The sun is setting on the undulating wheat fields of Western Australia, and the prince wouldn’t mind getting back to have his supper. At 86, he does not like to eat after six o’clock. And given that he is the sovereign of the realm and master of all that he surveys, the man does not have to wait for his turkey. “Sometimes it does pay to be a prince,” he says with a wink, climbing into the front seat of his visitor’s Hyundai Getz. His Rolls-Royce, he’d said earlier, is in need of service.
He is Prince Leonard of Hutt, the absolute monarch of 18,500 acres of farmland in Australia’s sparsely populated wheat belt, about a five-hour drive north of Perth. His kingdom, the Principality of Hutt River, declared its independence on April 21, 1970, to protest newly introduced grain quotas that Prince Leonard (a farmer whose real name is Leonard Casley) says would have crippled him financially. After unsuccessfully petitioning the government for an exemption, he brushed up on his English common law and promptly seceded.
That decision made him the founding father of a micro-secession movement that has popped up across the globe, including in the U.K. and Israel. Hutt River is one of about 30 micronations spread across Australia, ranging from the ridiculous—the four people who comprise the Republic of Awesome—to the sincere, like the Principality of Snake Hill north of Sydney that takes itself extremely seriously, even if few others do.
Leonard’s domain has its own constitution, its own currency (with an exchange rate of one Hutt River Dollar to one Australian dollar), a postal service, and 30,000 citizens—or so Leonard claims. The capital city, Nain, however, has only three permanent residents: the Prince, Princess Shirley (his wife), and their grown son, Wayne. It issues entrance and exit visas and even has its own passports. Almost all Hutt River passport holders are dual citizens living abroad; Hutt River’s official literature describes its citizenship as a “worldwide affinity group that identifies with the incredible story of the man who became a prince and the country he founded.”
What it lacks, like all other micronations, is recognition from a single sovereign state. That hasn’t stopped some of Leonard’s followers from attempting to advance Hutt River’s foreign policy. The 2007 opening of an embassy and consular section in Dubai caused a minor diplomatic scandal with Australia, which accused the Hutt River “ambassador” of being a con man selling bogus travel documents. And though Hong Kong earlier this year included Hutt River on a list of legitimate places of incorporation, the move was widely dismissed as an error or a practical joke; Leonard himself is unsure of how it came to pass.
Prince Leonard bristles at the suggestion that Hutt River is little more than a campy tourist attraction. He considers everything from the massive bust of his head that stands outside the post office, to the honors that he bestows on his subjects—the “Serene Order of Leonard,” for example—to be the marks of a legitimate government. “It is a country. Now, as a country you would expect it to have its currency, its post office, and all these things,” he says over tea and cookies in the kitchen of the cramped imperial residence.
There is no official tally of the world’s micronations, although a small body of existing academic and journalistic research puts the number at around 70. That means Australia, with just a third of a percent of the planet’s population, accounts for almost half its micronations.
Judy Lattas, a sociologist at Macquarie University, says this is not surprising. The “serious” micronations “play out significant features of Australian cultural narrative: a popular defiance of authority, a do-it-yourself ‘bush lawyer’ attitude to the professions, and a humorous, self-mocking style of public presentation,” she said in an e-mail exchange. “Although the modern micronation movement began with Hutt River in 1970, many see it as walking a path laid by countless earlier secessionist groups.”
One of Hutt River’s most prized landmarks is the plaque, mounted on the wall outside the Nain post office, on which Prince Leonard’s 2008 Australian tax return is reproduced. One line in particular—”you have been deemed to be a non-resident of Australia for income tax purposes”—elicits a wry smile from the wizened patriarch. The government in Canberra has been surprisingly tolerant of Hutt River. The principality, after all, is a major regional tourist attraction, featured prominently in the Australian edition of the Lonely Planet guidebooks.
On a recent morning in Hutt River, Prince Leonard gave a guided tour of the grounds to two tour buses filled with visitors from around the world. Then he gave them the hard sell on a set of Hutt River commemorative coins and postage stamps.
“We come here twice a week at least, probably more often,” says Brian Matthews, a 66-year-old tour guide who has been leading groups to Hutt River for years. “Visitors are quite taken with the fact that it’s a principality, although I don’t think they always understand that it’s all just on paper.”
Prince Leonard has a keen eye for history and does not hesitate to offer his own path as a remedy for the economic ills of Western governments, citing Hutt River’s relative stability.
“Some people like to say that Hutt River is a new country, but I like to say it’s an old country. When we were celebrating our 40th anniversary, the Republic of Germany was celebrating its 20th.”