Ghillar Michael Anderson flourishes an envelope from Buckingham Palace, addressed to him as the Leader of the Euahlayi Nation, and declares it a step toward Aboriginal sovereignty.
Short, but sweet to him, the letter penned by the Queen’s senior correspondence officer Sonia Bonici lobbed into Anderson’s post office box in the tiny north-western NSW town of Goodooga in July.
Anderson is a stocky 63-year-old with a white moustache and a stubby ponytail. He lives 12km east of town, on a sheep station which his Aboriginal clan group members have designated as the capital territory of their breakaway state, the Euahlayi People’s Republic.
He wrote to inform the Queen about the decision to name a capital in June. Her letter in response raises issues for the state of Australia, he declares.
“She’s recognised me as leader of an Aboriginal nation-state. That’s one head of government to another, so that creates a diplomatic relationship,” he says. He is giving a t-shirt sleeves interview in the foyer of the historic eight-bedroom Goodooga farmhouse with adjoining tennis court which, as he told Her Majesty, is now the presidential residence within the parliamentary precinct.
A metallic silver coat of arms depicting two comeback boomerangs and a bullroarer decorated with four circles symbolising the four Euahlayi clan groups leans against the wall. Outside, in the home paddock on a drought-stricken brown floodplain, a peacock squawks, geese fuss and a pack of Maremma sheepdogs stands guard under the republic’s fluttering orange flag.
Anderson, along with his clan group members and elders, first proclaimed their republic in the tiny Queensland cotton town of Dirranbandi in August 2013. He then announced the new state’s independence to the Queen, the United Nations and the media.
Soon afterwards, he was elected his nation’s head of state and nine other Euahlayi people were allocated ministerial portfolios within the provisional executive council, including one for post-colonial reconstruction.
“We wanted to restore the [Indigenous] leadership and the roles, because all we saw here was this failure, constantly, of government policy,” Anderson explains.
“Sure, we end up with bricks and mortar and maybe a medical service. But the people, because of their Aboriginality, are ending up in jail. Their children are still being taken. The socio-economic plight is getting worse.”
He was one of four original members of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy set up in Canberra in 1972. As a longstanding political activist, he has enjoyed dialogue with politicians ranging from former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to the current Liberal party parliamentary elder, Philip Ruddock.
A former criminal law prosecutor and university political science lecturer, he has successfully used the internet – and a sense of outrage about what he calls the British invasion almost 228 years ago – to inspire several Indigenous clan groups in three states to secede from Australia.
The Indigenous sovereignty movement, of which he is the chief advocate, is about small government based on the traditional boundaries of different Indigenous language groups, like the pre-invasion days. Anderson claims that national Aboriginal spokespeople such as Warren Mundine, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton may have powerful voices in Canberra, but are “being cut off at the ankles by the communities themselves, who say, ‘You talk for yourself. You talk for your mob. You don’t talk for us.’”
His close supporter Leon Winters, born in nearby Walgett and now “home” in Euahlayi country after spending most of his 53 years in cities running Aboriginal organisations, has a spiritual take on it.
“Sovereign nation is government and it comes from within,” he says. “It’s not something that’s put on us.”
“Native title comes from a government source... For me, it’s about fighting for your rights, for your law and how this law of ours goes with the law of the invaders who came to this country. So, how can we use our law, on top of their law?”
The Euahlayi are working on their constitution, while holding talks with native Americans to help them set up their own bank and underwrite their own insurance. They are considering a treaty with coastal Indigenous groups, so they can have access to a seaport. They already have a Police Act (“We call it the Gunjies,” says Anderson).
And they plan to recognise Euahlayi citizenship based on descent, birth, residence or naturalisation. The non-Aboriginal people who live within their 60,000 square km lands will not be excluded – from Anderson’s German-born wife Jutta Sapotink-Eckford, to the white farmers who are their neighbours.
“We’re doing it Aboriginal way, to say how we accept people into our laws and rules,” Anderson says.
The friction between Australian and Euahlayi law could begin early next year, when the republic plans to issue its own driving licences and vehicle licence plates.
There is a precedent. Murrumu Walubara Yidindji, as the former SBS journalist Jeremy Geia is now called, was charged in May with driving an unregistered vehicle without a licence, when he used the number plates and licence issued by the Indigenous Sovereign Yidindji Government. He is the founder of this state in far north Queensland.
In court, he refused to recognise the name Jeremy Geia, as well as his obligation to abide by Australian law, asserting he was Murrumu. Magistrate Robert Spencer eventually decided to let him go and Murrumu wrote him a letter, thanking him for his treatment of “the sensitive issue of tribal sovereignty that was before the court.”
Nevertheless, Murrumu spent several nights in custody. Might those driving with Euahlayi licences and plates meet a similar fate?
“I expect that will be the case,” Anderson says. He asserts that his government is not undertaking anything illegal, because it is advising the Queen, relevant Premiers, Attorneys-General and state Governors of Euahlayi laws as they are devised.
“We’re following every procedure under international law to become a state,” he says, adding that Euahlayi nationals charged while following their own law will not recognise Australian courts.
“We’ve already got a judicial system ready to go,” he says. “The only thing holding us back is that we don’t have money to implement it all.”
Euahlayi is one of seven Aboriginal nations declared in recent years, as the grassroots sovereignty movement has rolled across Australia, gathering the dispossessed and disillusioned who say that their hereditary homelands still belong to them.
This movement, which Anderson claims has about 100,000 to 200,000 supporters, has gone largely unnoticed by other Australians, but it has the potential to frustrate key players in Indigenous affairs, because by attracting the disillusioned it thwarts any quest for consensus.
It protests loudly against the federal Government-sanctioned Recognise campaign, which has brought “the father of reconciliation”, Patrick Dodson, and the Cape York Aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson, together in an unlikely alliance aimed at garnering more Indigenous power through constitutional change.
Alice Haines, a Gamilaroi woman wearing a t-shirt bearing the Recognise movement’s “R” symbol crossed out, told a November meeting of sovereign nation representatives at Canberra’s Old Parliament House that the campaign for Indigenous inclusion in Australia’s constitution was a con.
She said it would override native title, bring First Nations under the absolute control of the Commonwealth and “turn blackfellas into the property of the Crown”.
Anderson, who organised the weekend-long Canberra gathering, agrees. He hopes to thwart any referendum to recognise Aboriginal people in the constitution. These days, he travels the nation, arguing the case for sovereignty, his expenses paid by those who invite him to their lands.
In 1999, he tossed the Union Jack into the grounds of Buckingham Palace on a ceremonial spear, to symbolically return “the evil” in the “predator flag”. According to his website, this cleared the path for indigenous groups to reclaim their sovereignty.
Sure enough, in the last three years:
- A group of Indigenous people from Western Australia’s Victoria desert raised their own flag at a sacred meeting ground, Kutunaru, in September 2012, as an expression of their sovereignty.
- The Murrawarri republic, covering about 82,000 square kilometres of NSW and Queensland border country, was declared in March 2013.
- Seven months after that, Eddie Turpin and others informed the Queen that they had created the independent republic of Mbarbaram, west of Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands.
- Early in 2014, the citizens of the newly minted Wiradjuri Central West Republic in NSW persuaded their local Wellington Council to raise their flag.
- Nyoongar people from Perth declared their independent Djurin Republic in November 2014. The following March, associated clan groups met on a Perth island to sign the Swan River Treaty.
- This year, Murrumu, who had already renounced his Australian citizenship as an individual, announced the existence of the Sovereign Yidindji nation around Cairns and became its Foreign and Trade Minister. A former Canberra Press Gallery journalist, much of his thinking evolved independently of Anderson.
Anderson wanders through a winter campsite, not far from his homestead, marked by circular fire hearths where the Euahlayi people used to settle between April and July. It’s beside the Bokhara River, rich in yabbies, mussels and fish. In the big dry, it’s the colour of chocolate milk, striped with shadows of leaning tree trunks.
“Our people, when they come back for the camp, always know exactly where they live and they always light the fire in the same place,” he says.
He paints a picture of a large group of people: elders on the outer circle, families in the middle ring and young men off to the side, with a central hearth where his ancestors laughed and danced at night.
For Anderson and Winters, the point of reclaiming sovereignty is to reassert this connection to country and to try to restore what was taken away.
They argue that Euahlayi law has never been extinguished.
“It’s continued as a dormant thing,” Anderson says. “It’s just laid there all these years and we’re activating it now…So we’ll integrate our law, as well as white law.”
Winters is still learning from elders educated in matters of culture and country: “The spirits are still in the land. It’s felt. The sites are still here. The knowledge is still here.”
As drought drives non-Aboriginal people from the land, Anderson is encouraging Indigenous people who have roots here to return. The plan is to reverse the sense of invasion and re-assert Indigenous government and cultural practice.
“With the sovereignty movement, we’re telling people to go home to your own country,” he says.
Winters is one who heeded the call.
“Living with that dream of capitalism and money and house and family, it just wasn’t me,” he says. “But inside me, I knew that there was something that was drawing me, that was just innate, pulling me and wanting me to come home.”
“And when I got away to the country … I knew this was the answer.”
The wider nation persists in the belief of a sovereign Australia, so this movement offers no easy solution to Indigenous dispossession.
Anderson has been to court several times already, battling authorities over unpaid council rates and federal taxes relating to his Ghurrieburrah clan group’s landholdings.
These are on their traditional country, returned via the Indigenous Land Corporation 15 years ago. Through a not-for-profit company, Ngurampaa Ltd, Anderson and his clan became the owners of a dryland grazing merino stud called Mogila, totalling 34,586 hectares.
This working pastoral property has two parts. One is the larger holding outside Goodooga where Anderson grew up, an Aboriginal kid on a non-Aboriginal run station. A smaller portion is at Currawillinghi in Queensland, a ceremonial place where his grandfather was born.
Ngurampaa Ltd is now in liquidation, after the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation applied to the NSW Supreme Court for a winding-up order. The pastoral business it operated has been struggling after four years of drought, but Anderson sees its financial situation through the prism of politics.
“We didn’t pay our taxes because we believe we’re in a different situation to most other people,” he says. “We’re not part of Australia. I’m being taxed on land that was given back as compensation.”
Using another of his legal names, Ghillar Eckford, Anderson has used the forum of the courts to advance arguments about the unlawfulness of Australian land tenure and on injustices, including genocide, meted out to his people. He was given this opportunity during two separate court actions over unpaid rates, brought by Brewarrina Shire Council in NSW and Balonne Shire Council in Queensland.
At local court level, both councils won orders to have Ngurampaa Ltd pay $12,000 and $3,062.80 in unpaid rates, respectively. Ngurampaa’s appeal against the Balonne decision was unsuccessful. The battle with Brewarrina Shire continues.
Anderson appears unruffled by the financial pressure.
“I’d rather cut my right arm off than go on welfare because you become a prisoner in their system,” he says.
“I’m not a slave to their system, for the purpose of getting a few dollars. Shit, I can eat grass. I’ve got plenty of things I can eat here.”
Out on the land, where he learnt his culture from his elders, he demonstrates by picking up a handful of jelly burrs, which are so nutritionally rich they fatten the sheep.
“See those there?” he says. “They’re little salt bushes and when you’re out in the bush and you feel hungry, you get a handful of that and eat it. So when you’re sweating, it restores the salt in your body. I always eat it.”
But he also enjoys the roast his wife Jutta cooks, with a good glass of wine.
Anderson’s plans include one day asking farmers living on Euahlayi land, who currently lease property from the Crown, to instead pay rent to his government. He concedes that this would take a major shift of mindset among the populace, but says he will inform the UN of the changed property arrangements when the time comes.
“All this stuff goes to the United Nations, because if the Government steps in and starts trying to manhandle us with police, and try and bludgeon us into submission, that’s an act of war,” he says.
“That’s a physical act of war and that’s when you invite the UN to come in and look at …what’s going on.”
He writes regularly to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“We keep him abreast of things, so he’s on the alert, he knows what’s going on and if an issue arises, the UN can take action,” Anderson says.
Meanwhile, the Queen has not, to date, contested the Euahlayis’ assertion of sovereignty. Rather, Mrs Bonici has responded by saying that the monarch has taken careful note of their views.
In her most recent letter, Bonici wrote: “Perhaps I might explain, however, that this is not a matter in which The Queen would intervene. As a constitutional Sovereign, Her Majesty acts through her personal representative, the Governor-General, on the advice of her Australian Ministers, and it is to them that your appeal should be directed.”
Anderson will keep writing. After all, Ghillar, the name his grandfather gave him, means “galah”, the bird which reputedly invented the boomerang that always comes back.