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Focus question 3: Why do federations break apart?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: Research project ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: Western Australia votes to secede ESL Activity 2


Just as states decide to federate, sometimes they decide to do the opposite and break apart. The nation which used to be known as Yugoslavia is a recent example. It now consists of a number of separate countries which have differing ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Besides ethnic and cultural differences, other reasons why a federation may collapse include major differences of opinion about policy, different economic needs and priorities in different areas and a sense of being ignored or treated unfairly by the federal government. When a state within a federation breaks away to become an independent nation, this is called 'secession'.

The Civil War in the United States is one dramatic case of a federation coming unstuck, even though, following the war, the country remained as one. Although less well known, Australia has also had some history of attempts at secession. We will look at each of these in turn.

Civil War in the United States

The American Civil War began in 1861 and ended in 1865. It was a rebellion by 11 southern States against the domination of the northern States. The economies of the southern States depended on slavery, especially for their crops of cotton. Slavery was allowed in the Constitution but not favoured in the northern States. The North favoured protection of American industries by tariffs on imports; the South as an agricultural region favoured no tariffs on imports (which would be cheaper as a result).

Harriet Tubman with residents of Tubman home, n.d. Photographer unknown
Harriet Tubman - an outstanding woman who helped many slaves to escape. She is shown (second from the right) with some of the slaves she helped to free.

Harriet Tubman with residents of Tubman home, n.d. Photographer unknown
Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

When President Lincoln was elected in 1860, the southern States became alarmed because Lincoln was an opponent of slavery. They prepared to leave the Union. They claimed that the Union was an agreement among the States and that if any State decided the Union was no longer serving its interests, it had the right to leave. The northerners argued that not the States, but the whole of the people had agreed to the Union and only the people could agree to the break-up of the Union. When the southern States broke away and set up a new nation, the Confederacy (different federation), President Lincoln decided to use force to bring them back into the Union.

The Civil War ended with victory for the North, a stronger Union, the abolition of slavery and the rapid industrialisation of the economy.

The North and South divide during the Civil War

The North and South divide during the Civil War

Activity 1: Research project

Complete a short research project on the American Civil War. First, explore and write down the reasons why the Civil War was fought. Find out three things about the Civil War and write about them.

After you have done some research, write:

  • your main idea or ideas about the topics
  • a short explanation of why they are the main ideas
  • some examples of what happened.

Find a way of illustrating your project: perhaps using a map, the words of a song or a speech, copies of pictures and photographs, and graphs or tables.


Information on the Civil War and related issues can be obtained from an encyclopaedia such as Encarta. Other resources include the following:

Ward, GC 1990, The Civil War: An Illustrated History, Alfred Knopf, New York.
The American Civil War Home Page:

Activity 2: Western Australia votes to secede

The Case of the People of Western Australia

Western Australia was the colony most reluctant to join the Australian Federation. Even after it had joined, some feeling remained that the State was not benefiting from federation. In 1906 the following motion was put in the Western Australian Parliament:

That the Union of Western Australia with the other States in the Commonwealth of Australia has proved detrimental to [bad for] the best interests of this State, and that the time has arrived for placing before the people the question of withdrawing from such union.

The motion was passed by both Houses of Parliament, but nothing happened for nearly thirty years. In 1933 a referendum was held in Western Australia about whether the State should remain in the Commonwealth. There were 138,653 votes in favour of leaving the Commonwealth and 70,706 votes for remaining a part of it.

This was a great victory for the secession movement. The plan of the secessionists was to leave the Commonwealth of Australia, but not the British Empire. They wanted, like Australia and New Zealand, to be a self-governing dominion within the Empire. From 1930 they called their movement the Dominion Movement.

The secessionists knew that the Australian Government would not agree to their leaving. So they did not even ask the Commonwealth Government. Instead they sent a petition to the British Parliament asking it to separate them from Australia. Since it was the British Parliament which had passed the Commonwealth Constitution, it could theoretically change that law and allow Western Australia to leave the Union.

An extract from an Act requesting the secession of Western Australia from the Federal Commonwealth, 1934

An extract from an Act requesting the secession of Western Australia from the Federal Commonwealth, 1934
National Archives of Australia A432/87, 1933/1902 - Secession of Western Australia from the Commonwealth.

To persuade the British Parliament, the secessionists put all their arguments into a book called The Case of the People of Western Australia. Its chief arguments were:

  • The Commonwealth policy of high tariffs on imports increased costs in Western Australia, a primary producing state, and only helped the factories of Sydney and Melbourne.
  • Because of free trade between the States, manufactured goods from the east were sent to the west, making it harder to establish local industry.
  • Western Australia was geographically separate from the rest of Australia. It took 10 days by sea and four and a half days by rail to get from Perth to Sydney. Prime ministers and ministers rarely came to Western Australia and a parliament 2,400 miles (nearly 4,000 kilometres) away could not know or understand Western Australian needs.
  • Western Australia covered one-third of Australia in area, but it had only one-fifteenth of the membership of the House of Representatives. Sydney and Melbourne together returned 24 members, only three less than the total from South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia.
  • The money spent on the building of Canberra had been of benefit only to New South Wales and Victoria.

A delegation from Western Australia took the petition and 'The Case' to London. A committee of the British Parliament was appointed to consider whether the petition should be received. It decided not to receive it because to do so would interfere in the internal affairs of Australia. The path to change was blocked. One member of the delegation said that Western Australia had no alternative now but to use force, but the head of the delegation opposed this view.

Some of the secessionists said that Western Australia should just act as if it were independent: Commonwealth taxes should not be paid and a volunteer force should be formed to stop Commonwealth officials collecting tariffs at Fremantle. But no moves of this sort were made.

The demand for secession reached its peak during the 1930s in the middle of the Great Depression. As the economy improved, the demand for secession lessened.

The Commonwealth Government had been very worried about Western Australia's plans. It fought against them by:

  • sending speakers to Western Australia before the referendum vote was taken (they were often howled down)
  • preparing a book, The Case for Union, and sending it free to every elector in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania
  • using its influence in London to stop the British Parliament accepting the Western Australian petition
  • setting up the Interstate Commission to allot special financial aid to the smaller States
  • holding a Federal Cabinet meeting in Perth.

2a If a state within a federation secedes, it breaks away to form its own nation.

  • Which of the arguments used by Western Australia in The Case of the People of Western Australia is similar to the arguments used in the United States (by the South) against the North?
  • Why does this 'Case', when dealing with parliamentary representation, refer only to the House of Representatives?
  • Which of these arguments would not apply today? Which might still apply?

2b Answer the following questions.

  • Why do you think Western Australians did not simply declare that they were independent?
  • Why do you think The Case for Union was sent to electors in South Australia and Tasmania as well as Western Australia?
  • How was this crisis and the way it was handled different from the crisis before the Civil War in the United States? Consider:
    -   the importance of the issues in dispute
    -   the relative power of the two sides
    -   the effect of Australia being part of the British Empire.

ESL activities

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