Tiny Norfolk Island, for decades a popular holiday destination for New Zealanders, is undergoing significant social and political change, as Elaine Fisher discovered when she visited in May.
Hundreds of green handprints, and the Norfolk Island flag at half-mast, stand in silent protest in a reserve in Burnt Pine Township.
Each handprint – some left, some right, all in Norfolk green – is signed with the name of its owner as part of a campaign called ‘Hands Up for Norfolk Island’ in protest at the loss of the island’s self-governing status.
Once hailed as an exemplar for all democracies, the Norfolk Island Parliament was abolished on July 1, 2015, and replaced by the Australian Government, which now maintains authority on the island through an administrator – in effect making Norfolk Islanders now Australians.
The green hands are not the only ongoing action. In historic Kingston, protestors have maintained a constant 12-month vigil, under canvas, near the island’s former seat of self-government. It’s a rather dignified and quiet protest. There, in a tent HQ, locals and tourists alike are welcome to a cup of tea, a discussion about the island’s history and explanation of the reasons why protestors object to the current political situation.
Appealing to UN
Back in Burnt Pine’s main street – not far from the reserve – is The Democracy Centre, the office of the Norfolk Island People for Democracy, the group that wants to maintain self-rule.
People for Democracy president Chris Magri says the group is appealing to the United Nations to be accorded protective rights as a Non-Self-Governing Territory, allowing the islanders to determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
What they want, says Chris, is the kind of relationship the Cook Island and Tokelau have with New Zealand.
Norfolk Island covers just 35 square kilometres and is located between Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia – and is 1412km directly east of mainland Australia’s Evans Head, and about 900km from Lord Howe Island. It has around 1796 permanent residents, many of whom trace their ancestry back to Pitcairn Island, its Bounty Mutineers and Tahitian “fore-mothers”.
The island has been self-governing since the Norfolk Island Act was passed in 1979, giving the island limited autonomy. That was when a legislative assembly – similar to the one that governs the Australian Capital Territory – was established.
Peter Maywald, who was Norfolk Island's secretary to the government from 2003-2010 and an advisor to its legislative assembly, has been quoted as saying: “I thought it was the best functioning direct democracy I’ve ever seen. It was a functional parliament on the model that I believed democratic parliaments should run on”.
Under its parliamentary system, Norfolk had citizen-initiated referendums, but no political parties. All members were elected on their own policy platform and expected to deliver.
Parliamentarians were totally accessible, regularly being approached by residents in the local supermarket or main street. Parliamentary decisions were broadcast live by the island’s radio station, Norfolk Island Radio 89.9FM.
But on November 6, 2010, the Chief Minister of Norfolk Island, David Buffett, announced the island would voluntarily surrender its tax-free status in return for financial help from the Australia Federal Government to cover significant debts.
Chris says it was the Global Financial Crisis and a dramatic drop in visitor numbers that put the island in financial strife and opened the opportunity for Canberra to begin its “takeover bid”. Chris believes the island’s financial woes could have been solved in 2010 with a short-term loan from Canberra of $3.5 million and some very minor changes to the island’s financial governance.
In 2015 “against the wishes of the Norfolk Island Government and a clear majority of its voters” – Australia acted to implement a new Australian-administered tax system and replace self-government with a local council.
Under its previous administration, residents of Norfolk Island did not pay income tax so the island’s legislative assembly raised money through a range of local taxes, fees and charges including, an import duty, fuel levy, Medicare-type health levy, goods and services tax of 12 per cent, and local and international phone calls.
The introduction of Australia’s income taxation came into effect on July 1, 2016. Since that time the island has received assistance in supporting its delivery of state government responsibilities such as health, education, Medicare, and infrastructure from Australia. Prior to these reforms the Norfolk Island Government provided all of these services from revenue raised locally on Norfolk Island.
Chris says, on May 8, 2015, in an Island-wide referendum conducted under Norfolk Island statute, the Norfolk Island people voted overwhelmingly in support of their legal right to determine their own political status and their economic, social and cultural development.
“The referendum result clearly exposes the Norfolk Island community has been misrepresented by the Norfolk Island Administrator to Assistant Minister Briggs. The people of Norfolk Island have clearly said that they want a say on the future model of governance for Norfolk Island, not just have a governance model imposed on them,” Lisle Snell, Norfolk Island Chief Minister, said at the time.
In announcing the passing of the Norfolk Island Legislation Amendment Bill 2015, MP Jamie Briggs, then the Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, said the move ended decades of uncertainty for the residents of Norfolk Island.
“Thanks to the hard work of the Norfolk Island community and with strong bipartisan support from the Australian Labor Party, The Greens and independent Senators, this Bill will help build a stronger and more prosperous future for all island residents.
“For the first-time Norfolk Island residents will have access to social security payments and quality health services that all Australians expect and deserve,” said Jamie.
However, many locals don’t agree with those sentiments, and say already the island is suffering under the changes.
Work is valued
They worry for the future of their young people who have grown up in a society where to work is valued. Previously, there was virtually no unemployment. Many people have more than one job and college students are among those actively employed in part-time positions. Now locals qualify for benefits, the number of people willing to do part-time tasks, like cleaning tourist accommodation facilities, is drying up.
Previously a few hours’ work each day on a wage, which was not taxed, was enough to get by on. But not now taxation is in place.
Previously Norfolk Island did have a local pension system, which allowed people with large traditional land holdings to get a pension. “Australia’s new system forces those people to either sell their land or lose their pension,” says Chris.
There have been other impacts of the changes too. Now Norfolk Island is officially part of Australia, Australians can visit without passports – which has affected the amount of airfreight coming to Norfolk – as evidenced by the sparsely stocked shelves in the local supermarket.
Air freight hit
In the past, if planes couldn’t land, they diverted to nearby Noumea. Now they have to carry enough fuel to return to Australia as passports are required to land at Noumea – and more fuel means less freight and passengers being offloaded.
Getting supplies to Norfolk is also hampered by the fact the island has no harbour. Currently, cargo arriving by sea – including buses and cars, beer and building supplies – must be off-loaded from vessels and taken ashore by island lighters, a wooden craft towed by a motor boat.
“The crews work day and night to unload the cargo, because the window of opportunity during calm weather is limited,” says one local, who reckons that will all change when Australia work safety rules and unions become involved.
Lisle and others involved with People for Democracy question Australia’s motives. “The changes are costing Australia taxpayers and we are unsure what’s in it for the government. “Is it the island’s strategic position, or the value of the fishery in the Norfolk Island Exclusive Economic Zone? There are also rumours about oil being found offshore,” says Lisle.
Get on with life
Other locals, while supporting the sentiment of the People for Democracy movement, believe now the changes are in place it’s wise to get on with life and make the best of it.
“If the United Nations does take up the case, the first thing it is likely to do is call for a vote to find out what local people want. Now many are entitled to benefits and pensions, it’s highly unlikely they will vote for a return to the way things were,” says a local businessman.
Norfolk Island, once a penal colony, then home to re-located Pitcairn Islanders, is undergoing another period of significant social change that will affect a culture once unique in the world. For better or worse – only time will tell.