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Understanding Norfolk Island's Democratic Deficit

Unlike 99.99985% of Australian citizens whose rights to a representative parliamentary democracy are preserved under the Australian Constitution, the Norfolk Island People are subject to whatever governance arrangements the Commonwealth Parliament deems ‘fit’ for Norfolk Island.

In 2015 the Parliament used its authority to impose new undemocratic governance arrangements on Norfolk Island and effectively grant the majority of the powers normally vested in a Parliament ‘of the People’ to a single Federal Minister and a single unelected public servant. Naturally, the Norfolk Island People continue to protest this situation in favour of a more appropriate, more democratic governance model for Norfolk Island.

Australia’s system of government

Australia is a representative democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Australia’s Parliamentary Education Office in its ‘Fact Sheet on the Australian system of government’ describes the ‘benefits of democracy’ as follows:

  • There are ways to resolve different views and conflicts peacefully.

  • Respect for human dignity.

  • The freedom to act, speak and think freely (as long as it does not stop others doing the same)

  • Equality before the law.

  • Good government that is efficient, transparent, responsive and accountable to citizens.

  • Ability to hold elected representatives accountable’.

Norfolk Island does not have a democratic system of government

For 99.99985% of Australian citizens, the right to a representative parliamentary democracy is preserved under the Australian Constitution. This is not the case for the Norfolk Island People. Rather the Australian Constitution gives the Commonwealth Parliament the power to ‘make laws for the government of [Norfolk Island]’ and ‘allow the representation of [Norfolk Island] in either House of the Parliament to the extent and on the terms which it thinks fit’.

In 1979 the Commonwealth Parliament thought it ‘fit’ to grant the Norfolk Island People their own representative parliamentary democracy established by the Norfolk Island Act 1979 (Cth).

However, in 2015 the Commonwealth Parliament abolished the Island’s democratically elected Parliament by passing the Norfolk Island Legislation Amendment Act 2015 (Cth) (the 2015 Act).

The 2015 Act imposed new governance arrangements on Norfolk Island which placed the Norfolk Island People at a distinct democratic deficit when compared with or measured against the democracy enjoyed by most Australians. The following is a brief analysis of the undemocratic elements of the Island’s newly applied governance arrangements.

The Federal Minister

Under the 2015 Act a single Federal Minister has effectively been granted the power to make and apply Commonwealth legislation (Ordinances) to Norfolk Island. The Federal Minister does not require the consent of the Norfolk Island People and is not required to consult the Norfolk Island community before making laws for Norfolk Island and there is no requirement that the Commonwealth Parliament debate the merits (or lack thereof) of the law/s being applied.

The only checks and balances required of the Federal Minister in applying laws to Norfolk Island are:

  1. The proposed laws require the approval of the Federal Executive Council (Note. The majority of Federal Executive Council meetings take place with two Ministers only); and

  2. After tabling a new law, a Senator or Member of the House of Representatives may give notice of a motion to disallow the instrument. If the motion is agreed to by a majority of members, the law is disallowed and it then ceases to have effect. (Norfolk Island does not have sufficient representation within the Commonwealth Parliament to apply this democratic safeguard.)

The Federal Minister has also been granted the power to apply NSW laws to Norfolk Island (as Commonwealth law) despite the fact that when the NSW Parliament makes changes to laws already applied to Norfolk Island, those changes automatically apply. As well, the Norfolk Island People have no representation in the NSW Parliament and no rights to vote in NSW elections. Consequently, they have no direct avenue to influence the NSW laws which are “automatically applied” in Norfolk Island.

Because the time of Federal Minister/s is largely consumed with their Federal responsibilities they have chosen to delegate many of the powers granted to them under the 2015 Act to the unelected Norfolk Island Administrator.

The Office of the Norfolk Island Administrator

Under the 2015 Act the Office of the Norfolk Island Administrator:

  1. Retains most of the authority originally granted to it under the Norfolk Island Act 1979 (Cth);

  2. Exercises the delegated executive authority previously held by Norfolk Island’s democratically elected government with respect to the execution of the Islands continued laws; and

  3. Exercises the delegated authority for many of the other powers granted to the Federal Minister under the 2015 Act.

Effectively, an unelected public servant has replaced the entire democratically elected Norfolk Island Government AND, in many cases, the Federal Minister.

When the Norfolk Island Administrator’s new powers were being determined in Parliament, it noted: ‘From the commencement of the final transition time on 1 July 2016, the Administrator continues to hold a number of Commonwealth decision-making powers. As the outcomes of the Ordinance are largely machinery in nature and the current arrangements for the Administrator are being continued, public consultation was not undertaken’ (emphasis added).

The Member for Bean

Norfolk Island has now been placed in the Federal electorate of Bean in Canberra. The undemocratic elements in this arrangement include:

  1. Bean is 1900km and a minimum of $3,000 in travel expenses away from Norfolk Island.

  2. Because the Norfolk Island People represent only .016% of the eligible voters of Bean it would be impossible for the Norfolk Island People to vote the member out of office or hold them accountable if they are not satisfied with their performance.

  3. Given Norfolk Island’s geographical and numerical disadvantage in the seat of Bean it is not likely that a Norfolk Island person will ever be elected as a member for Bean.

  4. It is not realistic to expect that the member for Bean could ever hold the Federal Minister democratically accountable for the legislation (Ordinances) they are now effectively solely responsible for passing on Norfolk Island.

The current Member for Bean, David Smith MP, said in his inaugural speech in the House of Representatives: “You can imagine that [Norfolk Island] being part of an electorate that is largely urban and landlocked and is 1900 kilometres away is not the most obvious fit for effective representation”. “This is exacerbated by the lack of representation at a territory level of a kind similar to that which exists in the ACT or NT”. “We should not abridge the basic right of all Australians for self-determination in the delivery of services that affect them in their daily lives”.

Norfolk Island People for Democracy Inc.


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