Secessionism in the Republic of McGowan

WAxiting out of the park.

Image credit: The Jakarta Post

Summer break, 2020. I had planned to visit my family in Perth but a new crop of COVID cases had spawned out of Avalon, leading to a hard border between WA and NSW. Bored and alone, I kept revisiting WA Premier Mark McGowan’s Facebook posts, specifically the well-produced colour-coded infographic maps of Australia: WA is always shaded neutral white, “very low risk” states are cautionary yellow, “low risk” states are hazardous orange, and “medium risk” states (i.e. NSW) are danger red. As I combed through the numerous geopolitical projections, I struggled to rationalise my fascination… until I saw it. Underneath McGowan’s awkward — but eternally endearing — dad smile, there was a small but recognisable gap in-between WA and the other states, a moat that separates it from the rest of the country.

Growing up in WA, that separation is palpable. You are constantly reminded that (by some very narrow measures) Perth is the most isolated city in the world, nestled in the ugly duckling of states. It’s a place of greedy mining magnates, disproportionate GST redistribution, and wide-open spaces; the Wild West that Canberra forgot. From the jump, WA was hesitant about joining the new country of Australia, and after 22 years of unhappy marriage, filed for divorce. A divorce which Westminster (as the judge in this jumbled analogy) subsequently stonewalled. Possibly as delayed retribution, it has been said — although probably exaggerated — that during the Second World War, the federal government planned to sacrifice everything west of the imaginary line between Brisbane and Adelaide if the Japanese Army invaded. My Year 9 geography teacher would routinely decry the (dubious) betrayal each semester, demanding that we never forget the dastardly deeds of the evil eastern elites.

Still, the yearning for independence persevered and the state became a Mecca for sovereign citizenry. Prior to its collapse, Australia’s most famous secession success story was the product of a wheat farmer who decided that he didn’t want to follow the directives of the Department of Agriculture and formed his own principality, the Hutt River Province, one hour north of Geraldton. After bestowing himself the title of Prince Leonard I, he began bankrolling his new state by issuing his own currency and stamps — sometimes with peculiar commemorative themes: birds of Antarctica and his 1979 holiday (ahem, official state visit) to the Vatican.

But that was not the only time the Holy See got a callout from West Australian secessionists. In June 2020, four insurgents from the “New Westralia’’ movement live streamed their storming of the historic courthouse in York, declaring New Westralia’s independence not only from the Commonwealth, but the auspices of the “Bishop of Rome,” as well (as if Pope Francis cared about a town of 2,500 people in rural WA). Despite their arrest, the Westralian movement continues to fester. A few weeks ago, a sovereign citizen refused to say her name when asked in court and yelled “We object’’ when allegations of speeding were read against her. Despite being convicted, she thanked a New Westralian seperatist for their sound legal advice. 

The New Westralia movement is undoubtedly fringe, but their ethos is anything but. Deep rooted in the collective consciousness of West Australians at home, and in the diaspora, is a disdain for the eastern states that wronged us, spanning from the premier’s infographics, to a WAxit meme page (formerly administered by the University’s own Director of Debates), to my grandmother’s declaration that she’s “always been a secessionist.” Roughly one third of the state supports WAxit and the Microbusiness Party rebranded itself to the WAxit Party to capitalise on the political moment. It’s ironic, however, that the entire secessionist discourse belies the fact that Western Australia was built on top of land that was never ceded, let alone given the opportunity to secede.

But just to be safe, it might be wise for us sandgropers to start saving for international tuition.

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