Norfolk Island's fight for democracy
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Norfolk Island's fight for democracy

Stories/224 , Issues/Policy
6th Feb 2018
Norfolk Island's fight for democracy
In 2015, the federal government revoked its legislative council, stripping Norfolk island of any pretence of self-determination.

Dotting Australian coastlines from Gippsland to the Gold Coast rise the iconic Norfolk Pine. Few Sydneysiders would recognise a beach without one.

Pictured: Norfolk Pines on Norfolk Island.
Pictured: Norfolk Pines on Norfolk Island.

Yet while these unique conifers have been an Aussie beach icon for over a century, they are just as synonymous with an issue few Australians know about; the self-determination of the people of Norfolk Island.

Encompassing a full 35 square kms of territory in the Tasman Sea, and a population of 1,748 people, Norfolk Island is an easy place to miss in your atlas. Its pine-dotted hills and white sandy beaches are the picture of Pacific paradise.

The uninhabited island was settled by the British as a supply base and penal colony to support its new territories in Australia.

The island was separated from the New South Wales colony in 1844, eventually becoming a separate entity. However, to the dismay of many of Norfolk Island's residents, the island was once more incorporated into NSW by an amendment to the Norfolk Island Act in 2015.

The problem arises from the fact that during the interim years, beginning in 1856, the British had given the island to the people of Pitcairn Island.

The Pitcairners were the descendants of the mutinied British sailors of HMS Bounty, as well as Tahitians who joined them as they fled the British Navy. Eventually settling on Pitcairn Island in the west Pacific, the community they established there would re-join the British Empire in 1838.

However, by the 1850s the island no longer had the resources to sustain their larger population. After appealing for aid the Pitcariners were allowed by the British to resettle at the recently abandoned penal colony at Norfolk Island.

For the next 160 years the Pitcairners thrived on Norfolk, developing a distinct way of life and national identity. Today, Norfolk Islanders have their own language, cultural heritage, and flag which they compete under at the Commonwealth Games.

Until very recently, they also had their own government which was established in 1979.

During this period federal services such as Medicare were not provided on Norfolk Island, and the islanders predominantly managed their own affairs with economic assistance from Australia.

When Norfolk Island's economy collapsed following the global financial crisis, the federal government moved to end the island's independence in order to reign in its deficits.

In 2015, the federal government revoked its legislative council, stripping the island of any pretence of self-determination.

This decision was rejected by the local population who held a referendum on the issue, voicing a resounding 'no' to the proposed changes. This outcry was ultimately ignored by the federal government.

With a parliamentary vote, and little ceremony, Norfolk Island was bureaucratically annexed and placed under direct administration.

Pictured: The Norfolk Island community protests against its bureaucratic annexation.
Pictured: The Norfolk Island community protests against its bureaucratic annexation.

Since this decision by the Australian government to formally annex the island, Norfolk Island has been administered by NSW, though without any ability to vote in NSW elections.

"Apart from some control over menial administrative matters including Roads and Rubbish there is no democracy on Norfolk Island," says Chris Magri, president of the Norfolk Island People for Democracy (NIPD). "We have come from having a say in almost every aspect of our lives to having almost no control."

Chris typifies Australia's treatment of Norfolk Islanders as "criminal and prehistoric."

Chris's organisation, the NIPD, is a local movement campaigning for the restoration of Norfolk Island's self-governance. Since its creation in 2015 it has been busy lobbying the Australian government for the restoration of their democratic rights.

According to Chris, the NIPD just wants the Australian government "to sit down and have a mature conversation about returning democracy to Norfolk Island, a conversation which considers the interests and obligations of both parties."

"We have done this before, and it works," he adds.

Such a solution has been met with antipathy from government officials, who continue to insist the changes have been good for Norfolk Island.

This is despite a recent economic report which found that Norfolk Island businesses are struggling to cope with the need to conform to mainland legislation.

The provision of federal services, a key part of the federal reforms, is also lacking. The operating theatre at the Norfolk Island hospital is being closed, forcing islanders to travel to the mainland for treatment. Centrelink won't even accept Norfolk Island addresses or phone numbers into its systems.

With these issues being ignored by the government, and having already rejected a local referendum on the issue, it seems Norfolk Island's democracy has little chance of being restored.

However, where there are limited options within the Australian Commonwealth, Norfolk Island has recently begun an international campaign to determine its future.

NIPD is currently lodging an application through the UN to have its right to self determination internationally recognised.

However, the Australian government has been accused of muddying the waters. The 2016 census showed a marked decline in respondents indicating they had 'Pitcairn' heritage.

This is likely the result of changes to the format of the census, including counting those who put down 'Norfolk Island' as their ancestry as 'Australian'.

Some view this as an attempt to diminish the case for Norfolk Island self-determination, but Chris remains optimistic.

"We have no doubt that our right to self-determination is absolute," Chris says. "We simply need to continue through the somewhat clumsy UN processes, and hopefully before Australia destroys all we have built over the last 160 years."

What happens after this recognition will be in the hands of the Norfolk Island people.

One idea floated by former Norfolk Island chief minister, Andre Nobbs, is the possibility of joining New Zealand in a pact of free association.

"Many on Norfolk Island aspire to have the same relationship that exists between the Cook Islands and New Zealand," Chris acknowledged.

Under this arrangement, the Cook Islands is free to create its own domestic laws and print its own currency, while New Zealand deals with issues of foreign policy and defence.

The UN bid has not been the only attempt Norfolk Island has made at international advocacy. In 2016 three UK MPs visited the island to listen to issues about the island's self-governance, subsequently making a statement urging the island's administrator to be sacked.

"These days we don't believe in colonising and annexing small territories and countries," one of the MPs pointedly added.

More recently, a former administrator of Christmas island and the Cook Islands has echoed this sentiment. In an article written for The Age, Jon Stanhope argues that Australia's treatment of its offshore territories "comes within the definition of "colony" employed by the UN."

The Australian government continues to feign deaf ears to the rights of its constituents on Norfolk Island. For a nation that has lived through its own deeply traumatic colonial past, it is startling how easily it is being replicated, even in 2018.

If Australia wishes to be a nation that promotes democracy, then it needs to take a stand in delivering democracy to its own citizens. Norfolk Island deserves the right to decide upon its own affairs.

Natalie Grube's film Inasmuch - Spirit of the Norfolk Island Custodian  tells the story of five Norfolk Islanders as they share with you their connection to Norfolk's land and culture, in the wake of the recent undemocratic takeover by the Australian government.

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