"Sovereign citizens” are advising Indigenous Australians to operate outside the laws of the land. By Ramon Glazov.

Freemen movement targets Indigenous Australia

Like all successful conspiracy subcultures, “sovereign citizens” or “Freemen on the Land” never stuck to one demographic for long. Indeed, in recent years the movement has reached Australia. The earliest freemen, however, were American and far-right. From 1969 onwards, a loose network of white supremacist “Posse Comitatus” militias appeared in the US, rejecting every legal authority higher than the county sheriff as “unconstitutional”. As an alternative, they promoted a pure “common law” system where township rulings would be enforced with public lynchings.

Freemen believed all government acts to be optional and only enforceable on individuals who consented to them. As long as they did not acknowledge statutory law or the judiciary, sovereign citizens claimed they were exempt from prosecution – as well as from taxation, debt and road rules. In courts, they submitted rambling declarations containing private heraldry, wax seals, oddly coloured text and signatures jotted in blood or unusual inks. Written statutes, they argued, were actually tyrannical “admiralty laws”, never meant for dry land.

Today, the Southern Poverty Law Centre estimates there are 500,000 sovereign citizens of various persuasions active in the US. The FBI blames the movement for crimes ranging from fraud and tax evasion to assault, murder and terrorism. In July, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) published a survey of US law enforcement officers from 175 agencies who now rated “sovereign citizens” as their top domestic terror threat – ahead of “Islamic extremists/jihadists”, “militia/patriot” groups and “racist skinheads”.

Since the global financial crisis, sovereign citizen theories have found followings outside the US. In May 2013, The Irish Times reported that more than 100 Freemen court cases had been heard throughout Ireland in that year alone. Many involved foreclosure victims trying to escape underwater mortgages. Unusually, non-American Freemen revere the US-centric Black’s Law Dictionary, mining it for obscure Latin phrases scarcely used in modern courtrooms. Even the Posse Comitatus admiralty law belief has survived and adapted. A Canadian Freeman argued that the motto on Canada’s coat of arms – A Mari usque ad Mare, or “From Sea to Sea” – proved he was in an admiralty court.

In Australia, a burgeoning faction of Freemen is targeting Indigenous audiences. A taste of the subculture can be gleaned online, in groups such as the Tribal Sovereign Parliament of Gondwana Land, the Original Sovereign Tribal Federation (OSTF) and the Original Sovereign Confederation. The last of these repeats the now-familiar admiralty law myth on its Facebook page and urges members to carry an “Affidavit of Truth” outlining “their desired relationship with the colony known as Australia”. Another Facebook page – Vote ‘NO’ to Constitutional Change – claims that constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians is a trick to “surrender sovereignty”. Everything, it alleges, is a Trojan Horse. The Recognise campaign’s “R” logo really stands for the Crown, as in “R v Defendant”. Welcome to Country ceremonies aren’t merely figurative but form “the only legal footing the Government have [sic] for so called Jurisdiction”. Native Title secretly means “Slave’s Title”, while a “traditional owner” is someone who has given up their property, at least in tenuous Latin cherrypicked from Black’s Law Dictionary.

The most quoted and influential Aboriginal Freeman guru is OSTF founder and travelling speaker Mark McMurtrie. McMurtrie’s beginnings weren’t in law or land-rights activism but panel beating. In 2002, he sued the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission for $33 million in damages after losing out on a business grant worth $35,000. His four-year suit was unsuccessful. In 2007, he sued a former friend over money and property, losing again.

The following year, however, McMurtrie was shown on YouTube giving three-hour “common law” seminars. He parroted Freemen beliefs that names in capitals on birth certificates and power bills belonged to a fictional “corporate person” and not the “flesh-and-blood” natural person. Some of McMurtrie’s language was still broadly populist – “We the Australian people…” instead of “We the original sovereigns…” – and many of his early Freeman admirers were non-Indigenous. Among them was “Peter-Andrew: Nolan©,” a men’s rights activist who encourages men to fight rape charges with sovereign citizen tactics and bans women from reproducing his name without written permission in red ink. On his website Crimes Against Fathers, Nolan ranks McMurtrie among the “Great Australian Heros [sic]”.

After founding the OSTF, McMurtrie remained close to non-Aboriginal Freemen. In 2011 he joined forces with David Wynn Miller, an American guru claiming to teach “semantic” techniques for winning court cases, mostly involving quirky punctuation. The two unsuccessfully defended a client, Dr Masood Falamaki, in the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales. At one point Miller argued that a court document counted as a “maritime vessel”, explaining, “All paper is a vessel in a sea of space and therefore it has to fly a vessel”. McMurtrie backed Miller, telling The Sydney Morning Herald: “As a sovereign tribal man of this continent, I view his ramblings as relevant to my people.” His OSTF is currently partnered with a sovereign citizen outfit called the Truthology Foundation, which holds yearly “freedom summits”. These feature talks by Truthology’s creator Mark Darwin on “how you can operate privately outside the rules of such organisations like the ATO” and workshops by a “Mr X” on “successful techniques for negating and or waiving council fines, traffic infringements and tolls”.

McMurtrie’s tone in videos is earnest and sulky, never dazzling or glib. He’s believable enough as an activist, a grassroots tragic, and the OSTF doesn’t immediately appear distinct from the rest of the land rights movement. In early 2012, OSTF members joined the Canberra Tent Embassy for the well-publicised protests that cost Julia Gillard her shoe. On Sunrise, McMurtrie even appeared as a supposed embassy spokesman. Later, surviving embassy founder Michael Anderson became suspicious of the OSTF’s non-Indigenous “legal advisers”. Over email, he distanced himself from McMurtrie, saying he “attempted to use the 40th celebration of the Embassy as a means to legitimise him and the OSTF”.

Anderson had other concerns, too: “McMurtrie has been going around the country giving Aboriginal people his ‘Rebuttal’ to charges, but when the court rejects them McMurtrie is not around to advise how next to act.”

On August 8 last year, a Yidindji man named Daniel Anning, convicted of car theft, appealed to the Supreme Court of Queensland. He submitted a document titled “Notice of Rebuttal of Claim of Title to Land and Claim of Right”. It declared that the State of Queensland was a “private Corporation… registered in Washington DC” with no authority over “Private Natural People” and that Anning would not consent to a hearing “in any court other than a Yidindji Tribal Council of Elders Court or Common Law court de jure with a jury of 12 peers”. The document contained cryptic names that seemed to be cut and pasted from another case. Anning’s appeal was dismissed. That same month, another Queensland court considered another “Notice of Rebuttal,” this time by a Nerissa Anderson, who gave her name as “Nerissa of the Ngadjon-Jii Tribe.” It was again dismissed.

Last week, another Yidindji made news. Murrumu Walubara Yidindji – formerly NITV journalist Jeremy Geia – returned his passport, Medicare card and driver’s licence to the government. The licence had the “incorrect name”, he told The Guardian’s Paul Daley. Now he planned to “jump off the citizen ship, leave Australia”. He gave little clue what this meant, aside from a few Latin phrases.

His series of SoundCloud “message stick” recordings tell a fuller story. Murrumu’s last two recordings before “leaving Australia” (August 13 and 20) accept the influence of Mark McMurtrie (under his tribal alias, “Gunham Badi Jakamarra”) and decry the Recognise campaign as a plot by the “New World Order”. The state “to this day” doesn’t actually recognise Indigenous people as Australian citizens, Murrumu claims. As such, “Origines” are not subject to Commonwealth laws and (supposedly) cannot be tried by Australian judiciaries.

Another message stick, from July 30, makes Murrumu’s Freeman beliefs plain: “You see, what the Crown has actually done is created an offer of contract, that all stems from the birth certificate. […] Just look at the wording and the connection. Does Admiralty Law start when a woman’s water breaks? […] What about the birth canal? Is a contract created when a woman has her contractions? […] Who’s waiting at the end of the birth canal? Is it a doc(k), or a doctor? Don’t ships berth at the dock? There’s too many coincidences.”

There’s a problem beyond these word games: the centuries-long erosion of trust and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. When part of a culture senses the court system is rigged against it, when a society has managed to make the terms “protection” and “child welfare” sound grim, then the OSTF mentality is partly understandable. Alienation begets anti-politics. Alienated people want explanations for the absurdism they feel around certain institutions; answers to why some professional fraternities give them the chills.

Fantasies about tyrannical admiralty lawyers provide just that. They’re the opiate of the excluded.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "Free men and uncommon laws".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Ramon Glazov is a freelance writer, critic and journalist.