For several decades, the small population of Norfolk Island was self-sufficient and self-sufficient. But the final steps in making them ordinary Australian citizens will take place on July 1 and, as Keri phillips reports, not everyone is happy.
Since the descendants of the Bounty mutineers took up residence on Norfolk Island, there has been a debate over the independence of the island.
While the people there have long viewed their home as an independent nation, the story of whether they were granted full ownership is murky.
Captain Cook was the first European to visit Norfolk Island in 1774, and when Governor Phillip arrived in Sydney with the First Fleet in 1788 he almost immediately sent Lieutenant Philip Gidley King to establish a penal colony there.
At the start of the 19th century, the penal colony was closed, but there were problems on another small island, Pitcairn, where the descendants of the Bounty mutineers were struggling.
They petitioned Queen Victoria, who agreed to move them to Norfolk.
Peter Maywald, who was the Norfolk Island government secretary from 2003 to 2010, said the Pitcairners all moved by 1856.
“This is where the story gets murky, as Norfolk Islanders or Pitcairn descendants claim that Queen Victoria gave them the island in perpetuity on the condition that there are no punitive taxes.” , he said.
“The Australian government is disputing this, and the paperwork is ambiguous, I would say.
“But they still believe they were given Norfolk Island, it’s theirs, it’s not part of Australia, and Australia claims it’s outside territory.”
A successful democracy
Over the years, Norfolk’s administration fell to New South Wales and the federal government, until in the 1970s a royal commission recommended it be completely absorbed into Australia.
But, says Maywald, the locals weren’t happy with this. They communicated their feelings in no uncertain terms to then Home Secretary Bob Ellicott, who surprisingly enough agreed to empower them.
The Norfolk Island Act was passed in 1979, granting the island limited autonomy.
After the passage of the Norfolk Island Act, a legislative assembly, similar to that which governs the ACT, was established. As an advisor to this government, Maywald said he was surprised to see how well the system worked.
“I thought it was direct democracy that worked the best I have ever seen,” he says.
“They had citizen-initiated referendums, they didn’t have political parties, so all members were elected on their own political platform and expected them to deliver when they arrived. Cabinet ministers became the four or five who got the most votes, so the public really elected ministers.
“And parliamentarians were totally accessible to the people. It’s inevitable in a small community … If they were at the Foodland supermarket on a Saturday morning, people would come and ask about roads, retreats or whatever. And the other thing was that all of their parliamentary decisions were totally public and they were all broadcast live.
“It was a functioning parliament on the model on which I thought democratic parliaments should function.”
How the GST and GFC broke Norfolk
Norfolk Island was largely self-financing – it funded the hospital, school, infrastructure and power plant, says Jon Stanhope, who was Norfolk Island’s deputy administrator in the 1990s.
“The Norfolk Island Legislature has developed its own pension scheme, its own social safety net and its own medical benefit scheme, but of course nowhere near as generous as the schemes on the mainland.” , did he declare.
“But unlike that, of course, they don’t pay income tax and contribute to the continent’s tax base.
“I lived there for two years in the early 90s and it was a very, very happy, vibrant and proud community that, if asked, would almost unanimously respond that they had the best lifestyle. in the world.”
But Norfolk Island’s revenues were hit hard by two events in the early 2000s, first the introduction of the GST and then in 2008 the global financial crisis.
Maywald says Norfolk effectively lost its duty-free status when the GST went into effect.
“The things that were taxed at a very high rate on the mainland, the so-called luxury sales taxes on things like perfumes and alcohol and some household appliances and jewelry, they were extremely cheap on the island. from Norfolk because they didn’t have that sales tax, ”he says.
“Tourists would come there for a week and pay for their tickets with all the savings they made on their purchases.
Norfolk Islanders have not been compensated and tax changes have hurt their tourism.
“From that point on, most tourists were retirees or people on fixed incomes,” says Maywald.
Then in 2008, tourism plunged again as GFC made it difficult for the elderly to travel, while the high Australian dollar made vacationing abroad more attractive.
The roadmap to be part of Australia
These increasingly difficult economic circumstances ultimately ended self-government on Norfolk Island.
In 2010, in a decision that apparently surprised many Norfolk Islanders, Chief Minister David Buffett told the Legislature that the island would relinquish its autonomy in exchange for a Commonwealth bailout.
That year, Neil Pope, a former Victorian Labor MP and conflict resolution expert, went there as an administrator to negotiate what was known as the Norfolk Island Roadmap, in order that the island can be part of both the Australian tax system and the social safety net.
“We would back up their budget, but only on the basis that they were able to respond to various aspects included in the roadmap,” Pope said.
“They needed to increase their income, so it was things like trying to introduce property tax, which they never had. They might be props, but basically their only real source of income was a 12 percent GST that applied to everything.
He says the vast majority of the islanders were in favor of joining Australia’s tax system, but the loss of self-government was a sticking point.
“The way it’s portrayed is as if self-government has always existed on Norfolk Island. Well, self-government has only existed on Norfolk Island for 36 years, ”he says.
In 2014, the Standing Joint Committee on the National Capital and Outside Territories conducted a survey of the economic development of Norfolk Island, with particular emphasis on tourism. Jon Stanhope says their mandate was to inquire about the economic future and capacity of Norfolk Island and the main recommendation was to end self-government.
“They didn’t invite submissions on governance. They did not collect evidence on governance. Basically, they deceived the whole community, ”he says.
Integrating Norfolk into our democracy
One of the members of the Joint Standing Committee who recommended getting rid of self-government is Gai Brodtmann, the Labor MP for the Canberra seat, the ACT electorate where the people of Norfolk Island will now be registered to vote.
She says the current governance arrangements are holding back the island’s economic growth.
“Every time I have been up there I have seen a further deterioration in the economic situation: more shops closed, more industries failing and more people leaving the island, and that is very concerning.” , she says.
“All of these reviews highlighted the fact that the existing governance arrangements were not serving the island to the best of their ability. The current arrangements were simply not viable.
From July 1, what is called a regional council will take charge of what is traditionally the competences of local councils: roads, taxes and garbage. At the federal level, it will become compulsory to vote in the Canberra electorate in the ACT.
Where state laws would apply, it will be the laws of New South Wales, although residents of Norfolk Island cannot vote in New South Wales state elections. South.
“Just imagine any other community in Australia on the continent where you’re going to be holus-bolus in an electorate and you aren’t even asked for your opinion on this proposal,” Stanhope says.
“Especially when you live a few thousand miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and they’ve decided to tie you into a landlocked electorate that is part of the nation’s capital.
“There is no responsibility, there is no political responsibility for the day to day decisions that affect your life.”