Western Australian man Wayne Glew made national headlines this week after losing a court battle over $300,000 in rates he refused to pay on the grounds that tax are unlawful, once again drawing attention to the confusing world of self-styled ‘sovereign citizens’.
In perhaps one of the more interesting legal stories of the year, the City of Greater Geraldton in Western Australia has defended a decision to repossess and sell the property of Mr Glew, who for several years has argued the council’s existence – and by extension the rates it charges – to be unconstitutional.
Mr Glew has earned a reputation over the past decade for making these sorts of legal claims in various courts, often appealing the initial court’s decision after losing his case (which the history books will show he does regularly).
In one case from 2012, when Mr Glew appealed a decision finding him guilty of assaulting a public officer, the judge ruled that “none of the proposed grounds of appeal is reasonably arguable, far less do any of them have any rational prospect of succeeding”.
But Mr Glew is not alone in his belief that local governments are unconstitutional and taxes illegal, he’s part of a movement known as the ‘sovereign citizens’; and it’s not the first time this loosely connected group has made headlines in Australia.
So, what exactly is a sovereign citizen, and can their arguments be used to cut down on your taxes?
Beliefs and arguments
‘Sovereign citizens’ hold a range of unusual interpretations of the law, most pertinently to Mr Glew’s case is the argument local governments are unconstitutional, a belief that stems from the fact local governments aren’t mentioned in the constitution.
The constitution does however enable state governments to create local governments (and in fact Western Australia’s own constitution specifically says that the state government will “maintain a system of local governing bodies”), but this generally seems to be overlooked by the movement.
Some also use an alternative version of English, using the ‘QUANTUM GRAMMAR’ developed by former welder David Wynn Miller, a self-styled “plenipotentiary’ judge who believes he stopped ageing at age 25 after being dead for half an hour following a surgical accident in 1975.
The capitalisation is very important to this form of English, apparently.
Mr Miller believes this form of grammar, supposedly based off of mathematical principles, is the “truth language” and its use can effectively combat the ‘illegal’ activities of nefarious government agencies (and according to Mr Miller, also resulted in him being crowned as king of Hawaii).
In 2016, former One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts was forced to distance himself from the sovereign citizen movement after it was revealed he’d used a similar grammar style in letters written in 2011 and 2012 to then-prime minister Julia Gillard, arguing against the carbon tax.
Other beliefs include the argument they cannot be tried for crimes where there is no complainant, or that they can only be tried in ‘common law courts’, which US anti-hate organisation Southern Poverty Law Centre describe as “a sort of people’s tribunal with no lawyers”.
Origins in the US
A few individuals bickering with their local council over taxes seems pretty harmless, but the history of the sovereign citizen movement is rooted in more nefarious beliefs: the extreme right Posse Comitatus movement that came to prominence in the US in the 1970s.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Posse Comitatus combined an anti-tax and anti-government stance with “Christian Identity beliefs (a racist theology identifying Jews as the literal progeny of Satan and blacks as subhuman)”.
“Sovereign citizens also often distinguish between so-called ’14th Amendment citizens’, who are subject to federal and state governments, and themselves, who are also known as ‘organic citizens’ – an ideology that causes adherents to claim that black people, who only became legal citizens when the 14th Amendment was passed after the Civil War, have far fewer rights than whites.”
Not quite the tale of a courageous underdog fighting a corrupt system, then. The group also has a history of violence that extends beyond Mr Glew’s assault of a public officer in 2012. Oklahoma City bombing accomplice Terry Nichols also believed in the sovereign citizen movement.
In 2015, the New South Wales police force even listed the subscribers to the ideology as a potential terrorist threat. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation similarly describes adherents to the movement as extremists.