Stamps, swans and state rights!

From the very first some Western Australians viewed being part of the federation family with suspicion. The colony’s booming mining towns strongly supported the move to nationhood, but landholders in more settled districts remained unconvinced. As early as 1903 it seemed their worst fears of loss of rights and identity might have been confirmed.

In June 1903, two years after federation, the Commonwealth printed a new series of high-value stamps for use in Western Australia. To some staunch ‘sandgropers’, these stamps were an insult to the colony’s proud history.

The Premier of Western Australia, Walter James, had campaigned for federation. But in a letter to Prime Minister Barton he expressed his grave concern that not only had his state’s name been wrongly printed as ‘West

The Commonwealth had taken over responsibility for the postal services, but until 1910 separate stamps were needed for each state. Rather than create new stamps from scratch, existing Victorian designs were modified for the new high-value series. ‘Western Australia’ simply would not fit, explained the government printer.

The Premier was not satisfied, and reminded the Prime Minister that the swan had formed part of the Western Australian stamp from the very first issue, and ‘has very close associations with the lives of all of us’.

In fact the swan remained on lesser value stamps, but for how long? The Premier’s complaints may have been aimed towards the future, when the Commonwealth would begin to design and issue stamps for the whole of the nation. Would federation mean the extinction of the state’s beloved emblem?

The costs and benefits of federation continued to be debated in Western Australia. In 1933, in the grip of the Great Depression, the state voted by a two to one majority to secede from Australia.

Although Western Australia’s petition to secede was not accepted by the British parliament, the balance of state and federal powers remains a key talking point in the state’s newspapers, pubs, clubs and boardrooms.

As for the swan, its time was limited. When the first Commonwealth stamp was issued in 1913, it featured an animal that represented the whole of Australia – the kangaroo!

Australia’ on the stamps, but Western Australia’s beloved emblem – the swan – was missing altogether!
  • read caption below
    Premier of WA to the Prime Minister
    12 June 1903
  • read caption below
    PMG to Secretary of External Affairs
    1 July 1903
  • read caption below
    Premier of WA to the Prime Minister
    14 July 1903
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017