If you have seen any news lately, you will have heard of sovereign citizens. Videos of drivers refusing to acknowledge the authority of police have gone viral. Jim Penman – of “Jim’s Mowing” fame – now wants to secede from Victoria and declare himself King of his own country.

He wouldn’t be the first. Prince Leonard of Hutt ran his own micro-nation in remote Western Australia for nearly half a century following a row with the State government over wheat quotas. As Harry Hobbs and George Williams explain in their book ‘How to Rule Your Own Country’, there are around 130 micro-nations across the world, and one-third of them are in Australia. Micro-nations are more an oddity than a plausible attempt to secede, though they do raise fundamental questions about statehood.

In other cases, individuals who reject the authority of governments pose a real and immediate threat to public safety. Sovereign citizens have been linked to deadly shootings of police officers in the United States. They are labelled a domestic terror threat by the FBI. One of the conspirators behind the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings was a sovereign citizen. Before the attacks, he filed ‘endless frivolous lawsuits’ against the government, using a common tactic dubbed ‘paper terrorism’.

These are different problems. One is eccentric, the other extremist. One is disruptive, the other dangerous. But there is a common thread, as those involved have rejected the authority of prevailing legal systems and the governments they live under.

So, what do we know about sovereign citizens in Australia, their beliefs, and the threats they pose, if any?

Historically associated with the Australian Merchant Navy, the red ensign flag has been adopted by Australia’s sovereign citizen movement.
“I Do Not Consent”

A sovereign citizen is someone who rejects the legitimate authority of the government they live under, including the police and other authorities of state.

The ideas originated in the United States in the 1970s. They are based in a conspiracy theory that the government created by the Founding Fathers was secretly replaced by a corporation that enslaves all Americans through secret trust accounts and agreements with foreign investors. This started either during the American Civil War or in 1933 when FDR abandoned the gold standard (the details are hazy). The founding group held anti-government, anti-Semitic and extreme Christian Identity beliefs.

The movement grew in the 1990s and spread to other countries, including Australia.

According to the theory, the US government controls its citizens by creating a legal identity for everyone at birth. Sovereign citizens call this your ‘strawman’. The name of your strawman is written in capital letters on your birth certificate. This is followed by a social security number, car registration, and other state-issued documents.

Sovereign citizens believe in a natural, ‘flesh-and-blood’ person distinct from the strawman. They use various strategies to assert this true identity and escape their ‘corporate shell’. They might write their names in lowercase letters or sign documents with red ink or blood (as black and blue pens signify corporations).

In Australia, the beliefs are localised, beginning with a similar conspiracy that our government was secretly replaced with a US-owned corporation. The most likely culprit is the Whitlam government in 1973, or the drafters of the Constitution might have stuffed up the paperwork at Federation.

Someone who identifies as a sovereign citizen does not necessarily know or believe in all the backstory. But common expressions they use invoke this purported history.

“The common thread is a belief that sovereign citizens are not subject to Australian law. To be clear, this has no legal basis. Every single person in Australia is subject to the same laws of the land. That is the essence of the rule of law.”
Legal name fraud poster

I do not consent’ is one practised phrase. It is based in the idea that the corporate government controls us through contractual agreements, so the laws apply to us only if we expressly consent to them. This partly explains why sovereign citizens are vocal when dealing with police. They want to avoid entering into contracts by acquiescence, which could be implied from their silence.

Another example, based in the idea of the strawman, is when sovereign citizens say they are not driving their cars but ‘travelling’. This is to defend against crimes that require a legal person who is ‘driving’ a ‘vehicle’.

These are brief examples. The underlying reasoning is often complex, detailed (though inaccurate) and dressed up in legalese. Without legal training, many of the arguments are attractive and ‘superficially credible’.

The common thread is a belief that sovereign citizens are not subject to Australian law. To be clear, this has no legal basis. Every single person in Australia is subject to the same laws of the land. That is the essence of the rule of law.

It is also essential to the rule of law and a healthy democracy for individuals to challenge the use of laws against them and indeed the laws themselves. However, when legal arguments are based on misinformation, the claims are vexatious, or the actions involved become disruptive or harmful to others, sovereign citizen ideas can go beyond legal quirks to something more dangerous. So just how dangerous are they?

Pandemic Extremism

In Australia and around the world, the pandemic has led increasing numbers of people to seek out conspiracy theories and extremist beliefs online. Global uncertainty and the ‘collective trauma’ of the last few years, combined with beliefs that lockdowns and other restrictions eroded our fundamental freedoms, have created a perfect storm for dangerous ideas.

These include, but are not limited to, sovereign citizen beliefs. Right-wing extremism and incel misogyny are other circles in a Venn diagram of what ASIO calls ‘ideologically-motivated violent extremism’. By 2021, this had reached 50% of ASIO’s caseload, though it has since reduced.

Understanding ideological extremism is difficult because someone might adopt one of these belief systems, or several, or cherry-pick from each. The Venn diagram metaphor is useful to a point, but it is not even possible to list agreed beliefs for any one of the circles. There are common themes to right-wing extremism, for example, but the ideology can be broken down further into ultra-nationalism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and other hateful views.                                   

A sovereign citizen might be a violent right-wing extremist. They might also be an anti-vaxxer and an incel. But they could also be pro-vax, pro-equality and concerned mainly with getting out of a speeding fine. They might even use concepts like Terra Nullius and settlement to reject the authority of the British Crown and advocate for Indigenous land rights.

Sovereign citizens and their beliefs are too diverse to describe the threat with singular certainty. Some individuals will pose a greater threat and require ongoing attention from ASIO and the police. The tragic shootings of the young police officers in western Queensland were not fuelled by these beliefs, though a future terror attack might be explained through a sovereign citizen lens.

Some sovereign citizens will join different protests or organise their own, some will frustrate the court system, and others will be a nuisance at traffic stops. Still more will read things on websites and forums, believe in the ideology, and never bother anyone. Some might believe in the ideas for a short time and then leave them behind. The difficult question for police, intelligence agencies, the courts and other authorities is to know which one of these people they are dealing with at any given time, and whether one type of behaviour can lead to another.

What is clear, given the particular beliefs that sovereign citizens ascribe to, is that their interactions with police and other symbols of the state have the potential to escalate if not handled effectively. More research is needed into how these situations can best be de-escalated to avoid harming anyone involved.


Dr Keiran Hardy is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and a member of the Griffith Criminology Institute. He has published extensively on counter-terrorism law and policy and comments regularly for Australian media. His research interests include counter-terrorism law, countering violent extremism, radicalisation, intelligence whistleblowing and cyber-terrorism.