This is probably a good place to back up and explain that few, if any, people outside the food court believe Princess Helena and Princess Paula to be royalty of any sort. Yet the two maintain that they rule the Principality of Snake Hill, a sliver of land that seceded from Australia in 2003 following litigation over a mortgage. (Paula says the territory is “about the same size as Monaco” and has several hundred citizens, though both claims are subject to dispute.) Helena donned the crown as head of state after the 2010 death of her husband, Paul, who Karl says was assassinated by a sniper. (Helena and Paula are disinclined to discuss the subject, saying only that they might have upset “the wrong people.”)
Snake Hill is, in technical parlance, a “micronation”—which is to say that it seceded from its parent country without gaining international recognition. And Australia is Micronation Central, having experienced something of a secession epidemic in the past half century. Self-styled monarchs now dot the landscape from Snake Hill, near Mudgee, in the southeast, all the way to the granddaddy of them all: Western Australia’s Principality of Hutt River, which was founded 42 years ago on a wheat farm north of Perth.
Hutt River, which has a full-time population of fewer than 30 people but claims a worldwide citizenry of 13,000, would likely top any micronational development index: residents are exempt from Australian income tax, entrance visas are issued upon arrival, and the principality issues its own currency, the Hutt River dollar. Beyond that, however, Hutt River—like most micronations—has few of the institutions we recognize as cornerstones of a self-sustaining nation-state, whether schools or hospitals or police stations.
By their very nature, micronations resist a comprehensive accounting, but combining Internet search results with the small body of academic research on the topic suggests a global tally somewhere around 70, of which perhaps 30 have been declared in Australia. These would-be independent domains range from the proudly ridiculous (for example, the Republic of Awesome, whose Web site notes that its military “currently consists of 4 people” and is “planning to buy 2 RC helicopters for aerial surveillance missions”) to micronations that take themselves quite seriously, like Snake Hill.
Though they have disparate aims, these micronations all seem to spring from what Australians call larrikinism—a proud national disdain for authority and bourgeois propriety. People everywhere are unhappy with their governments, of course, sometimes to the point of rebellion. But Canberra has handled its secessionist wannabes with remarkable tolerance, likely for a couple of reasons. First, a regional independent streak is sewn into the fabric of the Australian state. Remote, mineral-rich Western Australia has been trying to secede on and off ever since the first European settlers arrived, in the late 1820s. So while the modern micronation movement began relatively recently, many see it as walking a path laid by earlier Australian secessionists.