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Constitutional conventions

Convention, 1897Western Australia was a reluctant participant in the Australian Constitutional Conventions of the 1890s. The first major convention to draft a Constitution was in 1890. Economic depression in the eastern colonies and a general loss of interest after early excitement, delayed further progress. Pressure from the Australian Natives' Association and other pro-Federation organisations in Victoria and New South Wales renewed in 1896, leading to sessions of the Australasian Federal Convention in 1897 and 1898 in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. Delegates from all the Australian colonies and New Zealand met to discuss Federation. Western Australia was one of the few colonies to send representatives appointed by the government rather than delegates elected by the people.

But for all of the conferences and meetings called by colonial governments to thrash out an agreement, Western Australians were reluctant to join in the creation of a new Commonwealth so soon after gaining their own representative government. The sentiments expressed by a local resident in the following extract from an 1891 letter to The West Australian sum up the feelings of the majority of colonists on the west coast throughout the 1890s.

"West Australians possess the spirit of nationalism, but when its 'cause' assumes a form involving essential alterations in the nature of the governmental institutions they have but recently acquired, it is little matter for surprise that few of them should be able to accept so heavy a demand upon the sentiment of local ambition ...

"Few would oppose federal action applied to purposes of defence - which in a measure, we are already getting - nor to quarantine and coast lighting. But what rouses the 'hostility' of some is the wide scope of the present federation proposals. Why, they say, for instance, should we hand over our excellent internal post and telegraph service to the care of a Government thousands of miles away and which could not possibly be so closely in touch with local wants and feelings as a Cabinet upon the spot? And why, in particular, should we give to such a Government supreme control over our customs and immigration policy? The terms we obtained for such renouncement might be excellent. But would that make up for a possible serious interference with local trade, production, and settlement on the part of an outside Parliament and Executive, whose interests were divergent from ours? The people of Western Australia feel little, if any, inconvenience from the various tariffs of the eastern colonies, but they conceive that they might sustain not only inconvenience but loss and disturbance of their economy from a common tariff formed upon them by their neighbours. While as for immigration, misgiving tells them that their own special interests would little affect the policy of East Australia if she got the West, in this matter, under her thumb. ...

"...our small population stands in a peculiar position to the federal movement, and the supposed feeling of the people towards it is but what, in the circumstances, might naturally be expected.
"Yours etc.
"Perth, May 15th, 1891"

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