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2004 words

Death, taxes and the strange history of rebel micronations

Former One Nation senator Rod Culleton’s attempt to unite “sovereign citizens” recalls earlier efforts to step outside Australian law

Leonard Casley, known as Prince Leonard, inspecting local produce in the self-declared Principality of Hutt River in 2004. Marc Dozier/Hemis/Alamy

Harry Hobbs 18 February 2021

Leonard Casley, known as Prince Leonard, inspecting local produce in the self-declared Principality of Hutt River in 2004. Marc Dozier/Hemis/Alamy

Just after 5pm on Friday 2 December 1977, Prince Leonard Casley of the Principality of Hutt River sent a telegram to Sir John Kerr, the governor-general of Australia. The contents seemed ominous.

“Confirming my letter of 28th November re your Governments [sic] lack of respect of the laws not only on my people but also on people of your own country…” wrote Leonard, “it is my official responsibility to declare that a state of war now exists between our respective countries and diplomatic relations are at this time now severed.”

With a permanent population of fewer than twenty, no standing army, and its territory entirely enclosed by the state of Western Australia, Leonard’s seventy-five square kilometre principality was unprepared for war. Two days later, a second telegram informed Kerr “that the state of war between our countries has now ceased.”

The governor-general responded to neither correspondence, but Prince Leonard nonetheless claimed victory. According to his (inaccurate) reading of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, a nation should show full respect to a nation it has failed to defeat in war. The principality was undefeated, so Australia must recognise its sovereignty.

The Principality of Hutt River had emerged six years earlier from a dispute over a wheat harvest. In 1969, Casley was preparing to harvest around 6000 acres of wheat on his property at Yallabatharra, about 500 kilometres north of Perth. Concerns about an oversupply had led the state’s Wheat Board to issue quotas, though, so Casley was only allowed to sell one hundred acres worth of wheat. When his complaints to the governor, the premier and the Wheat Board fell on deaf ears, he took radical action.

On 21 April 1970, Casley served a formal notice of secession to the Australian government, contending that the Magna Carta permits individuals threatened with loss of economic livelihood to form a “self-preservation government.” After observing what he considered a legally required two-year notice period, Casley declared the new nation on 21 April 1972, investing himself as His Royal Highness Prince Leonard I of Hutt.

No such right exists under the Magna Carta, and Australia never recognised the sovereignty of the Principality of Hutt River. But Casley’s move reveals how a combination of frustration with regulation and anxiety over the ability to secure a safe and prosperous life for one’s family can set people on a curious path. Some, like Prince Leonard, try to create their own micronation. Others might become sovereign citizens.

Generally led by committed and eccentric individuals, micronations lack a legal basis yet mimic the actions of nation-states. They draft constitutions, issue coins, print stamps, adopt national anthems and invest their leaders with royal titles. Sometimes they even declare war on sovereign states. They reflect their founders’ quirks, passions and desire for attention.

Some are speculative experiments in statehood — utopian examples of how nations could or should be organised. Others are established in university dorm rooms for personal entertainment. Where a town or small community supports the idea, micronationalism can even promote tourism and deliver an economic boost. What better way to attract visitors to your city than by hosting independence celebrations?

Micronations can be established for specific political reasons. The Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands was founded in 2004 in protest at Australian legislation banning same-sex marriage. Emperor Dale Anderson sailed to the uninhabited Pacific island of Cato, east of the Great Barrier Reef, planted a flag, issued a declaration of independence and laid a memorial plaque. As he explained, statehood might allow LGBTQI people access to an international court in order to “give gay people a voice on the international stage.” The kingdom dissolved in 2017 following the passing of Australia’s marriage-equality legislation.

More often, micronations emerge from a dispute with local government. The Principality of Wy, in the North Sydney suburb of Mosman, owes its existence to an eleven-year dispute with the council over the construction of a driveway. It came into being in November 2004 when Prince Paul, dressed in full regalia at a ceremony at Mosman Town Hall, presented a declaration of independence to the mayor of Mosman. Although a change in the local environment plan in 2012 facilitated the construction of the driveway, Prince Paul maintains the principality “as a beacon of hope to all those oppressed by bureaucracy.”

Light-hearted acts of resistance can take on a momentum of their own. In 1989, when the boundaries of New Zealand’s regional councils were redrawn, the revised maps moved the forty-person township of Whangamōmona from the Taranaki Region into the Manawatu-Wanganui Region.

Upset about potentially having to play rugby for their rivals, residents decided to secede from New Zealand. Initially their declaration of a republic, on 1 November 1989, was a symbolic act aimed at drawing political and media attention to their concerns through humour. But their motivation has shifted over time. Republic Day is now commemorated biennially in January, attracting thousands of visitors. Revealing the spirit in which secession was undertaken, elected presidents have included a goat and a poodle. Like all democratic elections, controversy is never far from the surface, with some residents speculating that Billy Gumboot (the goat) secured victory only after eating his opponent’s ballots.

All nations need territory. Because most land is already claimed, micronations must look further afield — some even as far as Antarctica. The Grand Duchy of Westarctica asserts its sovereignty on the basis of a supposed loophole in the Antarctic Treaty. As Grand Duke Travis McHenry explains, while the treaty precludes nations from making territorial claims, it doesn’t prohibit claims made by individuals.

Discovering that Marie Byrd Land, an uninhabited 1.6 million square kilometre parcel of land between the Ross Ice Shelf and the Ross Sea had not been claimed by any state, McHenry claimed it for himself, and then established a state to rule over the land. Although McHenry has written to each of the twelve original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty announcing his formal claim, he has never received a response.

McHenry’s approach is common among micronations. Although their independence has no legal basis, they seek the appearance of lawfulness. Instead of unilaterally declaring independence, they claim to draw on a range of legal documents to make their case. They inform government officials, foreign states and even the United Nations of their actions, which they justify under their (incorrect) interpretations of domestic and international law.

In contrast to true secessionist movements, micronations are generally considered trivial. This may be because a micronation lacks a foundation in domestic and international law for its claim to independence. It may also be because micronations don’t generally pose a security threat.

Sovereign citizens are a different story. This movement, made up of loose groups of individuals, shares an antagonism towards government and a convoluted and conspiratorial interpretation of the law. Estimated to number around 300,000 people in the United States alone, the movement emerged in the 1990s out of the far-right militia movement. It gained increasing attention during the global financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Understanding the precise beliefs of sovereign citizens is difficult. They have no leader or single set of views, and most adherents draw their information from YouTube videos. Nonetheless, they all believe that governments, including Australia’s, are illegitimate corporations.

Sovereign citizens believe that the Magna Carta, the UN Declaration of Human Rights and other legal instruments grant people a right to choose not to accept government authority. By using particular words or phrases drawn from these documents, people can signal that they do not consent to the law and can’t be required to pay fines, carry a driver’s licence or, during the pandemic, wear masks.

Their arguments obviously don’t stand up legally. As Justice James Judd of the Supreme Court of Victoria noted in a 2012 case, claims by sovereign citizens are often “comprised of random, almost incomprehensible, statements, propositions, quotations, argument and references to other material… lifted from other documents and randomly pasted into the pleading.” No claim of this type has ever been upheld in a state-recognised court.

In some ways, sovereign citizens appear similar to the proponents of micronations. Although both misread and misunderstand the law, they try to base their claims in law, relying on selective and spurious readings of legal texts to contest state authority and assert their own claims. But they also differ in important respects.

First, sovereign citizens challenge state authority without trying to secede and establish their own country. Their aim is to free themselves from taxation, licensing or government regulation of any sort. They have no desire to design flags or compose national anthems.

Second, their historical connections with far-right militia groups in the United States mean that sovereign citizens can be dangerous and confrontational. The FBI has characterised sovereign citizens as “anti-government extremists” and classified the movement as a “domestic terrorist threat.”

Most infamously, sovereign citizen Terry Nichols was convicted of conspiring with Timothy McVeigh in the planning and preparation of the truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which claimed the lives of 168 people. In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that at least six law enforcement officers had been murdered by sovereign citizens since 2005.

There is no record of a sovereign citizen’s killing anyone in Australia. In 2015, though, NSW police reported that sovereign citizens had made several violent threats; the movement, they concluded, was a potential terrorism threat. Last year a Victorian police officer was assaulted by a sovereign citizen who had refused to wear a mask.

Just this week, reports emerged that sovereign citizens were seeking to build electoral support among Indigenous communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Perhaps that push arises from a mistaken view that Indigenous communities are micronations — a view that might have been reinforced when members of the Yidindji nation, led by Murrumu Walubara Yidindji, renounced their legal ties to Australia in 2014 and announced the formation of the Sovereign Yidindji Government, a nation that “already existed” but Australia “failed to notice.”

The Yidindji nation operates under Yidindji tribal law around Cairns in Queensland. It produces its own identity documents, including driver’s licences and licence plates, and is considering establishing its own passports and currency. At times, Murrumu has faced complications travelling with Yidindji documentation on lands claimed by Australia.

Australia doesn’t recognise the Sovereign Yidindji Government, but that doesn’t mean it is a micronation. Indigenous nations do much more than perform or mimic acts of sovereignty. Their claim to sovereignty is much more deeply rooted, and is accepted in international law and in countries like the United States, Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand. Even if Australian law doesn’t recognise their inherent sovereignty, their claim is very different from that of micronations.

Although the Australian government closely monitors sovereign citizens, it generally leaves micronations alone — provided they follow the ordinary laws of the land. The Principality of Hutt River, for example, survived as what National Geographic called “the second largest country in Australia” for fifty years through creative means. Although it paid council rates each year, Casley considered that to be foreign aid.

Hutt River was not able to avoid the taxman forever, though. Despite protestations, Australian courts have repeatedly described the province’s argument that it isn’t part of Australia, and isn’t subject to Australian tax laws, as “fatuous, frivolous and vexatious” or, more bluntly, “gobbledygook.” As Justice Le Miere of the WA Supreme Court noted in 2017, “Anyone can declare themselves a sovereign in their own home but they cannot ignore the laws of Australia or not pay tax.”

After fifty years, with financial challenges becoming overwhelming, the Principality of Hutt River is coming to an end. It closed its borders and public offices in January 2020, citing declining agricultural revenue, falling tourist numbers and the increasing costs involved in running a small country. Following Prince Leonard’s death in 2019, his youngest son, Prince Graeme, decided to sell the farm to pay a $3 million tax bill. It seems that even micronations can’t avoid those two certainties in life: death and taxes. •

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