Western Australia was the last colony to join the federation. Some people now want it to be the first state to leave. This is the upshot of angry calls for West Australian independence provoked by the federal government's proposed resources super profits tax. Secession has been tried before, and there is a new band of people who would like to see it tried again.

The idea that Western Australia should form a new nation reaches further than you may think. It has support in high places, including from the state Minister for Mines and Petroleum, Norman Moore. He said this latest proposed plundering of West Australian revenue by the Commonwealth had led to ''rumblings of secession - everywhere you go these days, people are now talking about it''.

As a long-time supporter of secession, Moore believes Western Australia would be better off on its own. He has ''no doubt that Western Australia would be one of the most successful countries in the world if it was a separate country''.

 

May 11, 2010 - GEORGE WILLIAMS http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/too-rich-too-weak-to-succeed-seceding-20100510-uoma.html

 

Even if this were true, it is an unlikely goal, as the record shows from when Western Australia last went down this path. In 1930 a state government led by Sir James Mitchell was elected on a platform for secession. In 1933 he put a referendum to the people of Western Australia asking whether it should withdraw from the Commonwealth. The people overwhelmingly voted to do so - by a margin of two to one.

The state sent a petition to the British Parliament requesting independence. It got nowhere after the petition was ruled out of order because convention dictated it come from the Commonwealth and not an individual state. The Commonwealth opposed secession, so the matter ended when it became clear that Western Australia would not resort to force or illegal action in the hope of having its way.

Secession is no more likely to succeed today. The constitution simply does not contemplate any part of the nation breaking away, with no state having the right to unilaterally leave the federation. Any attempt to do so could provoke legal or even military intervention from a Commonwealth charged with ensuring that the law is upheld.

The only viable legal path to secession is by way of a national referendum. This could change the constitution to permit Western Australia to leave. However, success at the referendum would require both a national majority of voters and popular majorities in a majority of states.

The bottom line is that West Australians can only leave the nation if everyone else is prepared to let them go. Self-interest, if nothing else, dictates this will not happen.

For better or worse, every state is made part of the federation. This is made clear in the first words to the constitution: ''The people of NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania . . . have agreed to unite in one indissoluble federal commonwealth.''

These words capture the spirit of a federation meant to endure for all time. The omission of Western Australia also reflects a long-standing reluctance on its part to be a state of Australia.

Throughout the 1890s Western Australia expressed strong reservations about joining in a new nation. Even then, its primary concern was that it would suffer when it came to taxation revenue. The vast distances between it and the other settlements also worked against a sense of common interest. After all, New Zealand was much closer to Sydney and Melbourne than Perth, and it had decided not to join.

Western Australia dragged its feet, and its decision came so late there was no time to add it to the opening words of the constitution as one of the founding partners of the new country. This odd omission continues to undermine the grand unity supposed to be expressed by those words.

Talk of independence comes and goes. It remains as likely to be achieved as another old chestnut of our federation, the idea the states should be abolished.

Although secession is for practical purposes impossible, its promoters do have one point. Having a viable federal system is important, especially to Western Australia. Its attachment to state's rights, and aversion to having its affairs run from distant Canberra, remains stronger than anywhere else in the nation.

The decline of the states, due in part to the growth of federal power, causes particular problems of governance and democratic accountability in Western Australia. The calls there for independence reflect this, and should be met with a renewed effort to produce a federation that better serves the needs of the people of every state.

George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of law at the University of NSW.