Australia's Norfolk Island faces fight for independence

By Wendy Frew
Australia editor, BBC News Online

image copyrightAAP
image captionNorfolk Island is one of Australia's most isolated territories

Last Thursday, Norfolk Islanders commemorated the anniversary of the sinking of HMS Sirius, the flagship of Britain's First Fleet that made the six-month journey from England in 1788 to establish the first white settlement in Australia.

Sailing in 1790 from Sydney to the island's small settlement, laden with vital supplies, the ship was wrecked on a reef in Slaughter Bay. For a settlement never far from starvation, it was an unnerving moment.

Two hundred and twenty-five years later, Norfolk Islanders are lamenting what they claim is another disaster: the wrecking of their democracy and independence.

On Thursday, they learned the Australian government planned to present legislation to the nation's parliament that would dismantle Norfolk Island's legislative assembly and force the islanders to pay income and company tax to Australia.

The changes would give the 1,800 islanders access to Australian health and welfare payments for the first time, while the New South Wales government would provide essential services on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia.

But the loss of self-government seems to be too high a price for the islanders, many of whom are descendants of Tahitians and the HMS Bounty mutineers who resettled there from the Pitcairn Islands in 1856 and have fiercely maintained their independence ever since.

image copyrightUK Natural History Museum
image captionHMS Sirius lies wrecked in Turtle Bay. By an unknown Port Jackson Painter, c. 1790.

The island's chief minister, Lisle Snell, rejects the Australian government's claim that residents support the changes. He plans to hold a referendum on self-government within the next two months.

"We were deeply disappointed with the way the news was delivered," Mr Snell tells the BBC.

"But the big issue is the obliteration of our legislative assembly and self-government."

No longer will the residents of Norfolk Island be able to have a voice on issues that affect them, such as health, social welfare, policing, education, he says.

Mr Snell has been worried for some time about the governing coalition's election promise to make changes on the island. Last October, he visited Canberra with a petition signed by more than 740 islanders, advocating that island residents have a say in how their 35-sq-km (13.5 sq miles) home is governed.

He said at the time that the model the federal government wanted to impose would prove dysfunctional and inoperable.

Since then, he claims, the risk that the abolition of self-government would also do away with the island's virtually tax-free status has scared away business investment. The island's main source of revenue is a 12% goods and services tax.

'On a knife edge'

Half way between New Caledonia and New Zealand, Norfolk Island is one of Australia's most geographically isolated and oldest territories. It has always struggled financially but the global financial crisis decimated its main source of income from tourism.

Situated 1,670km north-east of Sydney, freight costs among other things are crippling for tourism operators and other businesses.

Since 2010, Norfolk Island has not been raising enough taxes to pay for services on the island and it has been receiving millions of dollars in Australian government subsidies. Now the Australian taxpayer will have to foot a $A136m ($107m, £53m) bill to turn the legislative assembly into a regional council.

Former Chief Minister Andre Nobbs said the island cannot compete with cheap airfares and bargain holiday prices for destinations such as Bali and Fiji.

"We are on a knife edge," the Pitcairn descendant told the BBC from his island home.

He takes umbrage at the suggestion locals support the reforms. "There has never been enough information that would enable us to make an informed decision," he says.

And he argues that the mainland has chosen not to work collaboratively with the island's government on issues such as an independent body to oversee government decisions, or on alternative forms of income such as establishing the island as a "flag of convenience" shipping registry.

Strong attachment

Islanders have also long been angry that international fishers pay royalties to the Australian Government to fish in Norfolk Island's exclusive economic zone, rather than the money going into island coffers.

Passion for the birthplace is strong amongst islanders. Mr Snell - descended from the Pitcairn Island people on his mother's side - said he had always been led to believe that the island had been given to the Pitcairn immigrants by the British Government (before Australia had its own government).

"I have a strong attachment to this place," he said, describing the beauty and pristine nature of much of the island. "It is my people who have kept it this way."

Norfolk Islanders have resisted mainland attempts at resuming control of the island before, most notably in 2006 when it hired a lobbyist to fight proposed tax changes. And it seems they have plenty of fight left in them.

"It is not over," says Mr Nobbs.

Norfolk Island

  • Norfolk Island is an external Australian territory in the Pacific Ocean about 1,600km north-east of Sydney.
  • The island has been a part of the Commonwealth of Australia since 1914, when it was accepted as an Australian territory under section 122 of the constitution.
  • At the 2011 census, Australian citizens made up 80% of the population; 13% held New Zealand citizenship.
  • Pitcairn Islanders settled on Norfolk Island in 1856 and 38% of today's population are descended from them.

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