Australian micro nations

PRINCIPALITY OF HUTT RIVER, Australia – “Some people do think that Hutt River is really a new, young country, but I get a lot of German tourists through here, and I take pride in telling them that Hutt River is not really a new, young country.

“It’s quite an old country. Germany’s just celebrated its 20th year,” said Leonard Casley, referring to unified Germany as he stood just a head taller than a bust of himself, his right arm draped over the replica of the crown of his own head. “We’ve celebrated our 40th year.”

Behind him, inside a red-brick gazebo-like structure where a foot-long lizard had sought shelter from the beating sun, a laminated and framed letter from the Australian tax authorities to Casley read that he had “been deemed to be a non-resident of Australia for income-tax purposes.” As the sign next to it proclaimed, “Welcome to the Principality of Hutt River.” At 40 years, Hutt River is the oldest micro nation in Australia, sprawling over 7,487 hectares of farmland in this dusty, windswept slice of Western Australia. Back then, angered about a government quota on wheat, Casley, now 85 and still the leader, took his land and broke away from the rest of Australia. The apparent secession gave birth not only to this principality but, tapping into Australia’s convict history and an enduring popular disdain for central authority, also inspired a proliferation of new micro nations across the country.

Neither the state nor federal government has recognized Hutt River as a sovereign nation. But over the decades, Casley has nimbly wielded both well-known and obscure laws – even declaring war against Australia at one point – to hold the authorities at bay. Tax officials have not denied Casley’s assertion, widely reported in the Australian news media over the years, that he has never paid taxes on business conducted inside Hutt River. Casley acknowledges, though, that he has paid annual “gifts” to the local government.

Besides the farming he and his children engage in, Casley turned Hutt River into a curious attraction visited by thousands of tourists a year. These days, busloads of mostly young backpackers find their way along the gravel roads leading to the capital of Casley’s nation, which he calls Nain. There, at the government office, visitors buy visas and have their passports stamped by none other than Casley, both for entry and exit at the same time.

“Now you’re legally in the country,” Casley said, stamping one passport. “Are you departing today?” he said in the next breath as the exit stamp came down. He acknowledged later that there was no motel anyway in Hutt River, population 20.

Still, he hastened to add, some 13,000 people had acquired citizenship in Hutt River, which allows dual citizenship. Some live abroad and act as diplomatic envoys, scoring invitations overseas for Casley, as indicated by the many photographs, newspaper clippings and copies of official documents displayed in a large room serving as a ministry of foreign affairs. Only emphysema recently prevented him from accepting invitations to visit Ivory Coast and Benin he said.

Over the years, Hutt River has issued its own currency and stamps, featuring portraits of Casley and his wife, Shirley. As heads of a principality, Casley, known formally as His Majesty Prince Leonard I of Hutt, and Shirley Casley, Her Royal Highness Princess Shirley of Hutt, have also bestowed knighthoods on loyal subjects. How many exactly, Casley could not recall.

The attention that Hutt River has drawn over the years has led to the emergence of more than a dozen copycats across Australia. The self-styled breakaway nations – a phenomenon that came to be known as micro nations long after Casley’s claim of independence – remain unrecognized by Australia or any other nation, though they are embraced by other micro nations. Casley, though, rejected being linked to other micro nations. Hutt River, he insisted, qualified as a real, economically independent nation, unlike the other pretenders.

“I know one chap, when he was younger, he seceded; I think it was his bedroom he seceded with. I’m not going to link up with these.”

What Casley conceded, however, was that Australia’s soft spot for rebellious figures who thumb their noses at central authority had allowed him to survive all these decades. The state of Western Australia itself tried to secede from the rest of Australia in the 1930s; today, a core part of the state’s identity is shaped by the belief that Western Australia’s vast natural resources and small population could easily allow it to go it alone.

In Australia, the micro nation phenomenon has drawn academic research.

But many officials in Western Australia, some quite high up, and even nationally in Australia are happy to play out the myth of Hutt River’s sovereignty – attending functions, returning correspondence, abandoning the claim for tax, said Judy Lattas, who is a sociologist at Macquarie University and led a conference on micronationalism in Sydney last year.

How about succession? Casley’s oldest son lies in waiting as the crown prince, though none of Casley’s children have exhibited, publicly at least, their father’s determination and showmanship.

The sons really know all about it, Casley said. “Some of them might do it better than I. None of us are irreplaceable. The world still goes on.”

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