In 1899, just two years before Australia got its name, sixty-year-old Governor Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Gerard Smith found himself in possession of an enormous scroll, one that when unrolled stretched more than 2.2 kilometres. Smith was then Governor of the colony that had settled in the far west of Australia, and the scroll in front of him was a petition, a thoroughly organised attempt by miners in the West Australian goldfields to separate their territory from the rest of the colony. They intended to create a new state, and the name they had chosen for it was ‘Auralia’. The petition must have accounted for almost all of the 200,000 miners in the area.
The goldfields in question were established around the town of Kalgoorlie, and were known to represent something of a wild west: rife with gold, bandits, and prostitutes. To Governor Smith it seemed clear why these men wanted to govern their own affairs—they obviously wanted to be left to their own devices, which consisted of deviance and vice. The other states, who together saw an opportunity to coerce the wavering colony into joining the federation, quietly threatened that a failure by Smith’s colony to support the burgeoning Federation movement could result in approval for the miners. Thus, the petition was never presented to the Queen for assent.
It should’ve come as no surprise, then, that only thirty-odd years later the state of Western Australia would make the first of several attempts at secession, by way of referendum. Given the 68% approval rating in WA of that referendum, it would seem that this part of the country has for a long time not shown much interest in staying true to the aims of Federation. Western Australia’s ceaseless tugging against one edge of the national flag is like trying to hang onto a child who only wants to run off and play.
The most recent mining boom, already much discussed in journals such as Griffith Review, is again dividing the country down its middle, with separatist flair seeming to be gaining momentum. WA’s Minister for Mining, Norman Moore, went on the record in 2011 in his advocation that the state should secede and rely on trading partner China for its defence needs. The all too familiar catch-cries of ‘patchwork’ and ‘two-speed’ economies seem only to emphasise the disparity between the fortune of WA and that of the rest of the country.
The perennial impulse of Western Australia to assert its independence doesn’t just highlight economic differences. There are much wider and broader forces at play. Really, what does a place like Kalgoorlie have in common with a place like Cabramatta in Sydney, or Canberra? Long has rural Australia fought city Australia, and their separate needs could be nowhere more obvious than in the constant tensions that arise between the urban and rural factions of the Federal Coalition. Turnbull and Tuckey, like Cabramatta and Kalgoorlie, speak differently, do different things on the weekend, and expect governments to act in very different ways. Election after election, the same issues which might be meaningless to urbanites, can decide the vote in delicate rural seats (and vice versa). That same delicate rural seat might then hold the balance of power on massive issues that affect us all resulting in decisions that are not only confusing, but oftentimes unrepresentative. Pesky as it has always seemed, perhaps there is some wisdom to West Australian sectarianism. Maybe it is not, as Governor Gerard Smith might have grumbled, simply just the arrogance of wealthy miners.
Australia, like the United States, is a collection of states formed on a land that originally served as a British storage facility. This is ingrained. The exploration of Australia by the British turned urgent only when it became clear that the War of American Independence was being lost. Britain needed to counteract the loss. Unlike America, however, our slightly unwilling coagulation of states did not emerge from the firebrand of history. Federation was nothing if not a long-winded bureaucratic exercise spawning from minor tussles over importation or farming regulation.
At the time Federation would have seemed bold and wise. Fledgling civilisations in a new land banding together in a sense of neighbourly goodwill, paying homage to that the institution de jour: nationhood. Even then, however, there was an awareness about how fragile and inefficient this exercise could prove. Federation’s crowning document, the Constitution, consigns only a few specific responsibilities, such as defence, over to commonwealth jurisdiction, leaving the majority to the states. Only the bare minimum was trusted to central control. The states, even in 1900, had set notions about who they were, about how much tax they wanted to charge, about who would be importing fruit through their borders and the circumstances under which that fruit would come.
Independent states are not an ideal model for dealing with large issues. One only needs to examine the Murray-Darling basin saga to see that even when states supposedly have a duty to one another, neighbourly goodwill can be hard to come by. It might seem ludicrous now, but if Federation disbanded tomorrow and water scarcity continued along the same road that it’s followed of late, it’s easy to imagine state borderlines becoming genuinely dangerous places.
Violent speculations aside, the disintegration of Federation is neither desirable nor likely. Australians are generally a deeply unradical people, a characteristic most obvious in our refusal to abandon the warm maternal embrace of the Commonwealth. Some say that this too goes back to Federation. Although the most famous date for Federation is 1901, the process actually began in the mid 1800s. Rather than the one great event as it is most often recalled, such as depicted in the famous Tom Roberts painting, Federation was actually a series of fairly lively but measured conventions attended by representatives of each colony. The shared goal was one of compromise; while laudable, is not quite the romantic birth story of great nations past.
Australia was not born of an ideological struggle. Many ideologies have developed since British settlement and hold deep sway within our national psyche. These, however, do not constitute a national purpose. To ask what Australia is for is to presuppose that we are, or ever have been, for anything at all. The invention of some shared characteristic might allow the term ‘nation’ to hold its revered status throughout the states, so that we are more than a ‘territory’, ‘island’, ‘province’ or even ‘place’, but such an invention would be false. Of course we have a desire to create these myths, to re-tell tales of heroes that might make us look and feel like other countries whose births can legitimately provide romantic national fervour. The diggers at Gallipoli, Simpson and his donkey, Ned Kelly; whether or not these people are heroes to you, they have never been what Australia is ‘for’. They, like the White Australia Policy, the admission of Vietnamese refugees, the Stolen Generation are incidental parts of our history that we have desperately tried, and failed, to wrangle into some coherent narrative. As the restive miners of Kalgoorlie in 1899 well knew, very little makes Australia a nation.
© Bhakthi Puvanenthiran