A little after 5pm on Friday, December 2, 1977, Prince Leonard Casley of the Principality of Hutt River cabled a telegram to Sir John Kerr, then governor-general of Australia. The contents were ominous: “It is my official responsibility to declare that a state of war now exists between our respective countries and diplomatic relations are at this time now severed.”
There is no evidence that Kerr responded to the telegram. It is also not clear whether it was passed on to prime minister Malcolm Fraser, defence minister Sir James Killen or chief of the defence force staff Sir Arthur Mac-Donald. With Australia's political and military leaders apparently unaware that the nation was at war, Hutt River could strike.
Just two days later, however, the war concluded when Prince Leonard cabled a second telegram to Kerr announcing “that the state of war between our countries has now ceased”. It appears that with a permanent population of fewer than 20 residents, no standing army, and its 75sq km territory entirely enclosed by the state of Western Australia, Prince Leonard had a change of heart.
The war between Hutt River and Australia stretched for almost two days, but no shots were fired. What then was the purpose of Prince Leonard's declaration? After all, he had no intention of engaging in hostilities.
Instead, the war was an attempt to secure recognition for his fledgling principality. According to his reading of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, Australia must recognise the sovereignty of another nation undefeated in war.
The Principality of Hutt River was an example of the 130 or so micronations around the world that strive for official recognition. Micronations look a bit like nations - such as Australia or Japan - but they are not states under international law. Their defining feature is that they lack the same recognition or qualities as proper nations, even though they mimic them.
The often-eccentric founders of micronations invest themselves with royal titles and set up new countries complete with a flag, constitution, stamps, and currency. Australia is home to more micronations than anywhere else in the world, many no doubt inspired by Prince Leonard.
Estimates are that around a third of all micronations are located in Australia. At its height, this might be around 40.
Micronations often emerge out of frustration with government. Rather than giving into bureaucracy, some people say “enough is enough” and decide to rule their own country. In the case of Prince Leonard, his act of rebellion emerged out of a dispute over the Australian wheat market.
In the 1960s, Leonard Casley bought a property in outback Western Australia. His timing was poor. Following a bumper harvest in 1968, production quotas were introduced to maintain pricing levels. In the spring of 1969, while preparing to harvest about 6000 acres of wheat, Casley received a letter notifying him that he would be permitted to sell only 100 acres.
Casley saw that the quota could wreck his business and force him off his property. He took his concerns to government but was ignored. Pushed to the brink with the possibility that the government might compulsorily acquire his land, he served a formal notice of secession to Australia.
Casley sought to establish his nation based on instruments including the Magna Carta and the constitution of Western Australia. None supported his assertion of independence, meaning that there was no sound legal basis for his action. Not be put off, he sent a flurry of letters. Casley used the title “Prince Leonard” and designed his letterheads to invite replies addressed to him using that title.
He was often successful. In September 1975, then opposition leader Malcolm Fraser wrote to “Dear Prince Leonard”, addressing the letter to “Prince Leonard, Administrator, Hutt River Provinces, via Western Australia”.
Casley seized upon this, sending countless photocopies of letters addressing him as a prince to countries around the world in a bid for international recognition. The Bolivian government sought clarification from the Australian embassy in La Paz. Bolivia was “puzzled” that Leonard Casley “has been able to obtain letters signed by the prime minister while the leader of the opposition was addressing him as ‘Prince Leonard'.” Did this mean Australia recognised his sovereignty?
The Swiss government was also surprised. It considered that, under Swiss law, Casley's actions would amount to offences worthy of prosecution. Given Casley had not been prosecuted, perhaps he was legitimate?
Exasperated Australian bureaucrats were forced to explain. Although Casley had not been prosecuted for his apparent secession, this did not mean the government accepted his independence. Rather, because Hutt River was still part of the commonwealth, no law had been broken.
Canberra had decided it would be best to ignore the prince in the hope he would not cause too much trouble. Casley made sure they regretted that decision.
Prince Leonard proved an adept media performer and his principality soon became a sensation. Playing on community fascination, he invested his entire family with royal titles and appointed them to key positions in his government. His wife Shirley became Her Royal Highness Princess Shirley of Hutt, Dame of the Rose of Sharon. His eldest son, Prince Ian, became the Postmaster General of the fledgling province.
Thousands of tourists travelled to the second-largest country in Australia to get their passport stamped, a photograph with the “royal family” and purchase stamps and coins.
In 1975, Time magazine interviewed the man “the government was trying to make ... a pauper” but who became “a prince” instead.
Even kids across Australia got in on the act. In August 1971, West Australian premier John Tonkin wrote to prime minister William McMahon informing him that schoolchildren around the country wanted to treat the subject as a school project. The premier sought advice as to how this could be shut down lest children gain the mistaken belief that Hutt River had a valid existence.
Australia may have been content to let Prince Leonard have his fun, but the government made sure he complied with the law. Over the years, Leonard Casley and his family appeared in Australian courts numerous times charged with avoiding tax and other laws.
It was an unpaid tax bill that finally put an end to Hutt River. In 2017, Casley was ordered to pay income tax debts of more $2.7m.
The Supreme Court of Western Australia explained: “Anyone can declare themselves a sovereign in their own home but they cannot ignore the laws of Australia or not pay tax.”
Casley sought to negotiate but the Australian Taxation Office would not budge. With pressure mounting, Casley abdicated in 2017 and his youngest son Prince Graeme acceded to the throne.
In 2019, Leonard died at the age of 93. A year later, with tourism drying up because of the pandemic, Graeme announced that the farm would be sold to pay their tax bill. This occurred in 2021, bringing an end to the half-century existence of the principality.
The demise of the Principality of Hutt River demonstrates that no one can outlast those two certainties in life: death and taxes. But at least in one way, Casley lives on. His actions inspired many others frustrated with bureaucracy to cast off the shackles of the state and create their own micronation. As the Principality of Hutt River's motto recorded, “While I Breathe, I Hope”.
Harry Hobbs of University of Technology Sydney and George Williams of University of NSW are authors of How to Rule your Own Country: The Weird and Wonderful World of Micronations (UNSW Press).
Prince Leonard Casley with his wife Princess Shirley