Emperors, princes and Australia's league of mini-nations

By Talek Harris

SYDNEY, Thursday 22 July 2010 (AFP) - It's raining, and Emperor George II is not impressed. He frowns at the elements, curses, and retreats up the stairs of his Sydney apartment block.

It's hardly regal language. But if you have your own empire, complete with government, citizens and your picture on the banknotes, you can talk exactly as you like.

George's empire is Atlantium, a self-proclaimed global state with the ambitious aim of sweeping away the traditional notion of countries based on geography and race.

Atlantium has its own colours (blue, yellow and orange), insignia and even a capital, the Province of Aurora -- a rural patch of land where George and his minions are building statues and monuments.

Inside his flat, George has Atlantium's flag and its fictional Solidi currency, bearing his bespectacled, bearded image, piled on his desk, and a medal of the empire pinned to his chest.

"When I was 15 years old my parents said to me, 'if you don't like the way the world is, do something about it'," says the emperor, real name George Cruickshank, 43.

"I think they probably meant that I go off and join a political party. What I actually ended up doing, with my two cousins, was starting Atlantium."

It's a novel idea, but George is not alone. Australia has a ragtag collection of perhaps 30 colourful mini-states of various shapes, sizes and motivations, making it a world centre for "micronations".

For instance, across Sydney from George's flat is the Principality of Wy, an artistic community born from a planning dispute, while a few hours out of town is Snake Hill, which declared independence over a property row.

In Outback Western Australia, the Principality of Hutt River is celebrating 40 years' independence from state authorities, during which time it has built a thriving economy based on visits from curious tourists.

Off Queensland, the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands has unofficially sequestered a disused weather station where it has a post office and funds itself by selling its unique coins and stamps.

The kingdom, ruled by Emperor Dale I, was established by a group setting out on the Gayflower ship in 2004, in protest at a ban on same-sex marriage. Its anthem: Gloria Gaynor's "I Am What I Am".

According to Macquarie University academic Judy Lattas, the quirky states are part-protest, part-product of Australia's rebellious streak.

"It's just one form that popular protest takes in the modern world. It's interesting -- they teach us about the nature of nation-building itself," she says.

"It's also partly that Australians have long had that attitude: they delight in people defying authority."

The mini-states range from one-man fiefdoms and family ventures to those like Atlantium, which aim to make a serious political statement.

The enterprises, fed by Australians' deep-set distrust of authority, have also flourished in its vast tracts of unused land, with some bigger than recognised countries such as Monaco.

"Some you just hear references to and are really hard to track down. Some it's hard to know if they're still viable," Lattas says.

In April, Lattas brought Australia's micronations together for their first summit, which was held at a small hall on an island just outside Sydney and drew about 50 participants.

She says many had been inspired by Hutt River, which was established in 1970 and has become the benchmark for Australia's micronations thanks to the entrepreneurial zeal of its founder, His Royal Highness Prince Leonard.

"They're a lot of people with very clear grievances. They have awful decisions made with banks and courts and local bureaucracies and they get very very frustrated," Lattas says.

"They feel like there's a violation of their natural rights and this is one of the languages that's circulating that they can articulate that sense of injustice in."

The Principality of Wy is a case in point. The arts haven, a property in the leafy Sydney district of Mosman, symbolically seceded from the local council in 2004 in sheer frustration at years of fruitless lobbying for road access.

"Finally we got jack (fed up) of it and we thought, look, this is crazy," says Wy's "monarch", Prince Paul. "All councils provide is roads and take away your rubbish so we thought we'll secede -- and we did."

Now Prince Paul and his family, often clad in robes and crowns and bearing the emblems of state, happily host speech days and poetry readings, and are working on a unique cookbook.

"We thought it would be much too vain and lofty to call ourselves a kingdom, so we're just a little principality," says Prince Paul, real name Paul Delprat, who runs an art school in central Sydney.

"And of course being a principality we are not royal, we're serene. After all the delays we've had from the council, to retain one's serenity is a marvellous thing."

George's Atlantium meanwhile has grown from a childhood fantasy to an entity with about 1,300 citizens in 110 countries, all run from his inner city apartment.

The emperor, a radio producer for an ambient music show, readily admits that Atlantium's showier elements, such as its stamps and open-handed salute, are a tongue-in-cheek ploy to draw attention and tourist dollars.

"I don't demand that people defer to me, but what I find is that many citizens do without prompting," George tells AFP. "I never object if it's people doing it unprompted."

George believes non-bordered states will play a part in mankind's future, and next year he's planning an enthronement ceremony, when he will be crowned with a wreath of metallic laurel leaves.

"The long-term goal is for Atlantium to take its place amongst the global community of nations," George says. "Whether by the time that happens the concept of the nation state is as prevalent as it is today, I don't know.

Micronations are not unique to Australia, with self-styled states in Britain, mainland Europe, America and elsewhere prevalent enough to inspire a Lonely Planet guide book on the subject.

But it is in this far-flung country, little more than a collection of convict settlements just 200 years ago, where the concept has really taken hold.

"I think there is in the Australian psyche a love of standing up for yourself," says Prince Paul of Wy (http://principalityofwy.com).

"We don't take ourselves too seriously, but of course there's this deep undercurrent of a profoundly unfair thing."

MySinchew 2010.07.22