I WAS very pleased for my Norfolk Island friends when the recently appointed Federal Minister for Territories, Ms Sussan Ley, did the unexpected, for a politician that is, and admitted that the Federal government had made a mistake, apologised and undertook to remedy the error.
The apology followed the release by her department, under the FOI Act, of the briefing notes that had been prepared by the department for the Minister’s first visit to Norfolk Island before Christmas.
A clear majority of the residents of Norfolk Island continue to vehemently oppose the decision of the Federal Parliament in 2015 to abolish self-government and disband the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly. To facilitate the abolition of self-government, swathes of the Norfolk Island Act were expunged as the residents lost their parliament and the right to have any say in the delivery of state-type services in their community.
While the abolition of self-government was cause enough for great anger on Norfolk Island, the Commonwealth government rubbed salt in the wound by removing from the preamble to the Norfolk Island Act, without explanation, a statement about the special relationship of Pitcairn Island descendants with Norfolk Island and the imperative of preserving their traditions and culture.
The decision to remove the preamble from the Norfolk Island Act was passed unanimously by both houses of the Federal parliament with Labor and the Greens extending their full and unquestioning support to the government for its deletion.
I, and indeed all of my colleagues and friends on Norfolk Island, have for the last four years been at a loss to understand what motivated the Liberal, Labor and Greens Parties to take such a gratuitously nasty and insulting step.
The decision was seen by residents as a form of cultural genocide. I would be surprised if there were not some who also worried it was racist. Its repeal was certainly relevant to the case which QC Geoffrey Robertson has made to the UN seeking its intervention in support of the democratic and civil rights of Norfolk Islanders.
The briefing notes prepared by the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities for Minister Ley have now confirmed the worst fears of residents of Norfolk Island, particularly those of Pitcairn descent. The department summarised the reason that the Liberal, Labor and Greens Parties repealed the preamble as follows:
“The preamble was repealed from the NI Act in 2015 as it was considered to be a necessary step for cultural inclusion, and disengagement of the Pitcairn stronghold and cultural exclusion that had previously occurred.
“Any revised preamble must be succinct, historically accurate and inclusive to reflect the multicultural nature of the community of Norfolk Island today.”
My interpretation of this is that the reason the preamble was repealed was to delegitimise and demean the history of Pitcairn settlement and occupation of the island, to assert the supremacy of recent non-Pitcairn culture and history and thereby quash any suggestion that Norfolk Island has a status or identity distinct from Australia.
The publication on Norfolk Island of the briefing notes outlining, as they do, the Commonwealth’s real motivation in repealing the Norfolk Island Act, resulted in Minister Ley issuing a stunning rebuff.
The minister disowned and comprehensively rejected the rationale provided by the department for repealing the preamble. In disowning her own department’s explanation she said not only did it not reflect her views, it was also not consistent with those of the government. In acknowledging how offensive the position articulated by the department is, she apologised to the people of Norfolk Island for the hurt they had suffered, and committed to the restoration of a preamble to the Norfolk Island Act.
I am sure the minister’s response was genuine and heartfelt and had nothing to do with the fact that Geoffrey Robertson has been successful in convincing the UN to formally list the grievance lodged by him on behalf of the residents of Norfolk Island or indeed that the actions of the Australian government in abolishing self-government on Norfolk Island threaten to make the presence and activities of the Chinese government in the Pacific appear, by comparison, benign and innocent.
The test now is whether the Labor Party and the Greens are prepared to show the maturity and sensitivity displayed by Minister Ley and to similarly apologise for their actions in repealing the preamble and to take the next logical step and admit that they were duped into trashing the democratic rights of the people of Norfolk Island and promise a full review of the rationale and basis for taking the vote off this small Australian community and to restore to them the democratic rights taken as a given by all Australians.
Jon Stanhope was chief minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only chief minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.