Have you ever wanted to be Queen? Perhaps Grand Poobah? How simple is it to just start your own nation, and is it even legal? In this episode, Dr Harry Hobbs from the University of Technology Sydney is our travel guide through the weird and wonderful world of micronations. Guest James Blackwell, Research Fellow in Indigenous Diplomacies at the Australian National University, uncovers how Australia’s lack of recognition of sovereign states has had serious and ongoing impacts on Indigenous sovereignty and constitutional recognition.
Ginger Gorman (00:03):
Here’s a dinner party conversation starter for you. If you were the head of your very own state, what would you decree?
Speaker 2 (00:13):
There’d be no curfew. I’d do good things for the environment. Oh, I’ll make it a three-day weekend instead of a two-day weekend, because weekends seem to go too fast.
Speaker 3 (00:23):
It would have social housing, like all social housing, and universal basic income. It would also have a national anthem that people would just hum as if they’d forgotten the words to the national anthem.
Speaker 4 (00:37):
I would embed in the culture of the society, love and equality, and that means a complete and utter rejection of violence against women and children and other underrepresented communities. That would make the world better for everyone.
Speaker 5 (00:56):
It’d be called LGBTQI Nation, and I would love to know what it feels like to live in a nation where I am in the majority. Allies like yourself would be more than welcome, but the prevailing agenda would be that you are in an LGBTQI-friendly space.
Ginger Gorman (01:16):
Not to be confused with a microstate like Lichtenstein or Tuvalu, a micronation is a self-declared nation, often an individual or small community who say, ‘Nope, the laws of this land don’t work for us, so we’re starting our own thing.’
Dr Harry Hobbs (01:33):
A micronation performs and mimics acts of sovereignty and statehood but has no legal existence. So there is no basis in law for its existence, in domestic or international law.
Ginger Gorman (01:43):
That’s Harry Hobbs from the Law School at the University of Technology Sydney. He recently co-authored a book with Academy Fellow Professor George Williams called How to Rule Your Own Country: The Weird and Wonderful World of Micronations. Before I read it, I guess I assumed it was a certain kind of personality that declares themselves the leader of their very own country. ‘Fiercely libertarian’ is probably the politest way I can phrase it. But I’ll admit I totally misjudged this one. The more I learn about micronations, the more I respect what some of them are actually trying to do.
Dr Harry Hobbs (02:22):
We’ve all heard of the social contract. By living in a society, we tacitly or expressly or implicitly agree to give up some of our rights in order to live in a safe and prosperous society. And so, for many people who start micronations, they might say, ‘Well, the social contract isn’t working for me.’ And, of course, it doesn’t really exist, the social contract. It doesn’t actually work, right? But micronations founders basically say, ‘Well, I’m trying to opt out and create my own society.’
Ginger Gorman (02:47):
This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country, and today we’re finding out what drives a person to tear up the social contract and start their very own country.
What’s the favorite micronation you’ve come across in your travels?
Dr Harry Hobbs (03:20):
It’s hard to go past the Principality of Hutt River. So, this is a micronation that all Australians should know, if you’re not aware of it. Founded in 1970 in a dispute over a wheat harvest, it was led by Prince Leonard Casley for over 50 years, and the Principality of Hutt River is really famous because it has gone to great lengths to have its sovereignty recognized. In 1977, Prince Leonard declared war on Australia. He’s sending a telegram to the Governor-General, letting him know that hostilities between the two nations had started. The Governor-General never replied to the letter. I don’t think, I haven’t found any evidence that he even bothered sending it to the Prime Minister or the Minister for War or the Defense Department. But two days later, never fear, Prince Leonard telegraphed the Governor-General again and said the hostilities had ended. Peace was now returned between Hutt River and Australia.
Now, the reason why he did this was because he argued, and I think there’s a really strong element of what we might call bush lawyering here, someone who isn’t legally trained but understands legal instruments and reads legal instruments quite literally, his reading of the Geneva Conventions said that a nation must recognize the sovereignty of any other nation undefeated in war. So he said Australia has not defeated the Hutt River, so therefore Australia has to recognize the sovereignty of the Hutt River.
Ginger Gorman (04:34):
And was the sovereignty ever recognised?
Dr Harry Hobbs (04:36):
Of course not, no. That’s not what the Geneva Conventions say, and Australia just completely ignored him.
Ginger Gorman (04:42):
So what’s the goal here? When a person or group goes to such lengths to separate from the country they happen to live in, what point are they trying to make?
Dr Harry Hobbs (04:54):
Micronation founders don’t consider themselves rebels or revolutionaries. They’re not necessarily trying to fight against the government or the King or the Prime Minister to say, ‘You’ve got to recognise my sovereignty and send the army in,’ right? Even though Hutt River tried to declare war on Australia, that’s not really what they’re aiming for. They try to work through law, or at least their own understanding of law. So the first thing you want to do is you want to find a legal principle or legal instrument that supports your succession and independence.
So in Hutt River’s case, they said the Magna Carta gives them a right to form a self-preservation government. When the Western Australian Wheat Board said, ‘You can only harvest X number of bushels of wheat,’ and he said, ‘Well, that’ll send me bankrupt,’ he said, ‘The Magna Carta allows me to form a self-preservation government to preserve my family and my farm, and because Australia wouldn’t reconsider the wheat quota, therefore I’m allowed to create my own country.’
Now, again, it’s not real, it’s not true. He was wrong in law in his argument, but he was trying to work through law, and he wrote to the Queen, he wrote to the Prime Minister, he wrote to the Governor-General, he wrote to the Premier, he wrote to the Governor of WA and said, ‘This is what I’m doing, and I’m doing it all according to your law.’ Now, no one replied because it was obviously ridiculous. But he said, ‘Because you didn’t reply, you acquiesce to my sovereignty.’
Ginger Gorman (06:07):
All right. Say I want to be Princess Ginger, Queen Ginger.
Ginger Gorman (06:10):
We’re sitting here in your lovely office in the centre of Sydney. What if we wanted to set this up as a micronation right now? What would we do?
Dr Harry Hobbs (06:18):
The first thing you want to do is you need to find a supposed legal basis, right? And so that’s the first thing. What’s the loophole that you’re looking for? One of my favorite ones is from Antarctica. The Grand Duchy of Westarctica, the leader, Grand Duke Travis, says that he found a loophole in the Antarctic Treaty. He said the Antarctic Treaty, which freezes sovereign claims and says no state can claim Antarctica because we want to keep it as a common resource for all mankind, he says, ‘Well, it says no states can claim. It doesn’t say anything about no people or no person.’ And he says, ‘Well, I’ll claim it, and then I’ll create a state.’
So that’s an example of using the law, or trying to find a loophole, right? Once you do that, you write to the Prime Minister, you might write to the Leader of the Opposition. You could write to the Governor-General, and maybe King Charles as well, and say, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ You wait for their response. If they don’t respond, they’ve acquiesced in your sovereignty. If they do respond, then you’ve got them on the hook, right? Then you can engage with them, and you’ve already got involved in diplomatic relations.
Ginger Gorman (07:11):
But you still have to do things like pay tax, abide by the laws of the Commonwealth. You can’t just set up a micronation, have your own currency, have your own stamps and just say, ‘Here we are.’
Dr Harry Hobbs (07:22):
So you do all that, obviously. You make your own stamps, you make your own constitution, you design a national flag, you do all these wonderful things that states do, right? You need to act like a state. So that’s really important. You need to look like a state, act like a state. Now, of course, Australia will say, ‘Well, we don’t recognise your sovereignty, so you still need to pay tax,’ and that becomes a challenge, right? Now, unfortunately, legally, you can’t get around that, but perhaps you decide that you want to pay foreign aid to your neighbour, and it just so happens that the foreign aid you decide to pay each year corresponds neatly with the tax that the ATO says you owe.
Ginger Gorman (07:50):
For some micronation leaders, the point they’re making is that these notions of borders, countries, government, democracy, in a way, they sort of are just concepts that most of us go along with.
Dr Harry Hobbs (08:05):
Statehood is really just a political construct. There’s not really any international law around what a state is or isn’t. There’s a little bit, the Montevideo Convention is the most famous set out or outline of what a state is, but it’s pretty sparse in its text. It says you need to have territory, you need to have a population, you need to have a government, and you need to be able to enter into diplomatic relations with other governments. But micronations do all four of those things, don’t they? They have a territory, they have population, and they form a government, often around the emperor or king or the person who wants to get involved, and they’re constantly talking to other states trying to get recognition.
So the Montevideo Convention doesn’t really work necessarily in terms of what is and what isn’t a state. There are also other political communities that are clearly state-like but aren’t recognized as states, and Taiwan is the best example here. Australia doesn’t say Taiwan is a state, and this is because mainland China says Taiwan is an integral part of China, and therefore if you want to have relations with us, you have to say Taiwan is not a state. So statehood ultimately comes down to politics, right? So the micronations probably are saying, or often some of them might say, ‘If I try hard enough and long enough, maybe the politics will change and Australia will recognise me.’
Ginger Gorman (09:11):
So what motivates people to start a micronation?
Dr Harry Hobbs (09:15):
You often think micronations are someone having a dispute with their local council, right? There’s a planning application that’s denied, or there’s some sort of land use problem, or the bins aren’t getting picked up, and someone, usually a man, is getting very upset about this and decides, ‘Bugger it. I’m deciding to secede and create my own country.’ And there are a lot of those. There are a lot of people who create micronations in a dispute with local government, but that’s not the whole story. There’s a whole range of reasons why people do it.
There are environmental reasons. You know, what better way is there to draw attention to your cause than to create a country? So there are some famous examples from the North Sea off the coast of Ireland, Scotland, and England. There’s a famous example in New Zealand as well, where a micronation was established to draw political and media attention to a development of an aluminum smelter that was going to destroy a small town and a small community. This is the town of Aramoana outside Dunedin. They knew that in a battle between a mining company and a small town, the mining company always wins. So they thought, how do we change the dynamics here? How do we change the game? And they said, ‘If we create our own country and secede and print stamps, set out border posts, these sorts of things, have a traveling embassy, we can draw political and media attention to our cause.’ And it succeeded. They got so much support throughout the whole country of New Zealand that the mining company eventually said, ‘Look, we can’t do this anymore. This is going to look terrible for us, so we’re out.’
You can do it for tourism. What better way to get people visiting your small town or community and spending money on paraphernalia of statehood, right, than have an Independence Day, or have a Republic Day? There was a micronations Olympics that was established and ran for many years. It was run out of Nevada, primarily, where the Republic of Molossia exists.
Ginger Gorman (10:48):
It’s just blowing my mind hearing this, that there was a micronations Olympics.
Dr Harry Hobbs (10:53):
The Hutt River was invited to attend, and they said, ‘Why would we attend? We want to compete in the real Olympics. We’re a real state that just hasn’t been recognised yet.’
Ginger Gorman (11:01):
There’s almost a kind of cosplay.
Dr Harry Hobbs (11:03):
Yeah, for many cases, it can be like a live-action role play, where you can play a king or play an emperor. And so there’s not just the micronations Olympics. There are micronation conventions all round the world as well. There was one in Las Vegas a few months ago, and they engaged in all the diplomatic rituals you would think at any congress or at a United Nations, where they sign treaties, they pose for photographs, they issue declarations. So in that sense, it is a live-action role play or cosplay where people can be a kingdom or be a country.
Ginger Gorman (11:32):
So there’s an element of fun here. I imagine some people are drawn to micronations the way that others are drawn to Comic-Con or fan fiction. Society tells us what’s normal. Some of us want to buck trends and be a bit weird, and in doing so, we find a community of other trend-buckers. But sometimes, when society says what’s normal and when a government imposes laws to enforce that so-called normality, the people who don’t fit the mould are left with very few options. That’s how the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands was born.
Dr Harry Hobbs (12:08):
At the time, Australian law just said that a marriage was the union between two people. A couple of states in the United States, and I think the Netherlands as well had recognised same-sex marriage. And so, the question was, well, if Australians got married in the Netherlands, or in Maine in America, and they came back to Australia, would those marriages be recognised? And the government said, ‘We need to change the law.’ And so, the John Howard government changed the law and said, ‘No, marriage has to be between two people of the opposite sex.’
Now, of course, not everyone was very happy with that decision. A couple of activists from Queensland sailed east of the Great Barrier Reef to Cato Island and planted a rainbow flag and issued a declaration of sovereignty of the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Corals Sea Islands. The reason for this was that they wanted to draw political attention to this issue, and they wanted to say, essentially, argue their case to the international community and say Australia, not just when it comes to marriage laws, but a whole range of other laws relating to superannuation entitlements, relating to access when your partner is ill in hospital, these sorts of laws all discriminated against gay and lesbian people. And they said, ‘This is a way that we can speak to the international community and try and get some pressure on Australia to change its laws.’ And it succeeded, right?
Micronations act in the real world, even if they have no legal existence, right? So, the Principality of Wy and the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands had no legal existence. They didn’t exist in law, but they existed in fact, and sometimes that interacts in really interesting ways. So, in the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom example, people found out all around the world that this kingdom existed. They said they would get letters and emails from queer individuals in places like Iran and other places saying, ‘Could I please have asylum in your country? I’m not safe where I am.’ And that intersection between where something political and sort of targeted, but kind of also theatrical and not real, that the kingdom knows, understands, intersects with someone who is looking for a way out and looking for safety and security, right? And they don’t know that it’s not real. And it’s hard to explain to someone over email in Iran, a young queer person, saying, ‘Sorry, you can’t come here.’
Ginger Gorman (14:03):
It’s a political stunt, but then it has a very difficult reality.
Dr Harry Hobbs (14:08):
Absolutely. And I think that was one of the reasons why the kingdom became less prominent online and in reality, because they thought, well, how do we manage this? And what obligations do we owe young gay and lesbian and queer people around the world who might not be aware that this is a political stunt and there is no ‘here’?
Ginger Gorman (14:28):
What do micronations tell us about how Australia engages with Indigenous sovereignty?
Dr Harry Hobbs (14:34):
This is how I got attracted to this topic, because people started asking me, ‘Is the Hutt river different from the Wiradjuri Nation?’ and questions like this. And I sort of thought, well, obviously they’re different, right? One is a community of people who have occupied and possessed and cared for the country for 65,000 years. They’ve developed their own complex system of laws to govern relations between and amongst themselves and also with outsiders, right? The other is some guy who’s fighting the council and is upset about the wheat quota.
Ginger Gorman (15:01):
Who’s dressed up like a king, yeah.
Dr Harry Hobbs (15:03):
Who’s dressed up like a king. And so, clearly, they’re different. But Australian law treats them the same. So Australian law doesn’t recognise Indigenous sovereignty, doesn’t recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are entitled to self-government, and so for Australian law, micronations and Indigenous nations have the same legal basis, which is none. And this is obviously ridiculous, right?
James Blackwell (15:23):
For Indigenous people, it represents a very serious issue.
Ginger Gorman (15:26):
James Blackwell is Wiradjuri man and a Research Fellow in Indigenous Diplomacies at the Australian National University.
James Blackwell (15:33):
Our culture, law, relationship with country, and sovereignty are all ongoing here, and they’ve been existent for 60 to 85,000 years at least. We maintain our own governance and control over our lands, especially in the many places with land rights and title. So for us, this idea that in Australia we have the same rights and recognition as, say, the Hutt River or the Grand Duchy of Avram is a very galling one. I mean, it’s not surprising. The idea of micronations in Australia is kind of this ultimate exercise in settler coloniality. White people can just go off and, quote, claim empty land, when in fact that land itself is already part of an ongoing cultural and legal nation. In the case of Hutt River, it’s Yamatji country. It has been since the beginning of humanity on this continent.
Ginger Gorman (16:13):
James says the recognition of micronations erases the legal possession and sovereignty that Indigenous Australians continue to fight for.
James Blackwell (16:23):
The government should of course not be recognising the claims of micronations, but by putting us as Indigenous nations in the same legal category as them in terms of recognition and legal power, it denies us so much in terms of rights and recognition that other countries do in fact give Indigenous peoples.
Ginger Gorman (16:39):
Here’s Harry Hobbs again.
Dr Harry Hobbs (16:41):
Other countries around the world understand that there’s differences between indigenous nations and micronations. So the United States recognises the sovereignty of Native American nations. In Canada, they’re negotiating treaties, and they have negotiated treaties previously that recognise that First Nations peoples have a right to self-government. In New Zealand, in Aotearoa New Zealand, there’s the Treaty of Waitangi that recognises Maori people have a right to self-government. Australia has no treaty relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. There is no constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that says you are a distinct political community that has occupied, possessed the country for 65,000 years and has the right to self-government and continues to exercise that right. Now, of course, Aboriginal people do exercise their right to self-government every day, but Australian law says you don’t.
Ginger Gorman (17:22):
Later this year, Australians will be asked to vote on whether or not the nation should have a constitutionally recognised Voice to Parliament. The Voice would be chosen by First Nations people and represent the wishes of First Nations communities to advise the parliament and government on laws and policies that impact them. It won’t ensure sovereignty for Indigenous Australians, but for James Blackwell, it’s a really important first step.
James Blackwell (17:50):
It starts us off on that journey. But also, more importantly and most importantly, it enshrines in our country’s governing document, our constitution, that Indigenous nations do have sovereignty and place and connection to place, that our rights and self-governance and law and culture is important for this country, and that Australian recognises that above and beyond the level in which it tacitly recognises micronations, which is just people angry with the ATO or wanting to sell fake currency and passports online. So this referendum really is about resetting that relationship and resetting this kind of denial and erasure of our sovereignty and our law and our culture.
Dr Harry Hobbs (18:31):
In the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Aboriginal people said, ‘We want a First Nations voice in the constitution, and we want a Makarrata Commission to supervise agreement making and truth telling.’ The treaty-making element, I think, is also important. And so, there are various stages of treaty-making processes around the country at the state level. Victoria is furthest advanced at the moment. Later this year, it’s expected that negotiations will begin between the First People’s Assembly of Victoria and the state government.
Treaty is really important, because treaties are a unique agreement and really distinctive from other agreements that governments have signed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the past. A treaty, if you look at international law and you look at what’s happening over in Canada, where modern treaty making is going ahead, a treaty is different for three reasons. First of all, it recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a distinct political community entitled to self-government. It’s a political negotiation that happens outside legal frameworks, right? So, you don’t need to be stuck by the colonial way of thinking that we operate in our legal system, and it recognises certain outcomes. And one of those is a right to self-government, and we should recognise sovereignty as well.
So if these treaty processes succeed, that will change the game. And so we will enter a situation similar to the United States, Canada, and Aotearoa New Zealand, countries that we compare ourselves with fairly regularly, and we’ll be basically at the same level as them. If those treaty processes work, and if the First Nations Voice gets up at the referendum later this year, we won’t be able to say that micronations and Indigenous nations are treated the same in Australian law.
Ginger Gorman (19:50):
You might also be forgiven for thinking micronations and sovereign citizens are birds of a feather, but that’s not right either.
Dr Harry Hobbs (19:58):
Sovereign citizens or people who engage in pseudo-legal reasoning often think that they’ve got a magic password or a magic key that allows them to escape the operation of the law, and that’s why you find them being very antagonistic when they are told they need to put on a mask or get a vaccine, and saying, ‘The Magna Carta says X, Y, and Z, I don’t have to do that,’ and they’re a bit more confrontational. So that’s what I’d say the difference. So sovereign citizens aren’t really interested in creating their own state or their own community. They’re much more individualistic, and they’re much more antagonistic, whereas micronations are a bit more communitarian and eccentric, I’d say.
Ginger Gorman (20:31):
Let’s end on a bit of trivia. It’s hard to know exactly how many micronations there are throughout the world, but Harry and Professor George Williams found that there are about 140 that are active right now, and about a third of them are right here in the land down under.
Dr Harry Hobbs (20:50):
It does seem strange that so many are in Australia, that there seems to be a… You know, we’re overrepresented in micronations in Australia, and there’s, I guess, several reasons we could think about why that might be the case. To one level, Australia has this ideology or this attitude of the larrikin, someone like Ned Kelly sticking it up against government. And now, not everyone might like what Ned Kelly did, but he’s a cultural icon that people say, ‘Well, I’m going to stick up for the little guy against government.’ And what better way to thumb your nose at government, than to secede and create your own country?
Another reason relates to Australia’s security and sovereignty, right? We’re a big country, a long way away from everyone else, and our sovereignty is really secure. We haven’t been invaded, and we haven’t been challenged in our sovereignty. Because of that, the Australian government and Australians often think, well, you do what you like. This isn’t a real threat. And unfortunately, that’s not the case in many other countries, where histories of secession and rebellion and revolution, where, when micronations are set up, the government sends the tanks pretty quickly and says, ‘Stop that.’ A third reason is probably just our size. We’re a large country with a low population, and so there’s a lot of space out there if you want to create your own country.
Ginger Gorman (21:53):
Thanks for listening to Seriously Social, I’m Ginger Gorman. This podcast is produced on Ngunnawal, Ngambri Yuggerah, and Turrbal land, and we pay our respects to elders past and present. Seriously Social is produced by Kim Lester, engineered by Mark Gargeldonk, aka Baldey, and our executive producers are Bonnie Johnson and Clare McHugh. It is an initiative of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Next time on Seriously Social, fake meat. What is it? What’s in it? And why are so many people keen to eat it? See you then.
- How to Rule Your Own Country: The Weird and Wonderful World of Micronations Harry Hobbs and George Williams
- The Geneva Conventions and their Commentaries The International Committee of the Red Cross
- Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States University of Oslo
- Creating a Nation to Save the Planet Harry Hobbs
- Treaty of Waitangi NZ History
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice National Indigenous Australians Agency
- Uluru Statement from the Heart