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A heavy-handed act of regression

Monday 2 May 2016 | Published in Regional


PACIFIC VIEWPOINT By Geoffrey Robertson QC Human Rights lawyer

Where in the world is God Save the Queen a revolutionary call to arms? In Norfolk Island, whose 2200 citizens – half of them descended from Fletcher Christian’s HMS Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian partners – are resisting the forcible recolonisation of their homeland by Australia.

Their self-governance has been abolished, their parliament locked up, their freedom of speech curtailed and their membership of international sporting and political bodies cancelled.

Their autonomy and their identity are being destroyed – they have even been told to stop singing God Save the Queen and learn the words of Australia’s doggerel national anthem.

Norfolk deserves several footnotes in British history. Discovered by Captain Cook, in 1788 it became the place for convicts from Sydney to receive especially harsh punishment. Norfolk became the most brutal of HMG’s prisons, and the convict buildings and graves still stand, as part of a world heritage site.

After the convicts left, the empty island was deployed in 1856 by Queen Victoria’s government to settle the Bounty mutineer progeny – part British tar, part Tahitian – whose existence on Pitcairn has become precarious.

All of them (194 men, women and children) were shipped to Norfolk, given land and allowed to settle down with their own laws and customs. Their descendants now comprise 4 per cent of the island’s population.

Over the years a few families returned to Pitcairn, and it was their descendants who were involved in the sexual assault scandal of 2004. This did not touch the Norfolk Islanders, who are so law-abiding they do not have, or need, a prison.

The 1856 imperial order declared that Norfolk should be kept “separate and distinct” from mainland Australian states, which federated in 1901 without including Norfolk.

In 1913 the UK handed Norfolk over to Australia to administer as an external territory, and in 1979 it was granted a large measure of self-government, with an elected parliament responsible for health, education, customs, immigration, tourism, culture and most matters of democratic concern, excluding defence, aviation and other international matters of which Australia takes care.

It is a tourist idyll, with its trademark Norfolk pine trees framing two of the Pacific’s most beautiful beaches. It has a local language, unique flora and fauna, an indigenous culture, and is pleasantly free of Australia’s person-eating crocodiles, lethal spiders, snakes and jellyfish.

It has, for the past 36 years, been effectively an autonomous territory, receiving some (not much) help from Australia but otherwise governing itself.

Such idiosyncratic arrangements, however much they satisfy local aspirations, were not welcomed by a committee of backbench Australian MPs, who decided that the island should be assimilated to free-market Australia, and its ethos of self-help and community service should be ended by direct rule from Canberra, 1,800km away.

They issued a 120-page report recommending the recolonisation of Norfolk, making no mention of the advantages of democracy or the principles of self-determination.

The government acted quickly to abolish the parliament and the elected executive, and to replace it with administrators from Canberra.

The law that will end Norfolk Island as an autonomous territory takes full effect on July 1 this year.

From then on, the island will have no special identity. Its people will not be allowed to compete in the Commonwealth or Oceanic Games – where they have won medals – unless they do so in an Australian team.

They will lose their seat at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Union, and in some UN committees.

Already the heavy hand of the Australian public service has censored the local radio station, banning any mention of opposition to the takeover and removing a popular satirical programme.

The islanders’ precious historical artefacts and records, of the Bounty and of their progress to self-government, have been seized from their parliament and locked away.

There is little the islanders can do against Australian annexation. The new secretary general of the Commonwealth has shown no interest in their plight. They cannot appeal to international courts (they are not a state).

They have, however, decided to petition the UN special committee on decolonisation, which urges UN members to bring their non-self-governing territories towards democracy.

In this case, it is a matter of exhorting Australia to return to the islanders the powers that they are presently taking away.

Recolonisation means Norfolk’s assimilation with New South Wales – the state whose laws will now govern the island, although its citizens will have no say in them.

They can only vote in federal elections in Canberra, a large landlocked electorate 1900km away where their concerns about fishing rights will not be an issue.

They will, of course, be taxed, for the first time. The islanders have hitherto raised revenue by community levies, customs duties and tourist licences, and have refused to introduce any system of taxation. They have not become a significant tax haven, because immigration has been strictly controlled and residents remain liable to tax in other countries where those earnings arise.

So the consequence of the new arrangement will be taxation without representation.

Abolishing Norfolk Island as an autonomous territory may not seem to matter much in the grand scheme of things, but for an international order that cherishes self-government and proclaims the right of self-determination of people it is a regressive and unimaginative action, an example of the inability to tolerate democracy and difference.

For the descendants of Fletcher Christian and his rebellion against the martinet Commander Bligh, it will be little consolation that their identity will be extinguished by a government commanded by one Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, named in honour of the controversial captain.

- Geoffrey Robertson QC has argued many landmark human rights cases in British and Commonwealth Courts and the European Court of Human Rights. In 2011 he was awarded the New York Bar Association prize for achievement in international law and affairs.

Island leader calls for royal commission

NORFOLK ISLAND – The former chief minister of Norfolk Island, Lisle Snell, has called for a royal commission into the Australian parliament’s decision last year to revoke the island’s autonomy, and the subsequent running of the island by the commonwealth.

Since May last year, the island has been in a transition period as Australian government buildings are established and the island’s health and welfare systems abolished.

The Australian government argued the island relied on the mainland for financial support, and that its laws and government services were outdated.

The changes meant that Snell was left without a job. His anger has only escalated since May.

“I took a very bad turn,” Snell told Guardian Australia. “I was distressed for months after my dismissal. To be dismissed in such a manner as was conducted at that time, so illegally, so unjustly, so unfairly – it took me many, many months to get over that. I was forced into semi-retirement, although I can’t afford to be.”

Snell and other islanders have established the group Norfolk Island People for Democracy, which is calling for an independent review of the process of bringing Norfolk Island under Australian governance, which Snell describes as an “illegal takeover”.

“Really, what should be done is, a royal commission into the manner of Norfolk Island’s takeover should be held,” Snell said.

“There was no proper process done. There should be a royal commission into the farcical situation that has occurred. We are a peaceful people, we don’t like conflict. But the situation has never deteriorated to an extent like this before.”

Last Tuesday the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC delivered a petition against the perceived takeover signed by the islanders to the United Nations in New York. It would take months for the UN to reach a decision, Robertson said.

“There is a special committee on decolonisation which will consider the matter later this year,” Robertson told the ABC.

He said he supported the islanders in their fight for autonomous governance.

“They will be kicked out of the commonwealth parliamentary unit, they won’t be able to compete under their own flag at the Commonwealth Games, they will have to join an Australian team,” he said.

“What is more, I think, rather pathetic in fact in Australia’s conduct, the first thing the Australian administrator did was to have the radio station ban any criticism of Australia.

“This is typical colonial behaviour, isn’t it?”

Snell confirmed that the island’s radio station was now under Australian government control, and said islanders were barred from saying anything negative about the Australian government on air.

Islanders had also received notices from the government that their jobs were defunct or were likely to become so, Snell said.

“The feeling on the island is now one of great distress,” Snell said.

“People in administration, those working in roads or mechanical fields, in forestry and so on, have all had their jobs affected. In some cases, both husbands and wives will no longer have a job from July, 1 so there’s now increased unemployment and financial distress.

“They have not been offered the change to upskill or reapply.”

The word “mutiny” had been scrawled on the new Australian government buildings, Snell said, which he said indicated the levels of distress, because “we are a peaceful people”.

The Australian federal minister for major projects, territories and local government, Paul Fletcher, has said islanders would be employed where possible.

Last month, Fletcher announced Waterway Construction as the successful tenderer to construct the $13 million upgrade of the island’s Cascade Pier. Islanders would be employed, Fletcher said, and local businesses would supply building materials.

“Once the project is complete, nominated members of the Norfolk Island community and regional council staff will receive training in the safe and effective operation of the hydraulic crane,” he said.

The New South Wales premier, Mike Baird, has said his state will help the federal government in providing health and education services to the island. Norfolk Island laws are being rolled in to NSW ones, with any legislation on the island that Australia considers outdated or inappropriate removed or replaced.

“The Australian government is committed to providing high quality, affordable and safe health and aged care services for Norfolk Island,” Fletcher said.

“I am looking forward to working with NSW government agencies to ensure the best possible outcomes for the Norfolk Island community.”

Meanwhile, the occupation of Norfolk Island’s former legislative assembly by protesters has continued.

A former Norfolk Island chief minister, Andre Nobbs, said residents had turned out to protest the Australian government’s decision to remove the island’s limited autonomy.

He said about 10 per cent of the island’s population had turned out to protest the move, and a few dozen of them had set up camp in the grounds of the former assembly.

“Out of an electoral roll of about 965 people we have over 350 people gathered in the compound just to really join together to voice their concern over what is being imposed on Norfolk, and also to make it really clear that the actions of the Australian government are not in accord with the people of this community,” he said.

Nobbs said some of the protesters showed no sign of planning to leave the grounds as at the last report from Norfolk on Saturday.

- Guardian/PNC