Prince of the Outback: Meet the Wheat Farmer Who Led a Successful Secession from Western Australia

Article excerpt


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 Hurt 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. …