Off the beaten path from Australia’s wildlife preserves and pristine beaches is a little-known country that has quietly prospered for 43 years. The Principality of Hutt River sits on 75 square kilometers of land five hours north of Perth in Western Australia. Its stark landscape is not unlike a stretch of Nebraska farmland, except for the occasional stray marsupial and the wild roadside melons, scattered like hundreds of abandoned softballs. The country’s stamps, passports, and currency all bear the likeness of its ruler, Prince Leonard.
Hutt River’s secession and heraldry are neither a political statement nor a publicity stunt. They resulted from one man’s determination to save his wheat farm from ruinous government mandates. In 1970, after fighting a losing battle to repeal a stifling wheat quota, Leonard Casley and several of his neighbors declared independence from Australia. “We seceded to protect our lands,” says Casley, “to stop our lands from being taken from us.”
For more than four decades the self-made monarch has matched wits with irritated bureaucrats and politicians. So far, he’s come out ahead.
A year before Hutt River seceded, the Western Australian legislature sought to stabilize wheat prices by enacting strict caps on how many bushels farmers could sell. By limiting the supply of wheat, they reasoned, the overall price would be exempted from the laws of supply and demand. Like many such heavy-handed measures, the quota bore unintended consequences. The harvest limits stood to cripple larger farms unable to eke by on so little produce. For Casley, the quota meant he could only harvest 100 of his 10,000 acres. A 99 percent reduction in projected output did not strike him as sound financial planning.
As the leader of a group of families affected by the quota, Casley lodged a protest with the governor of Western Australia, Sir Douglas Kendrew. Kendrew summarily denied the group’s request for a waiver. Casley filed suit against the crown and Gov. Kendrew for A$52 million on the grounds that the wheat regulation was an unlawful imposition, as the quota had not yet passed into law. Casley intended for his tort gambit to force a revision of the new rule, but he instead drew the ire of the authorities. Two weeks after his lawsuit was filed, the Western Australia government introduced a bill to Parliament which, if passed, would “resume” his and the other protesting farms under compulsory acquisition. In other words, their land would become the property of the government.
His Royal Highness Prince Leonard of Hutt
Rather than scuttling his farm or funneling excess crops into a cereal black market, Casley took the novel approach of declaring independence from the Commonwealth of Australia. He drafted an official declaration of secession and sent copies to Western Australia’s premier and governor. The government of Western Australia had the legal purview to handle wheat and tax disputes, but managing a secession was a bit outside the norm.
The government acknowledged receiving Casley’s declaration of independence, but it did not recognize the document as having the force of law. While no armies or police squadrons invaded to capture Casley and his cohorts, Australia’s silence did not signal an exemption from the quota. Not only was Casley still technically liable for violating the wheat restrictions, he faced possible jail time: Under Western Australia’s Penal Code, Casley could be charged with “infringement of territory” and arrested. Given that the state parliament had already threatened to “resume” his lands, the possibility of criminal prosecution was entirely real.
When Australian Prime Minister William McMahon threatened legal action against the Hutt River secessionists in 1971, Casley and his counselors combed through law books, looking for a way to protect their revolutionary activity. They found a loophole: the Imperial Treasons Act of 1495, a law created during England’s more rough-and-tumble days when rival claimants fought wars over the throne. Under the act—officially “An Acte that noe person going wth the Kinge to the Warres shalbe attaynt of treason”—any person providing assistance to a “de facto” prince in exercise of his functions could not be accused of treason. Thus, to shield his family and neighbors from criminal prosecution, Leonard declared himself His Royal Highness Prince Leonard of Hutt.
Prince Leonard had another legal workaround up his sleeve. Since the beginning of the anti-quota campaign, Casley had been duly elected as the administrator of Hutt River by its cooperating farmers. When the government of Australia in official correspondence addressed Casley as “Administrator of Hutt River,” it inadvertently provided the functional recognition necessary to make the Imperial Treasons Act applicable. Leonard both was a titular prince and had formal recognition that he performed a prince’s governing functions.
The Australian government did not follow through with the threatened prosecution. Because of the two-year statute of limitations under the Penal Code, the window of time during which the government could have incarcerated Hutt River’s separatists for infringement of territory closed in 1972. Prince Leonard’s farmers kept cranking out wheat in open defiance of the quota.
Four years later, the government struck back. In 1976, the Australian postal system refused to deliver mail to Hutt River, forcing the landlocked principality to route its letters through distant Canada. According to Casley, then–Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser also instructed the Tax Office to “go out after me and break me.” On December 2, 1977, Prince Leonard responded to Australian belligerence with an official declaration of war. “They laughed their heads off,” says Prince Leonard. “They said, ‘The prince has really flipped his lid. He’s declared war on us.’ Then, three days later I sent another telegram to the Governor-General declaring that the state of war was now officially ceased.”
The bloodless hostilities garnered popular support for Hutt River from the press, but the declaration of war had more to do with legal maneuvering than publicity. “I do trust that you will enforce the Laws of War,” Casley subsequently wrote to the Governor-General. “Sovereignty is automatic to a country undefeated in a state of war.…and if the state of war is not recognized by the other party, once the notice is given then these conventions apply to their relations.” In short, Leonard set a precedent for international recognition of Hutt River under the Geneva Convention.
Private Kingdom or Private Enterprise?
Australia has not acknowledged Hutt River as a sovereign nation, maintaining that the principality is a private enterprise. “The area of land which is described as the ‘Hutt River Province’ is a privately-owned wheat-growing property,” said Jeremy Bruer, Australian Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, in an official embassy statement. “It has no special status. It has no separate sovereignty and remains subject to the Australian Constitution and the laws of Australia.”
Yet the principality is not without certain legal nuances. A placard in Nain, its capital, proudly notes that Casley is a “non-resident of Australia” for income tax purposes. All of Hutt River’s resident subjects have likewise received these notices. Citizens of Hutt River pay taxes on income earned there, but only to Hutt River’s Tax Department—not to Australia.
In 1980 a Perth court ruled that, at least within Hutt River, its currency and postage stamps are valid and legal. Australia resumed delivering mail to the principality shortly thereafter. Hutt River also issues license tags for cars, and even its own passports, though their international recognition is limited. And since September 2004, Hutt River has accepted foreign company registrations, though their status on Hong Kong’s registry of places to incorporate is now under review following an outcry in the Australian media.
The prospects of becoming an Australian tax haven are tantalizing. According to Hutt River’s official history, “Prince Leonard…would doubtless wish to see his country benefiting from a status equivalent to Monaco or the Bahamas Islands.” Were Hutt River to flex its muscles and flaunt lower tax rates for international corporations, it would be all but certain to experience belligerent interference from the Australian government. Meanwhile, the principality is tentatively expanding into realms other than business incorporation. Hutt River is now a host to several online colleges, and Prince Leonard envisions Nain as home one day to a medical research center and its own university.
According to Casley’s Aide-de-Camp, Lord Steve Baikie, it is in the best interest of both Hutt River and Australia to formally recognize the principality’s de facto independence. “They’d make a huge amount of money by assisting us to develop rather than arguing against it,” Baikie says.
The yields from tourism are already apparent. While Hutt River’s early notoriety led to an estimated 60,000 visitors a year, almost all from within Australia, the curiosity-seekers now (at an estimated 30,000 per annum) are predominantly foreigners in their teens, twenties, and thirties. Prince Leonard has effectively created a tourist magnet in a part of Australia few Australians would ever visit, let alone Asians or Europeans. International recognition would enhance its appeal as a destination and potentially bring in more visitors to both countries.
Casley notes that there are investors lined up to incorporate in Hutt River, but the prince refrains from encouraging large-scale development, knowing that “waving red in front of the bull” could bring down the Australian government’s wrath. “We could have a Hong Kong here, or a Switzerland here,” he says, referring to potential investors. “Company after company want to do just that.”
The Price of Princedom
Hutt River’s independence has brought costs as well. Australia does not just withhold its acknowledgment from Hutt River, or the development such recognition would bring. It has deprived Prince Leonard of rights guaranteed to an Australian citizen even while staunchly maintaining that he never ceased being one. All social security benefits were withdrawn by the Australian Government from Hutt River’s resident subjects at the time of secession, as well as pensions receivable, educational allowances, and child endowments. Leonard’s wife, Princess Shirley, is not eligible to draw the medical benefits she is entitled to as the spouse of a war veteran. (Casley served in the Royal Air Force during World War II.)
In the past large amounts of letters en route to Hutt River have been confiscated and destroyed, without due process or judicial review—necessary legalities if Leonard Casley is indeed an Australian citizen.
The royal couple contend that they and the rest of Hutt River’s subjects have been removed from the Australian electoral roll. In recent elections Australian voters have received ID cards to take with them to the polling booths, but subjects of Hutt River have received no such documents. An odd development, given that in Australia voting is not just a right of citizens but an enforceable requirement.
Last year the Australian Tax Office wrote to Casley demanding tax payments and he responded with a meticulous legal document asserting his status as a foreign national and non-resident of Australia. Were Hutt River to again face legal action in an Australian court, Prince Leonard is confident his country would be vindicated as a sovereign state.
Independent of potential legal battles, agents of Hutt River are busy combing through recently declassified memoranda from the Australian government about the principality. According to Baikie, the contents indicate that Australia’s officials were much more concerned about Hutt River than they initially indicated. “We’re blown away by what we’re seeing in those archives.…Prime ministers and state premiers asking for Prince Leonard to be charged…a lot more opposed than we thought,” he says. Additional investigation may yield further grounds for international recognition.
Despite the irritating impediments and legal hurdles which Hutt River regularly faces, Leonard and his subjects are proud of all they have accomplished. Leonard’s son, Prince Ian, is ready to assume the crown when the time comes, and the prospect of investment and development loom on the horizon.
Hutt River is no Australian golden goose, à la China’s “special economic zones,” nor is it an explicit libertarian experiment, like the charter city movement or New Hampshire’s Free State Project. Yet it is much more than an eccentric’s flight of fancy. The project began as a righteous fight for survival against a foolhardy law, and stands as a rare recent example of a peaceful secession. Though it lacks international recognition, the principality has won key battles, carving out small but meaningful rights for itself from the behemoth country surrounding it. The onerous wheat quota which originally galvanized Leonard Casley into action is no longer in effect—perhaps due to the precocious efforts of its most prominent critic.
Prince Leonard can claim the distinction of reigning over his country longer than most presidents or prime ministers in modern history. He even sports a certain amusement about his country’s finances as compared to America’s: “I’m thinking our treasury is in a better way than your treasury, because our treasury doesn’t owe anything.”
Detractors contest the legitimacy of Hutt River and its sovereign; enthusiasts err towards infatuation with the heraldry and titles of nobility that have sprung from the homegrown monarchy. Leonard remains wry but clear minded. He points out that he never intended to become a prince, or to start his own country. He only meant to save his farm from ruinous wheat quotas. In that he has been entirely successful.