Graeme Ernest Casley is many things – a tour guide, a handyman, a teacher – but never did the newest sovereign leader in Australia expect to stand where he does today.
Graeme, or Prince Graeme, in keeping with his official title, is the newly crowned sovereign of the Principality of Hutt River – a 70 square kilometre patch of farming land some 500km north of Perth which claims to have seceded from the Australian mainland in 1970 in protest of wheat quotas.
Despite never having received recognition from Australia or most other governments of its right to sovereignty, Prince Graeme’s father Prince Leonard has led Australia’s oldest micronation for 46 years.
It was Leonard who manouvered clauses of international law to protect what he saw as a blatant attempt to steal his land by the Western Australian government – and one stage going to the point of declaring war on the mainland. It was Leonard too who after a few years leading the Principality morphed the public image of he and his family. In the beginning they were farmers fighting for their right to land. After a few years they became royals, dishing out knighthoods and military honours to those deemed worthy of recognition and sporting ceremonial gowns on special occasions.
Like a real life Darryl Kerrigan, Prince Leonard’s legal battles have become something of WA folklore. But at 91 and with his health deteriorating rapidly, the founding father of Hutt River made the decision to abdicate his position and hand it over to his youngest son, 59. Today was a day for Prince Graeme – the new leader of the Principality of Hutt River.
With inaugurations a hot topic so far in 2017 I drove for more than six hours from Perth to attend Prince Graeme’s special day, to be held in Princess Shirley’s Chapel of Nain at the Principality.
A crowd of around 80 packed the chapel to witness some obscure as fuck history, and they weren’t disappointed. The chapel itself was a heavily religious affair, dominated by paintings of Jesus and crucifixes and blue glass windows a friendly local told me were imported from Italy some years ago. It’s said when closed the glass cools the chapel to the point where the blistering heat outside is barely noticeable. Today the windows were open. The carpet, we were told during the proceedings, is a remnant taken from Buckingham Palace some years ago following a fire. The carpet is red.
Following the Hutt River national anthem, Keith Kerwin’s It’s a Hard Land, and some final recognitions from Prince Leonard the transition is formalised. Prince Leonard’s famous red robe is handed over to Prince Graeme, whose less famous green robe is removed.
The new leader is handed a ceremonial sword and baton, the significance of which is unclear, before posing for photos and inviting guests down to the Hutt River tea room for curried egg sandwiches and cake.
In between, Prince Graeme tells local media of his plans to expand the population of Hutt River. At present it stands at around 30 but feasibility studies suggest it can sustain somewhere in the order of 20,000. He talks legalities – the ATO is currently chasing $2.6 million from the Principality, a request they unsurprisingly intend to fight. Mention of his late mother, Princess Shirley, invokes an emotional pause – it’s clear that the occasion is deeply personal to the Casley family.
Before long the press conference was over, formalities were finalised and the gowns removed. As we walked toward the tea room I asked Prince Graeme if he had a moment to sit down for a chat. He obliged, and the two of us ended up back in the chapel. Prince Graeme was thoughtful and candid.
DIPLODOPEST: You’re the first generation to have grown up in Hutt River. What was it like being a teenager and growing up as part of the Principality?
Prince Graeme: We had a house in Perth where we did our schooling, and that was very much normal, run of the mill schooling. But on holidays we’d come back to the Principality and enjoy the farm life of freedom and go venturing and help out with sheep work when you needed to. The unique part for me was as a 13 or 14 year old having media interviewing mum and dad in the living room, from Australia’s Women’s Weekly or BBC. I didn’t realise it at the time but when I’ve looked back my world view grew very quickly just by listening to people and seeing where they come from and what’s happening in other parts of the world. Perth being a very isolated capital, it would have taken many more years to form that big of a world view.
Did it affect your friendships and relationships with people?
The close friends became closer and I still treasure them. People one or two steps removed didn’t seem to understand or didn’t read the history, or hadn’t met mum and dad to know what it was all about. You learn to just be tolerant of them and brush it off. They don’t quite understand where we’re coming from.
Coming home as a teenager and being told your property was going to secede and form its own sovereign identity must have been quite a shock. Was it something you immediately embraced?
It was a shock, but because dad is such a studious person and was doing so many hours in his study on gravity and planetary interactions, we knew he had purpose and a reason why. When he said the farm was at risk from wheat quotas and we needed to secede to protect the property it was accepted that that was the only alternative. He would have thought of other choices if he could. It was very left of centre but it was the only option and I trusted and believed in dad’s understanding of what he was doing.
Has it always been your goal to one day lead the Principality?
Not at all. Since coming back here three years ago and doing a lot of the behind the scenes work, I realised I wanted to do my best to keep Hutt River going. We knew the inevitable would happen with dad and there’d be some sort of change. My natural instinct is to step back, but after these three years seeing dad’s health deteriorate and being given such tutorage it was a natural progression to step forward.
You haven’t always been in Hutt River? What were you doing before you came back?
I was a primary school teacher with the Western Australian Education Department. I travelled the state in that role, but when mum passed away three and a half years ago I retired out of there and came here full time.
Hutt River has a very complex relationship with the WA government – was there any moral conflict for you as an employee of the state government during your time as a school teacher?
It did in the beginning, but I learned to fly under the radar. I paid my taxes on money earned and I was loyal and did my duty for the department, and I also stepped forward and did seminars and workshops for teachers. I felt justified that I wasn’t sneaky or underhanded, I was up front and I paid my expenses and dues as required.
Do you consider yourself an outsider when you venture outside the Principality and into Australia?
Absolutely. Every time I drive out I think I’m going on a journey. Even though it’s a short drive and the roads are the same as our roads it does feel like you’ve entered a slightly different country. I have friends and family in Perth, when you actually touch base face to face with them it’s a lovely feeling of ‘gosh I’ve come that distance’. It is 500km to Perth so that physical travel certainly makes you feel like you’ve come from somewhere else to meet family or do errands.
People outside of Hutt River may consider this to be a bit quirky, or kind of a novelty. Can you see that side of it as well?
Of course. Growing up and living and having had friends have a bit of a dig you get an idea of it. If I was outside the family looking in, it’s certainly a very different and left of centre answer to a problem. I guess that’s the beauty of being right in the middle – you have that understanding of why things happen. A big part of my day is to meet and greet the many visitors that come, and they come with interest and curiosity but some have a bit of a banter about them, where they want to sort of say things like ‘it’s just a tax jaunt’ or ‘crazy, eccentric farmers’ or something. You accept that, you have to be tolerant of people. They don’t fully understand, or want to fully understand. We’ve always been open and speak from our heart.
What’s going to be the hardest part of following in Prince Leonard’s footsteps?
They are such big shoes to fill. He has such a depth of knowledge of constitutional law, he’s lived all those issues. When a new question comes forward or a new event he’s got all that history to relate it to and he can deliver on that. Like all of us when you come to a new job or new situation or you step up, you hope you can bring your skills and character to the things that have been done in the past and make them a bit better. Whilst I don’t have the depth of knowledge or law, I think I’ve got some other skills and dad has made that knowledge available to me so I can find the answers.
Are the robes a day-to-day thing?
They’re ceremonial. Purely ceremonial.
We headed to the tea room, where the mood turned from significant royal occasion to how I imagine a bowls club gala day would feel. On the cutting the cake a frail Prince Leonard, who is battling with emphysema, declared his thanks to a US-based medical machinery company which had donated a breathing apparatus to his cause. Everyone applauded. He and Graeme cut the cakes and everyone applauded again. It was a nice moment befitting of a very odd occasion.
On leaving I noticed a crowd of people around the door of the gift shop/post office. An important building where passports are stamped, visas issued and trinkets sold, the door had been locked from the inside and it was none other than Prince Graeme on all fours with a screwdriver, trying in earnest to wedge open the barrier between some international tourists and the many ceremonial stamps on offer at the Principality.
The door was eventually pried open and Prince Graeme was behind the counter, taking dollars (the Hutt River dollar is tied one-for-one with its Australian equivalent) and offering service with a smile.
All in a day’s work for the new leader of the Principality of Hutt River, I guess.