Global health pandemics, it would seem, make us reach for local remedies and cling to local identities. As state borders have closed and parochialism has increased, COVID-19 has made Australians more aware of their federal system of government than they have been for a long time.  In this piece about the 1919 Spanish influenza outbreak, Carolyn Holbrook finds that federal relations were even more acrimonious than they are now.


WA Premier Mark McGowan,

West Australian Premier Mark McGowan’s hard-line approach to the COVID-19 pandemic has won him many supporters in the West. A September People’s Voice poll (paywalled) gave McGowan a staggering 91 per approval rating. The same poll indicated that 92 per cent of those surveyed approved of his hard border policy. Support for closed borders had dropped in a more recent Utting Research poll (paywalled), but remained high at 77 per cent. Premier McGowan is probably unaware, but his uncompromising approach echoes that of another West Australian politician, Hal Colebatch, who steered the state through the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1919.

Colebatch was acting leader in January 1919, when Premier Henry Lefroy travelled to the Premiers’ Conference in Melbourne. Lefroy was unaware that he was heading into the eye of the storm. Rumours about an outbreak of Spanish influenza had been spreading through Melbourne since early January.[1] Victoria’s Chief Health Officer and the Commonwealth Director of Quarantine jumped on the rumours and assured the public that the Spanish flu had not broken through the country’s maritime quarantine border.

Portrait of Sir Hal Colebatch (cropped).jpg
H.P. Colebatch, Premier of Western Australia, 17 April-17 May 1919

Eventually, the head of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Dr Ralph McMeekin, became so concerned about the number of cases he was treating and the refusal of authorities to admit that the virus had escaped quarantine, that he broke ranks and spoke directly to the press.[2]

After weeks of denial and obfuscation, Victorian officials admitted on Monday 28 January that their state was infected with pneumonic influenza.[3] By that time, the virus had already escaped into New South Wales, which had declared itself infected the previous day.

The day before Victoria made an official notification that it was infected, the recently established trans-continental train service had left Melbourne for Western Australia. Acting Premier Colebatch instructed his chief health officer, Dr Everitt Atkinson, to quarantine the train in order to ensure that seven days would elapse before passengers from Victoria disembarked in Western Australia.[4]

Two more trains were held up at Parkeston, east of Kalgoorlie, so their passengers could be quarantined. Colebatch intended to accommodate the passengers in tents and marquees provided by military authorities. When strong winds blew down the tents, state health officials used the train’s dining and sleeping cars to house quarantined staff and passengers.[5]

The acting prime minister William Watt professed outrage upon news of Colebatch’s decision to ‘seize’ the transcontinental train. While Colebatch exchanged terse messages with Watt, Henry Lefroy remained holed up in Melbourne. He was unable to find a passage home due to the cancellation of the inter-continental train and a chronic shortage of shipping.

Lefroy was in a difficult position; he was being pressured by Watt to resume the train service and harried daily by stranded Western Australians demanding he get them home. He described to a colleague the ‘awful situation … four hundred people hammering at my door and I am powerless’.[6]

Colebatch was resolute in the face of pressure from Watt and Lefroy to resume the trans-continental train service. He condemned the acting prime minister’s ‘monstrous action’ in blaming Western Australia for ‘seizing’ the train, rather than Victoria for denying it was infected for so long.[7]

Image credit: National Museum of Australia. 2002.0047.0007

In response to Lefroy’s pleadings to let the train resume so he and others could get home, the acting premier reminded him of the intense hostility in the West towards the Commonwealth and Victoria. The Fremantle Times newspaper estimated that 95 per cent of West Australians would support secession if a vote were held immediately.[8] The West Australian newspaper thought the quarrel over the trans-Australian railway was ‘another instance, added to not a few prior examples, of the doubtful wisdom of entrusting too much power to a central Government’.[9]

The never-subtle Sunday Times labelled William Watt a ‘jumped-up jack-in-office’ and ‘tin-pot tyrant’. ‘How long will the West Australian people suffer the intolerable insolence of these elected persons in the East?’, the paper asked.[10]

Colebatch was the toast of the West. He replaced Lefroy as premier on 17 April 1919. But things quickly turned sour. After a confrontation between union and non-union labour at Fremantle wharf led to the death of a man at the hands of the police, Colebatch’s fortunes waned. He resigned on 17 May, after exactly one month as premier; the shortest term in the state’s history.

Spanish influenza did eventually penetrate WA’s borders. The virus was detected in Gwalia, Leonora and Perth in June 1919. But the delay in onset probably diluted its virulence. Of the 12,000 Australians who died from Spanish influenza; less than 650 were West Australians.

WA emerged from the Spanish influenza crisis feeling more suspicious and resentful of the eastern states and the Commonwealth, and more confident of its distinctiveness and its capacity to handle a crisis.[11]

Western Australians are likely drawing similar lessons from COVID-19, as Melbourne emerges from a second wave and Brisbane and Sydney manage virus spot fires.

As Hal Colebatch learned—albeit briefly—in 1919, border closures and defiance in the face of an over-reaching central government make great politics. Annastacia Palaszczuk’s famous election victory a few weeks ago in Queensland is probably the comparison that McGowan would prefer to make. He certainly looks likely to be around for a lot longer than the last premier who led Western Australia through a pandemic.


[1] It is unclear precisely when the disease appeared in Melbourne. The Medical Journal of Australia claimed the first cases were diagnosed in Melbourne on 9 January 1919, Medical Journal of Australia, 23 August 1919, p. 161. Cumpston also identifies 9 January 1919 as the date of the ‘first known case’, The Health of the People: A Study in Federalism, Roebuck, Canberra, 1978, p. 36. A senior honorary physician at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, Alex Lewers, described a trio of suspicious cases in November 1918, before a spate of cases in ‘early January’ 1919, Medical Journal of Australia, 30 August 1919, p. 168. Lewers contacted the chief health officer of Victoria, Edward Robertson, who told Lewers that no cases had been reported, Medical Journal of Australia, 30 August 1919, p. 168. Cases of ‘influenzal pneumonia’ had appeared in Melbourne on 19 January, Medical Journal of Australia, 30 August 1919, p. 168.

[2] Melbourne Argus, 23 January 1919, p. 7.

[3] Medical Journal of Australia, 1 February 1919, p. 92.

[4] West Australian, 11 February 1919, p. 5.

[5] R.C. Everitt Atkinson, Report for the Two Years Ending 31st December 1919 upon Medical, Health, Factories and Early Closing Departments, Perth, West Australian Government, 1920, p. 10; Telegram from Hal Colebatch to Henry Lefroy, 30 January 1919, SROWA: S36 Cons1496 1919/0001 Premiers & Ministers Conference Melbourne Jan 1919.

[6] Telegram from H.P. Colebatch to Henry Lefroy, 8 February 1919, SROWA: S36 Cons1496 1919/0001 Premiers & Ministers Conference Melbourne Jan 1919.

[7] Telegram from H.P. Colebatch to W.A. Watt, 4 February 1919, NAA: A2, 1919/1302—Influenza Epidemic Commonwealth Regulations; West Australian, 5 February 1919, p. 7.

[8] Fremantle Times, 14 March 1919, p. 2.

[9] West Australian, 6 February 1919, p. 4.

[10] Perth Sunday Times, 9 February 1919, p. 7.

[11] Bev Blackwell, Western Isolation: The Perth Experience of the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic, p. 56.

Carolyn Holbrook
Carolyn Holbrook

Dr Carolyn Holbrook is a historian at Deakin University in Melbourne and the Director of Australian Policy and History. She is writing a history of attitudes to the federation since 1901. This research is sponsored by the Australian Research Council, DE190100677. Contact: