The sun is rising, dew glistening on the grass in front of the Quad. A Campus Security Force bearcat rolls into position in Victoria Park, spraying away the trespassing Australians with a high-pressure water cannon.
It’s Wednesday of OWeek, and the University of Sydney Ministry of Interior is preparing for its biggest immigration event of the year. Sixty thousand new citizens, each of whom needs to be processed and naturalized in mere hours.
Welcome to life in the nation of the University of Sydney.
According to Murdoch University constitutional and international law specialist Lorraine Finlay, Australia is “the leading place in the world for micro-nations.” A micro-nation is a self-determining, self-defined political entity that intends to establish a nation with equal legal footing as existing recognised sovereign states.
When asked why this phenomenon is so common in Australia, Finlay told Honi it “represents the Australian idea of having a go at things, and Australia having a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit, where people don’t just sit down and accept decisions [or government actions] they don’t like.” She notes the “history in Australia… ranging from protests through the union movement, protests in environmental activism, through to micro-nations, where Australia is really one of the most robust democracies in the world in terms of having citizens that are prepared to express their political beliefs.”
Czech libertarian and founder of ‘Liberland,’ Vit Jedlicka, invoked terra nullius when claiming a disputed three-square-mile section of the Croatia-Serbia border. Australia’s history with these colonial notions of what constitute a nation is surely another contributing factor to our position as world leader.
In Australia, Aboriginal micro-nations like the Murrawarri Republic and the Yidindji Tribal Nation have demanded measures such as a treaty, deed of secessions, or acknowledgments of declaration of war by Great Britain. Yidindji leader Murrumu Walubara Yidindji was once arrested “for using license plates issued by the micro-nation.” The Aboriginal Provisional Government, “established on the principle that Aborigines are a sovereign people,” while not a micro-nation, issues Aboriginal passports and birth certificates, with Libya, Norway and Switzerland having accepted the documents, and the Australian government reluctantly allowing activists to re-enter using them.
These examples fit with Finlay’s theory that these nations are “more of an expression of political frustration than anything else.” Although not externally frustrated with the Australian political climate, the University is an extreme hypothetical of a group that could revolt for self-determination.
USyd’s total staff and student population is around 60,000, which makes it larger than twelve currently-recognised countries: Vatican City, Tuvalu, Palau, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Marshall Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, St. Kitts and Nevis, American Samoa, Greenland, and the Cayman Islands.
The University has structures which could easily be as sophisticated or complex as those that govern these small countries. The Senate, comprising of 15 fellows who act as chief decision-making body, the 23-member Executive, who oversee administration, and the 35-member Academic Board who make academic-related decisions. The thousands of academic staff who report to these structures, and the massive institutions that exist on campus are also tantamount to the public servants and ministries of a country; Sydney Uni Sport and Fitness would have placed 45th at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics with their total of one gold, three silver, and one bronze medal.
Sadly, Finlay brings the dream back to reality. In Australia, “the constitution is said to create ‘an indissoluble federation,’” which seems to rule out secession movements as large as that of Western Australia. The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States establishes the “primary criteria historically … needed to actually establish statehood.”
Article 1 dictates that states require: a) a permanent population, b) a defined territory, c) government, and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states. Finlay notes that this has to be “a self-replenishing population… who have children [or] raise a family,” so you “have successive generations, permanently living on the campus.”
In terms of government, USyd’s governance may seem complex and all-encompassing enough to run a nation, but this government needs to exercise “control over the territory, and while universities have governance arrangements, they don’t have a government that is self-sufficient, because…[they] are subject to state and federal laws and regulations.” This power, derived from Australian institutions of government, also fails USyd at the fourth hurdle: capacity to enter into relations.
“So, it’s an interesting hypothetical,” concludes Finlay, “but… just on that first point… a university campus couldn’t declare itself to be a state in a way that would be recognised internationally.”