Tiny Norfolk Island’s infrastructure is crumbling, but does that mean nearby Australia should take over?
On a small rock 900 miles off the coast of Australia, a hubbub is brewing about sovereignty and the right of unique peoples to self-governance. The residents of Norfolk Island, about 2,000 people living on a three-by-five mile chunk of earth, have enjoyed self-rule since 1979, when they argued that their unique history and culture entitled them to freedom from the Australian government. But in recent weeks, Norfolk Islanders learned that members of the sitting Australian government have decided to peel back the island’s autonomy, introducing legislation that would phase out the local legislative assembly and loop residents into federal taxation and welfare schemes, effectively ending the ability of island locals to manage their own economy.
Usually disputes over autonomy and independence in the South Pacific don’t catch much attention—places like French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and the Torres Strait Islands are just too small and far off to register on the international media radar. Yet the plight of Norfolk Island has garnered a significant amount of press because it ties into a beloved tale of high seas intrigue, immortalized in a number of books and movies. The residents of Norfolk Island are actually the descendants of the men who mutinied in 1789 against Britain’s notorious HMS Bounty.
Old Military Barracks converted to Legislative Assembly Chambers in Kingston, Norfolk Island. Image by Steve Daggar via Wikimedia Commons
Led by the charismatic Fletcher Christian, chafing under the command of Captain William Bligh, and eager to embrace the perceived life of paradisiacal luxury they had experienced in Tahiti, the crew and their Tahitian brides (and a few Tahitian men) set Bligh adrift and first settled on Pitcairn Island. Yet in 1856, just over 60 years later, 194 families descended from the mutineers appealed to British Queen Victoria to relocate them to some new, independent island to escape a famine on Pitcairn. The Queen obliged and moved them to Norfolk Island. Norfolk had been a penal colony from 1788 to 1814, then from 1825 on, a labor camp for Irish dissidents, which had recently been abandoned by the British justice system for being too costly to administer and, at times, too severe with its brutal punishments.
As the vestiges of the colonial era dissolved, the Norfolk Islands fell increasingly into the political orbit of Australia. But in 1979, they successfully made the case for their independence—the island was uninhabited when they arrived, and because they have developed a unique culture (and a pidgin dialect of mixed English-Tahitian), Norfolk residents are a distinct, indigenous peoples deserving of self-rule. Under the Norfolk Island Act, they gained their own nine-person elected assembly and court system and took control over their own customs, education, health, immigration, police, and social services policies. Island residents successfully protected their status again in 1994, petitioning the United Nations to reinforce their self-rule against creeping federal influence, asserting that Australia was only entitled to dictate policies regarding the island’s defense and foreign policy.
Norfolk prospered for a time on agriculture and a profitable tourism industry, paying no Australian taxes and receiving no welfare or social services from the neighboring nation.
But in recent years, the economic balance of the island has tipped. Most of Norfolk’s infrastructure began to crumble, having not been updated since the 1970s. And by October 2014, costs on goods had increased so much that the state was set to run a $5.6 million annual deficit, on top of already begrudgingly relying on Australian subsidies to their airlines to maintain what tourist revenue they had. Increasingly dependent on bailouts (by November 2014 they were in hock to Canberra to the tune of $11 million), and populated by fly-in-fly-out workers and Australians escaping taxation, many locals began to suspect that the federal government would seek to take away their sovereignty. Officials had been proposing that Norfolk Islanders consider paying federal taxes to get access to the same welfare as mainlanders since 2011, when the island’s solvency started to become an issue. And accordingly, in March 2015, the commonwealth government announced that with Norfolk Island basically bankrupt, failing to provide services to its own people, and (they argued) captive to the vested interests of a ruling elite, the feds would step back in, imposing taxes and central administration on locals for their own wellbeing.
As it stands, if Australia gets its way (and it seems almost certain they will), the Norfolk Island legislative assembly would be eliminated and replaced with an advisory council of federal and local officials until 2016, when elections could create a regional government. That summer, personal and businesses taxes would kick in, as would social security, state healthcare, and other infrastructural funds. However, it would take a number of years and almost $100 million to fully transition the island into integration with Australian mainland rule—likely by incorporating it into the state of New South Wales—and bring its facilities up to national standards.
Norfolk Island coast. Photo by Bob Hall via Flickr
Although many on the island might agree that they are in dire economic straits, and envy the resources of the mainland, it seems that they’re not down with the way this change has been proposed. Norfolk Island Chief Minister Lisle Snell has described it as an unfair imposition from the top down. At least 700 residents have signed a petition protesting the process, demanding more input into the future of their local government. Some seem to worry that the federal imposition will devolve into colonial rule, impinging on local practices and norms and eroding the unique culture that has developed over a century and a half.
Some of these concerns may be overstated. The people of Norfolk do have a point that they ought to have more of a say in their own governance, even if it means that their standard of living doesn’t match up to Australia’s. Right now, residents of the island are divided on the issue, with some looking forward to the benefits of joining a richer country, but it is notable that without Australia forcing the matter, locals did not choose to join the larger nation on their own. Some will continue fighting for independence, or at least some kind of compromise plan, until the legislation is put up for a final vote in May. And thanks to the attention afforded them, the descendants of the HMS Bounty’s crew may still get some kind of opportunity to shape their own future if enough pressure falls on the Australian government. Yet that’s a special fortune of the island’s flashy history—sadly, not every autonomous region gets that grace.