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Territories labour under Canberra’s ‘colonial’ yoke

Government House, Norfolk Island.

“While the pedants in Foreign Affairs will insist otherwise, as far as I am concerned these three Australian territories are, to all intents and purposes, colonies… and our treatment of the residents shames us all,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE.

The recent passage of legislation in the ACT enabling Canberra residents to access euthanasia is, regardless of one’s personal views on the matter, an exercise by our community of our democratic rights and is, as such, appropriate and to be welcomed. 

Jon Stanhope.

The decision of the Federal Parliament some three decades ago to deny the territories this right was anti-democratic, wrong and an unconscionable overreach of federal legislative power. We Canberrans had every right to be outraged. 

Those that have campaigned long and unrelentingly to restore to the ACT and the NT this basic democratic right are to be congratulated. Sadly, however, many of those in the federal parliament who have so forcefully and at long last successfully, fought for this “Territory Right” to be restored are currently engaged in a process that has resulted in the residents of another Australian territory, namely Norfolk Island, being denied any of the rights vested in and enjoyed by the ACT and the NT. That’s right, not only do they not have any say about euthanasia they have no say in any of the state-type laws to which they are subject. 

The residents of Christmas Island and the Cocos Keeling Islands, Australia’s two Indian Ocean territories, are similarly denied basic democratic rights. 

Unlike Norfolk Island, which until a decade ago was effectively self-governing until, that is, Labor and the Greens joined with the Liberals to repeal the Norfolk Island Act, end self-government and return Norfolk Island to colonial status, the residents of Christmas and the Cocos Islands have never had a genuine voice in how they are governed. 

Thankfully, the fact that a majority of the residents of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are of Asian heritage and of the Muslim faith is surely not relevant to the decision by successive Commonwealth governments to deny them any meaningful say in how they are governed. Perish the thought.  

I was privileged to live and work on Norfolk Island, as Official Secretary and Deputy Administrator, for two years during my public service career. At that time, in the ’90s, Norfolk Island was, unlike today, a functioning and successful democracy. 

Admittedly, there were issues from time to time with the state of the budget, but Norfolk Island is not alone in that regard. 

For example, I grew up in the Bega Valley in the quaint village of Wolumla. I have retained close links to the region and am advised that in recent years the Bega Valley Shire’s finances took a big hit at a time that Kristy McBain was the mayor. I am told that, consequently, there has been a massive increase in local rates in an attempt to repair the damage. 

Ms McBain has gone on to greater things and is now the federal Minister for Territories and busily engaged in limiting the democratic rights of Norfolk Islanders because, as far as we are able to determine, of the state of the territory’s finances. 

I have been advised by my despairing friends on Norfolk Island, as an example of the levels of disenchantment and growing anger on the island, that in the order of one third of Norfolk Island residents have declared, in the spirit of the famous warcry of the colonists in the American War of Independence of “no taxation without representation”, that they will cease paying rates imposed on them by anonymous politicians and public servants in Canberra unless and until their democratic rights are restored. 

Pinpointing Norfolk Island on a globe.

Residents are particularly aggrieved by a “waste” tax which has been imposed on every home or landowner irrespective of whether any waste is generated on the land. The charge applies, for example, even if the block is vacant and fenced off, and has never generated waste. 

I have suggested to my friends on Norfolk Island and on Christmas and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (I was also honoured a decade ago to live and work on Christmas Island as Administrator of both Territories) that in my opinion it is past time to seek the involvement of the United Nations in respect of the treatment meted out to them by the Australian Government.  

As far as I am aware, Norfolk Island is the only non-self-governing community in the Pacific Ocean while Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are similarly the only non-self-governing communities in the Indian Ocean. 

While I am sure that the pedants in Foreign Affairs will insist otherwise, as far as I am concerned these three Australian territories are, to all intents and purposes, colonies. While that may be technically incorrect I for one believe that their ambiguous status and our treatment of the residents shames us all. 

I am sure the Chinese ambassador would agree with me. I must ask him what he thinks and if perhaps China would be prepared to raise the issue in the UN.

Reflecting on our cavalier approach to the rights of Norfolk Islanders, in particular those of Pitcairn heritage, it is notable that in a recent speech welcoming the prime minister of Papua New Guinea to Australia, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said: “Every Pacific nation, big or small, has the right to shape its future and secure its destiny”.  

While Mr Albanese did not go on to say “unless, of course, it is an Australian territory”, one is entitled to assume that that was implicit in his commentary. 

On a brighter note, I am also aware of a speech delivered recently by Liberal senator Andrew McLachlan, which gave me reason to hope that the voice of reason and justice will prevail. 

This is some of what he said: “The report explores ways to return democracy to the people of Norfolk Island. For some time now they have borne the yoke of an oppressive administration which is the creature of the Australian bureaucracy.  

“My time on the island and with its people made a lasting impression upon me. I came to the view that there are two immutable principles that must guide the mainland’s interactions with the people of Norfolk Island.

“First, Norfolk Island is a distinct and separate territory and is entitled to determine its own future in accordance with the aspirations of its people. “Secondly, in all its dealings with the people of Norfolk Island, Australia must treat them with respect and a generosity of spirit. Australia must resist using its economic power unethically and instead negotiate with the island as an equal, having regard to its moral obligations to support the people and respect their aspirations.” Amen to that.

Jon Stanhope is a former chief minister of the ACT. 

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Jon Stanhope

Jon Stanhope

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2 Responses to Territories labour under Canberra’s ‘colonial’ yoke

brett sanderson says: 19 June 2024 at 12:53 pm

The Commonwealth rhetoric leading up to the abolishing of the Norfolk Island Parliament in 2015 was that Norfolk Islanders wanted all the benefits but didn’t want to pay tax. The reality, like most things in life, was a little more nuanced. We opposed the destruction of our democracy because we knew the imposed model didn’t work. It hasn’t worked in the Indian Ocean Territories since 1984. Forty years is time enough to fairly state the neocolonial governance model will never work. The governance model doesn’t even work for the taxpayer. Hundreds of millions spent per year (mostly on mates’ consulting businesses); ensuring high investment with little return. In Norfolk Island the population since June 2016 has risen by 36%. A direct result of removing local immigration management to be replaced with, well nothing. Imagine if the population of Australia had increased by 36% in less than a decade?
Norfolk Islanders are now drowning in a sea of land rates. The brilliance of replacing a sustainable governance model with a local government model, and removing the previous revenue streams. Now we are blessed with a broke council (in administration) and roads that have dramatically worsened since the ill advised removal of the Norfolk Island Government in 2015. The land rates are damaging the culture and the environment as locals are forced to either subdivide or sell.
It is time for the Commonwealth to reintroduce democracy to the non self-governing territory of Norfolk Island.

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