The day I traveled into a political quagmire and met the ‘enigma’ that is Price Leonard.
How many states make up Australia? 8 you might answer. New South Wales, Western Australia, Tasmania, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory, and the Northern Territory. But that would be wrong. The latter two are merely ‘territories’ whose legislative powers can be greatly curbed by the states and the Commonwealth Parliament. Even though the Northern Territory vastly exceeds the area of Victoria and Tasmania combined. Western Australia actually lobbied the British government to recognise their secession from the Australian Commonwealth in 1933, aiming to enter the British Empire as a sovereign entity but the Brits refused to intervene. Australia is full of quirks in its historically ramshackle governance and the Principality of Hutt River is the inevitable result.
Fight the power!
When the Western Australian government tried to impose unfavourable grain tariffs across the state many farmers were up in arms. In 1970 a certain Leonard Casley decided to push the issue of the tariff’s legality by announcing the secession from the Australian Commonwealth of his and his associates’ farmland along the Hutt River, which is about 18,500 acres of land 595km north of Perth, centred on the hamlet of Nain. They stressed their allegiance to the British crown at all times but regarded Western Australia’s incorporation to Australia to be illegitimate, because it was never incorporated as a colony, which meant that they (the state legislature) held no power over this decision. When the Commonwealth government failed to challenge the secession within the legal two year period the Hutt River Province (as it was known then) claimed de facto secession.
Things swiftly got nasty and various threats of prosecution to Casley led him to claim the title of ‘Prince’, but with loyalty to Queen Elizabeth II, in order to legitimately avoid charges of treason. Ever since then the Hutt River Principality has existed as an untested and wonderful oddity.
They mint their own coins from time to time. The Australian postal service accepts Hutt River stamps. Until recently you could incorporate a company in Hong Kong based at Hutt River. Hutt River passports have been known to pass muster at ‘real’ international borders, and you can have your passport stamped at the Hutt River immigration desk, by His Majesty Prince Leonard I of Hutt, for a $2 charge. In fact there was a recent case of fraud where an Iranian, Pakistani and French group tried to defraud land investors by posing as representatives of the Principality, so the recognition of Hutt is clearly wide-ranging.
Visiting the Principality of Hutt River
There are only 30 full time residents of the Province, they tend to the crops and manage the trickles of tourists who come to explore one of the world’s only unchallenged micronations. According to Wikipedia there are 13,000-18,000 overseas citizens of Hutt River. Presumably devoted advocates of decentralisation and the concept of the micronation. Something I very much approve of if it can be made to be viable.
So, with that background I arrived at the Principality wondering what on earth to expect. Crackpot patriarch overlooking his impoverished family in the name of a hopeful ideal, or resolute and defiant people still trying to make a point that’s become a little muddled over the decades. Well as it turns out neither are exactly true, or even close.
I was traveling on a tour from Perth to Exmouth, and back again, with a dozen other backpackers and this was one of the final scheduled points of interest. Our bus crossed the uncontrolled border between Western Australia and the Principality of Hutt River and trundled down the unmade road to the small collection of typical outback buildings. It was deathly quiet. Note to potential usurpers: arrive quietly on foot and I fully expect you could install yourself as Prince within an hour, with all opposition crushed. Only 30 residents, but none to be seen anywhere. You can visit between 9-4 each day but they obviously didn’t count on receiving guests that day. They even encourage visitors to camp or caravan there, apparently. Our driver hopped out and entered a building to ask if anyone was around to show us the sights. Soon His Majesty himself appeared and gathered us into the Government Offices.
Prince Leonard was 82 when I met him. He’s still head of state when I write this, 5 years later. I guess that’s what life as an outback farmer does for your constitution. Nevertheless he looked frail. Despite this I honestly felt a little bit awed by him. He stamped all our passports and took great interest in using his UV light to display the myriad watermarks in our multinational tour group’s documentation. He was quick-tongued and seemed fully possessed of the spirit that led him to defy a continent all those years ago. He herded us into the halls of state and we all had our photographs taken with His Majesty. I can’t guess at what the pose was all about but everyone had to perform this little piece of symmetrical theatre.
He graciously answered some inane questions from a few people but we were all numbed and a little bit dumbstruck by how alien this place felt. I bought a set of stamps for my Granddad as he’s something of a philatelist, and also bought a very official looking book about the history and legal status of the
Province Principality. Before I knew it we were off on our tour again, back into Australia and more than a little bit bewildered.
Personally I love the concept that something like this can happen. That something as mighty as the Commonwealth Government of Australia refuses to address the issue for fear that they might actually lose. And I guess that there’s a real chance that they would with the sloppy way the original issue was handled. I tend to believe they will wait for His Majesty to pass away before they strike the Principality off the map but I hope so much that his family elect a strong and fiery new Prince to replace him when the time comes. Judging from the man himself I can imagine that his genes and personality will have passed on to at least one such soul. So, best of luck Hutt River, long may you prosper!