The Royal Me

What’s with Australia’s secession obsession?

One doesn’t expect one’s first brush with royalty to take place in a food court. Yet here I am, sitting in a sticky pleather booth at a Sydney shopping mall with Princess Helena, a quiet, matronly woman in her mid-60s, and her emphatic, 40-something daughter, Princess Paula. Helena sips hot chocolate regally, as Paula holds forth on topics as varied as her correspondence with Queen Elizabeth and the finer points of the Montevideo Convention of 1933. The man evidently in charge of their security, a dour fellow with heavily pomaded hair, who goes by the name Karl, sits perched between them and the doorway.

After a few minutes of pleasantries and more hot chocolate, I fold my hands on the table and delicately broach the topic that has brought us here: Why do these two women believe that they are no longer subject to the laws of Australia?

“At the moment, there are 193 member nations of the UN,” Princess Paula explains. “I would say that the majority of those have been formed by secession from some country or other.” As proof of her own nation’s rightful sovereignty, she pulls out land deeds, court documents, and Christmas cards from foreign leaders. “The U.S., as you well know, seceded from England in 1776,” she says. “It’s a remedial right, a last resort.”

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.

Second, and perhaps more important, the government just doesn’t seem to take secessionists very seriously. “We did fully expect the response that most people do get around the world when they try to secede: they usually get a letter or some visits from government employees who try to mediate the situation,” Paula says. “Mum even said that they’ll send tanks. I said: ‘Relax, this is Australia, no one reads anything.’ And it’s true. They just sent a letter saying, ‘Thank you very much for the letter,’ and that was it.”

But that wasn’t entirely it. Since 2003, family members have sparred with the New South Wales government, which, unsurprisingly, rejects the argument that their independence exempts them from paying their creditors. In September 2009, the New South Wales Supreme Court sided with the Bank of Queensland in a lawsuit to recover more than $800,000 from the family, which is now attempting to bring the case before the International Court of Justice. (A spokeswoman for the Australian attorney general declined to comment, saying the office had nothing to add to the public record where micronations are concerned.)

Paula says the government doesn’t have any rights in the principality or any grounds for the suit, which, she says, is being used to “squash” Snake Hill. And therein lies the key to understanding micronations, says Judy Lattas, a sociologist at Macquarie University who has studied the phenomenon. They are not utopian communes—some lack even a lot to call their own—but rather an “imaginative way of articulating resistance to bureaucracy.”

Princess Paula resents such generalizations, of course. While she is sympathetic, for example, to the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands—founded following the Australian parliament’s move to ban same-sex marriage in 2004—she has nothing but scorn for the Principality of Wy, a micronation in a posh Sydney suburb, started by a heavily bearded artist with a fondness for capes and scepters.

“We’re all very, very serious—politically serious, legally serious,” Paula tells me. “And he’s jumping on the bandwagon.”