“Whenever I talk to people about secession, particularly those who are on the fence or oppose it … they talk about things like football, Qantas and banking,” Mr Huston said.

“Actually, this is just massive tax reform.”

Part of the issue, Mr Huston argues, is that the subject is often couched in cultural and social terms.

As a monarchist, he professes little interest in a republic. But from a pragmatic standpoint, Mr Huston sees no reason to pick fights over whether the ABC airs on the state’s televisions or the West Coast Eagles continue to play in the AFL.

He reasons that, economically, seceding makes sense and the argument for leaving Australia would be better served if it didn’t focus on the sentimental value of being considered a part of Australia.

“I wasn’t born a secessionist, but I got to a tipping point about six years ago where it kept niggling away and I realised this was a dud deal,” Mr Huston said.

“When the GST contributions were 35 cents in the dollar, when I was in the defence force and there was no defence force in WA, when I looked around and saw we were giving money to the Murray-Darling River scheme … [I realised] we’re never going to get political settlement on this.”

Many remain unconvinced by the economic argument, however, chief among them Patrick Gorman, who has represented the seat of Perth in federal parliament since 2018.

Among the loudest opponents of secession in recent months, Mr Gorman told Business News he felt compelled to speak up because the discussion lacked critical rigour.

In his view, leaving the federation would damage WA’s credit rating, given it may be required to take on its share of $684 billion of federal debt, as well as impairing businesses that would need to adapt to duplicated industrial relations, taxation, and trade systems.

“If you look at the things that keep Australia strong, it’s a strong defence force … we would have to build our own,” he said.

“It’s a strong, long-term system of corporate regulation, of which we would have to build our own; we would have to build an entire immigration system.

“All of these things that maybe, once running, would be proportionally cost effective; building them takes time and finding the skills to build them would take time.”

Mr Gorman cites defence as an example.

Using Mr Huston’s method, the ongoing cost to WA of operating its own defence force would be about $4.3 billion, arguing that establishing an army could follow the cost and format used in New Zealand.

Mr Huston also believes that maintaining close diplomatic relations with Australia would allow for the two nations to engage interoperations.

Mr Gorman disputes this notion, arguing Australia would withdraw substantial personnel and intellectual property from WA, with the new nation to bear the cost of developing those capabilities.

“I know the Commonwealth has spent $270 billion over the forward projections on new defence assets, and that’s just to replace and renew existing infrastructure,” Mr Gorman said.

“We’ve got a third of the nation’s coastline; we’re going to need submarines.

“If you’ve read the newspaper recently, you’d know they’re pretty expensive.”

Other considerations would include the political makeup of a new country, including whether it becomes a unitary state wherein the state government transitions into a central government, or devolves power to either councils or newly drawn states.

If the latter system were to be instituted, might that then lead to further division among regions, with those living in the Pilbara disputing their relationship to residents in East Perth, Mount Lawley and Leederville?

Mr Gorman argues these questions are likely to persist regardless of whether WA remains a state, making secession an imperfect solution to what he describes as a legitimate anger.

“I’m a big believer in democracy,” he said.

“People should have their say about how they think the state and their country should be run. But go and say what you think should be fixed, don’t go for a false solution.

“The grievances go to things that can be dealt with elsewhere and are dealt with elsewhere.”

A call for civic action over secession also speaks to the constitutional complications that would arise if WA was somehow able to articulate a majority opinion in favour of seceding.

While the referendum of 1933 returned the result necessary to indicate that a majority of Western Australians supported secession, it’s important to note that this referendum was not legally required for the state to secede.

Given the move would require adjustments to Australia’s constitution, seceding may actually be at the discretion of all the nation’s voters.

That means any movement to secede would require a nationwide referendum, which would rely as much on the consent of voters in Victoria and NSW as it would on those in WA.

However, given the state’s initial reluctance to join the federation, WA is not mentioned in the opening clause that describes Australia’s five other states as indissoluble.

It could be argued, in the most literal sense of these words, that this precludes WA and would therefore allow it to leave without amending the constitution.

Whether the 90 per cent of Australians who don’t live in WA are sympathetic to that argument remains to be seen.

Still, that secession might be seen as a bargaining tool to improve WA’s economic conditions may convince those easily spooked by the technical limitations and social implications that come with breaking away to form a new country.

In Mr Sewell’s opinion, secession should be seen on a spectrum, whereby greater autonomy is earned through the process of bargaining to secede, and leaving the federation is seen as a final resort should WA not receive a satisfactory outcome.

Mr Huston similarly makes the point that a referendum would allow for these arguments to be had in greater detail.

He accepts his view may not prevail, as does Mr Sewell, but argues the question is one worth interrogating and debating, if only to help push the case for WA being better recognised within the federation.

“We shouldn’t be talking about leaving home, we should be talking about having a discussion about it as a family,” Mr Huston said.

“The second one is a lot easier.”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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