A sea of people surges down North Terrace. Many are waving flags. Others carry banners daubed with the words ‘Our state, Our fate’. Children skip around their parents. An old man in a blazer quietly weeps. There is a ripple of expectation as Jay Weatherill, the last premier of South Australia appears on the steps of parliament house.
“My fellow citizens, this is a momentous day in the history of South Australia. Today, we reclaim our ancient birthright, freeing ourselves from the yoke of Canberra and charting a new and exciting path. You are now standing in the world’s newest country – the Republic of South Australia.”
Some readers will no doubt see this imagined scene as absurd. Others will no doubt cry heresy. But surely the concept that a state with the natural resources, talent and ambition of South Australia should seek greater autonomy is not completely implausible?
True, the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act makes it virtually impossible for an individual state to leave the federation without the active support of the Commonwealth parliament. In 1901 South Australia entered into an indissoluble union with the other five self-governing colonies. Or did it?
Narelle Miraliotta, senior lecturer in politics at Monash University, says that failing to win the support of Canberra in a claim for self-government, South Australia could simply pass an act of secession and assert its rights as a sovereign nation.
“Notwithstanding the constitutionality or otherwise of unilateral secession, such a course of action is possible,” she says. “A state could only be prevented from pursuing this option if the Commonwealth was prepared to use the military to force the seceding state to remain in the federation against its will. The scenario of the Commonwealth invading a state seems preposterous, although cannot be entirely dismissed.”
Scotland’s bold and romantic, if unsuccessful, bid for freedom has inspired separatist movements across the globe. Ethnic groups such as the Walloons in Belgium, Spain’s boisterous Catalans, Denmark’s Faroese (inhabitants of the Faroe Islands) and the Chechens have all drawn inspiration from the Scots. The ripple effect is sure to be felt across the Atlantic. The United States of America supports myriad separatist movements, with residents in Maryland, California and Colorado agitating to redraw their 19th century borders. Texas, the Lone Star State, wants to go one better and leave the federation for good.
Advocates, such as Texas railroad commissioner Barry Smitherman, argue that the state’s abundance of fossil fuels, a separate power grid and strong sense of identity mean that Texas is ideally placed to let go of America’s apron stings.
“We have made great progress in becoming an independent nation,” he says. “And I think we want to continue down that path so that if the rest of the country falls apart, Texas can operate as a stand-alone entity.”
Given its vast size and uneven population spread it’s not surprising that Australia has also harboured its own secessionist movements. In 1933, the government of Western Australia held a referendum asking whether its citizens wanted to withdraw from the Commonwealth – they voted two to one in favour. A petition was then sent to the British Parliament, but rejected on the grounds that such a request must come from the Australian Commonwealth and not an individual state.
“The constitution simply does not contemplate any part of the nation breaking away,” says Professor George Williams, a constitutional expert.
“The only viable legal path to secession is by way of national referendum.”
Despite such legal impediments, the dream of self-government is still alive and kicking across the Nullarbor. This long-standing antipathy to Canberra is fanned by what locals, such as the late Lang Hancock, feel is WA’s unfair contribution to the national exchequer – money used to support mendicant states like Tasmania and South Australia. Many Western Australians applaud the example of Leonard Casley, a disgruntled sheep farmer who seceded from the state in 1970 to form Hutt River Province, a self-governing principality which has its own currency, stamps and imperial honours (the Serene Order of Leonard). This microstate also appears to have escaped Australia’s relentless tax system; a 2008 Australian Tax Office ruling declared Prince Leonard a non-citizen for income tax purposes.
In the United Kingdom, the unforeseen consequence of Scotland’s independence campaign has been a wide-ranging debate about the relevance, and democratic effectiveness, of a quaint but archaic parliamentary system. With the growth of federal power, the rise of splinter parties and growing voter disenchantment it is surely time to consider constitutional reform in Australia?
You might imagine that South Australia, with its libertarian foundations and record of progressive social policies would be at the forefront of such a debate. But the reverse seems to be the case. The very idea of questioning the Australian constitution, let alone seceding from the Commonwealth is a scandal. “Secession? Are you kidding?” said one prominent Adelaide businessman. “We’d be cutting our own throats. South Australia would sink like a stone – into oblivion.”
Opinion-makers such as Marc Allgrove, a wine consultant and arts patron, are at least willing to entertain the possibility of constitutional reform, but suggest that it is perhaps the role of state governments that should come under scrutiny rather than the growing influence of Canberra.
“It would be a fairly odd decision for any state other than WA to break away [from the Commonwealth],” he says.
“The debate is more often about having too many layers of government. Should we have more federal government and larger, more empowered local government and do away with state government? That’s one way of thinking.”
Allgrove argues that South Australia has little to learn from the separatist movements sweeping Europe, arguing that we lack the cultural, linguistic or ethnic factors that are fuelling political agitation in Spain, the UK and elsewhere. “Analogies with European and to a degree US secession [movements] are misplaced,” he says.
“The identity which each [Australian] state owns has been developed through federation whereas the identity which some those European state own have been developed independently over thousands of years.”
What about economic self-determination? Former SNP leader Alex Salmond argued that an independent Scotland would be able to use its vast oil wealth to create new industries, fund a Scandinavian style welfare system, alleviate youth unemployment and usher in a flowering of national culture. Could an independent South Australia become a tax haven, like the Bahamas or Jersey, attracting global banking, insurance and other wealth creating activities?
Such a prospect would surely titillate our business and political leaders and those agitating for greater welfare spending. Sadly, no one from Business SA was prepared to comment and even Senator Cory Bernardi, a champion of Scottish independence, did not return my calls. But even those who doubt the sanity of South Australia becoming a self-governing republic concede that the world offers many examples successful microstates, all smaller than SA, which have managed to create peaceful, democratic and affl uent societies – minus a phoney honours system.
Respected local business identity Raymond Michell says that any talk of an independent South Australia is “mad” but is inspired by the example of the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 to create the Czech Republic and Slovakia – both democratic and neconomically advanced nations.
“Their circumstances, geography and trade are somewhat different to us,” he says. “But that’s one example of a smallish population which has divided quite successfully. It’s worth having a look, anyway.”
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