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Norfolk Islanders take bitter independence row to UN

Published 02 Mar 2019
By David Costello
Norfolk Island Tent Embassy

Photo: Independence activist Ric Robinson at the Norfolk Island Tent Embassy

Norfolk Island is the centre of an independence dispute that flies way under the radar. It is fair to say most Australians would be surprised by the news that indigenous islanders have gone to the United Nations in their campaign for restoration of the self-government stripped by Canberra in 2016. They would be astounded by the depth of anger unleased by this change. Indeed, the decision to scrap Norfolk’s legislative assembly was described as “bloodless genocide’’ by the late Colleen McCullough, the best-selling author who lived on the island from the late 1970s until death in 2015. She was describing the despair of islanders who feel that Australia is trying to erase Norfolk’s history as a place of sanctuary for descendants of the sailors who staged the infamous mutiny on the Bounty.   They have a foundation tale like no other, a saga of tyranny, revolt, lust, murder and redemption. It gives them a distinct heritage and identity and they don’t want to lose it. The story starts in April 1789 with the crew revolt aboard HMS Bounty. After Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian and his supporters seized control of the ship from their captain, the cantankerous Lieutenant William Bligh, they and a group of kidnapped Tahitian women and men hid out on remote Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific. The early years were tumultuous. Christian and most of the mutineers were murdered during vicious fighting between factions. Needless to say, this story is the stuff of legend with the brooding Christian as the tragic hero. In film adaptations, he has been portrayed by Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson.  But the saviour of the Pitcairn people was John Adams, the last surviving mutineer, who found religion and turned the settlement into a relatively peaceful and pious community. By 1856 the descendants of the mutineers had outgrown tiny Pitcairn. Queen Victoria came to the rescue and allowed them to transfer to Norfolk. This distinct Anglo-Polynesian ethnic group with its own Norf’k language was left to live in splendid isolation on their tiny outcrop (34 sq km) of volcanic rock which lies 1470km from Brisbane.

Many islanders today, especially those from the original Pitcairn families, don’t identify as Australians and see Canberra’s administrative changes as re-colonisation by a foreign power. Norfolk’s anthem is God Save The Queen which is sung with gusto at protests. The epicentre of resistance can be found in the historic Kingston precinct where local jeweler Duncan Sanderson mans a tent embassy outside the former parliament building. Sanderson, who lives at the site 24/7, is a diehard defender of indigenous Norfolk rights. He is often joined by Colleen McCullough’s widower Ric Robinson who totally agrees with her “bloodless genocide’’ claim.

“They (Australia) are just trying to wipe us out,’’ says Robinson. “Some of the old timers have been totally stressed, some have died because of the uncertainty of what’s happened.’’

Both Sanderson and Robinson admit that Norfolk Island was in financial trouble in 2010 when then chief minister David Buffett offered to end the territory’s tax-free status in return for a bailout from Canberra. Tourism had fallen dramatically because the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and Norfolk needed cash. But islanders weren’t ready for what happened next. In 2015, the Australian Parliament voted to scrap the island’s autonomous status, replace the legislative assembly with a local council and enforce federal and NSW laws. Under the new arrangement which has operated since mid-2016, health and education services are provided by NSW. Sanderson and Robinson say this is an undemocratic colonial administration.

“The Federal Government adapts NSW laws to apply on Norfolk,’’ says Robinson.

“It is hardly democratic because we can’t vote in NSW state elections. For federal elections, Norfolk people can now vote in the new ACT electorate of Bean. We have 1000 voters here. What difference we make in a seat with 70,000 voters?’’

Sanderson says that most islanders oppose what has happened.

“In May 2015, we had an island-wide referendum and 68 per cent voted in support of the legal right to determine their own political status,’’ he says. “That number would be closer to 80 per cent now.’’

For its part, Canberra says Norfolk Island has been an Australian external territory since 1914 when Britain handed over control. It insists that islanders are better off because they can now access Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and the dole. Federal cash is flowing in. John McVeigh, the Federal Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government, said in July 2018 that Australia would spend $38.7 million over the next four years on Norfolk projects. Some of this would go to fixing the island’s notoriously bumpy roads. In the past year, Canberra has funded an upgrade of the Cascade Bay pier and new diesel generators for the power grid.

Not all islanders want a return to self-rule model where services were funded by a 12.5 per cent local GST and the profits from government monopolies. Former chief minister Mike King told ABC Radio in December 2016 that self-government had been a failure. In a 2014 blog article, he wrote that “poor decisions, lousy outcomes and deplorable planning’’ had led to the island being irretrievably broke.

That said, Sanderson and Robinson point to downsides to rule from Canberra. The local hospital no longer has an operating theatre and expectant mothers have to fly to Australia to give birth.

Previously there were surgeons and anesthetists on Norfolk. Today, people with medical emergencies, like a heart attack or burst appendix, can wait for hours before a medivac jet arrives from the mainland.  Tax is another sore point. Islanders now pay income tax and land taxes (rates) to the Norfolk Island Regional Council. This can be a burden to long-time residents with ancestral properties who may be asset rich and cash poor. Old-timers with hobby farms of more than 5 acres (2 hectares) are finding they don’t qualify for a pension.

But economic arguments aside, people like Sanderson and Robinson are most aggrieved about a loss of identity and having changes forced upon them without proper consultation. They hope the United Nations can help their cause and have been buoyed by the support of high-profile lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC. In March 2018, Robertson launched a legal challenge with the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, alleging that Australia’s scrapping of self-rule threatened the culture and language of islanders. He was acting on behalf of Albert Buffett, president of Norfolk’s Council of Elders. In December, the UN Human Rights Committee registered the case and gave Australia six months to respond.

Sanderson says he and other campaigners want Australia to place Norfolk Island on the UN List of Non-Self-Governing Territories. The ultimate aim is for the island to have “free association’’ with Australia. This would mean self-government with Canberra looking after foreign affairs and defence. The type of arrangement exists between New Zealand and the Cook Islands.

When asked about the next steps Sanderson says: “My understanding is the UN will send a crew over here to question people. I have got no idea when this will happen. The UN moves pretty slowly.’’

Either way, he will not be leaving the Tent Embassy, where he lives 24/7. His motto is summed up by the protest placard in Norf’k language which reads “Du We Giw Up, We Gwen Win’’.  That translates  to “If we don’t give up, we will win.’’