Residents of a tiny Australian island are calling for a return to self-rule to save their culture

BY OMAR DEHEN (SBS News)


On the external territory of Norfolk Island, a six-year fight against Australian rule by some residents is gathering momentum. It comes as a public inquiry begins into the suspension of its regional council - the island's last remaining local authority.

Source: SBS News/Omar Dehen

On the lawns of Norfolk Island’s old government building, a solitary green tent stands in daily defiance to Australian rule.


Signs around the tent embassy emphatically highlight the long-simmering frustrations among a sizable portion of the community here.


Painted in the island’s colours of green and white, one placard reads ‘Du We Giw Up, We Gwen Win’ in the traditional Norf’lk language. The translation: ‘If we don’t give up, we will win’. Another reads ‘Norfolk under Siege’ in English.


In the centre of town on this eight-by-five-kilometre island, a field of green hands - each one hand-painted and signed by a different community member – also serves as a symbolic demand for self-determination.


“If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say 90 per cent of our identity is gone,” says Leah Honeywood, a seventh-generation Norfolk Islander whose lineage traces back to the first permanent settlers on the former penal colony.


With a population of some 1,700 people, Norfolk Island has a rich, unique culture, its own language and a colourful history.


In 1855, Queen Victoria granted Norfolk Island to the Pitcairn Islanders, descendants of the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty. A year later, 163 men, women and children were settled there.


As tears well around her eyes, Leah claims the legacy of her ancestors has been devastated in recent years.


“They worked so hard and for so long to become a people and a race, and in five years someone has come in and obliterated that.”


“What’s changed is the Australian government has come in here and imposed their governance and their rules, and things like that just don’t apply to Norfolk.”


Island history

Britain transferred Norfolk Island to Australia in 1914, just prior to World War One. In 1979, it became Australia’s first non-mainland territory to be granted limited self-rule. The island quickly instilled its own democratically elected Legislative Assembly, funding its own services, while Australia still retained ultimate sovereignty and final approval of proposed laws.


But the picturesque island, which is crucially reliant on tourism, fell into economic turmoil in the wake of the 2007 Global Financial Crisis. Its chief minister then stunned locals two years later, when he agreed to surrender the island’s self-governing status to Australia for a bailout.


The most controversial decision of all came in 2015 when Canberra ultimately abolished the Legislative Assembly and appointed its own administrator.


The New South Wales Government currently manages services including health, education and policing, in return for federal government funding. Queensland is currently in negotiations to take over when the NSW contract expires.


Since the transfer, Norfolk Island’s 1,000 registered voters have been added to the electorate of Bean in the ACT.


Ron Ward, a former finance minister on Norfolk Island, says the island was running at an annual deficit of approximately $3 million a year following the GFC. He accuses the Australian government of carrying out “unnecessary … economic warfare against the island”.


“We have no say in anything that is being decided for us.”


“Everything is decided by expat workers and departmental staff in Canberra. It’s a most unsatisfactory way of running a place.”


Before Australia stepped in, a non-binding referendum in 2015 saw 68 per cent of islanders vote to keep self-rule.


A ‘Norfolk Island People for Democracy Movement’ has been growing ever since, and, with the support of local elders, took its fight to the United Nations. Since 2016 the movement has appealed to the UN and Human Rights Council to have Norfolk Island added to its list of ‘non-self-governing territories’. A ruling is yet to be handed down.


“Prior to 2016, the island did need something to change. I believe that could have happened through communication with the Australian government,” says Catherine McCoy, an eighth-generation Norfolk Islander.


“I would like to see the Australian government realise that we do have an identity, and I want that back. I would also like the United Nations to step in, so we can determine our future.”



Source: SBS News/Omar Dehen

Regional council suspended

But locals have been angered further recently after the Norfolk Island Regional Council, their last local authority, was suspended over the new year by the federal government after an independent audit raised concerns about its financial management.


Questions over the council’s viability are the centre of a public inquiry that began on Norfolk Island this week. But disillusioned islanders claim it is another example of democratic rights being denied.


“It’s definitely gone too far,” Ms McCoy says. “We have now no voice. We have no elected representation, and I don’t think that’s democratic in any community. I’m just angry about the whole situation.”


Land taxes, which for centuries never existed on the island, is one of the key grievances about Australian rule.

When Queen Victoria granted Norfolk to the Pitcairn Islanders, she also granted each family 50-acre lots. But in recent years Canberra has introduced property taxes.


Ron and Marlene Nobbs, who have been married for 56 years, live on the property of Ron’s ancestors.


Ron, a former Norfolk Chief Minister, says they can afford the rates, but Marlene, 83, adds that many descendants cannot.


“Norfolk has always been asset rich, but money poor,” Marlene says. “They fear that they are going to lose their land because they can’t afford to pay rates.”


Ron says properties on the island are made up of many portions, which tends to create higher taxes on such cash-poor families.


“In a suburban setting, land rates, property rates, are a very reasonable and workable system for collective revenues to run government services,” he says. “[But] in our situation here, it doesn’t work.”


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