FAMILIES relying on food parcels to survive; pregnant women being whisked away to give birth because the hospital can’t help them, pot holes that just keep getting bigger and a community that can’t afford to look after itself.
It sounds like a damned corner of a faraway land. But it’s actually a forgotten fragment of Australia whose handful of residents were given unprecedented power to look after their own affairs. According to some, the experiment in self-rule has failed so miserably it’s end can’t come quickly enough.
In just over a month Gai Brodtmann, the Labor member for Canberra, will add another 1800 people to her electorate when Norfolk Island, 2000 kilometres east over land and sea, becomes just another part of Australia following 36 years of semi independence.
Ms Brodtmann says the days of the island remaining aloof from, but dependent on, Australia are over.
“I’ve seen a beautiful island and a people proud of their history and culture. That said, every time [I’ve gone] I’ve seen a further deterioration in terms of infrastructure, standard of living, shops being closed and tourism continuing to fall,” she tells news.com.au.
“I’ve also seen a real division between the haves and have nots.
“Some are doing really well and I can understand those don’t want change, but we have people relying on food parcels, people relying on not getting sick because there is no PBS [Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme which cuts the cost of medicine], not getting medical help because there’s no Medicare, people working three or four jobs. It’s tough for a number of residents.”
CAN’T GIVE BIRTH
Ms Brodtmann’s support of the Federal Government’s moves to bring Norfolk into the fold has led some on the island to say they are “disgusted” with her standpoint.
The island’s precarious economic position, they say, is partly Canberra’s fault and the tales of woe are simply a smoke screen for little more than a hostile takeover. There are even calls for the United Nations to step in.
The island’s history is like something out of a boys own adventure book. In 1856, it became a new home for 194 relocated Pitcairn Islanders, descendants of Fletcher Christian’s Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian companions.
The locals have their own language — a blend of ancient Tahitian and English — and this distinct culture and its sheer distance from Australia’s shores led to it be granted self-rule in the 1970s.
But now Canberra wants to bring the buccaneer isle into line. The island’s assembly, based in the historic capital of Kingston, has already been shuttered. Come July, Norfolk’s status will no different to that of a local council. For the first time locals will get access to Medicare and the PBS and, in return, they will start paying income tax, something they are currently exempt from.
Liberal Senator Zed Seselja sat with Ms Brodtmann on the Government committee that in 2014 recommended the island come under Canberra’s wing. or yoke, as many see it.
“There are some fundamental issues around governance and economic management,” he tells news.com.au.
“The roads are one obvious example. Also there’s the fact that you can’t give birth on the island so women who are pregnant have to leave … and if people are ill that they have to be medevaced [medically evacuated] off the island is far from ideal.
“Things we take for granted aren’t there, the phone network is the old 2G mobile phone network that can’t handle economic progress,” he says.
“There really are questions of solvency for the islanders.”
THEY ARE AUSTRALIAN
Ms Brodtmann puts it in blunter terms.
“There are some people who don’t want change but the reality is we’ll see a continual cycle of people leaving the island and continual cycle of Australian taxpayers having to bail out the island.”
The claim that Australia is taking away the islanders rights by ending self-rule, is given short shrift by Ms Brodtmann.
“But they are Australian,” she says. “They’re not a nation, they’re part of Australia. I want them to be enjoying all the rights and the services Australians enjoy and the support mechanisms when doing it tough.”
Chris Magri, President of Norfolk Island People for Democracy — a group that wants to maintain self-rule — is scathing of his new MP.
“I’m disgusted with Brodtmann,” he tells news.com.au “She purports to represent Norfolk Island but actually she’s destroyed institutions we’ve spent four decades building.”
He scoffs at the idea that, come July, he will see the benefit of being directly represented in Canberra.
“For me to go and visit my electorate office will take four separate plane rides and cost me $2000 and this is a representative I have to elect.”
He also questions the fairness of Norfolk’s laws being harmonised with NSW but the islanders having no representation in the NSW Parliament.
Mr Magri says the Federal Government first started moves to end self-rule in the midst of the global financial crisis, when tourism revenue crashed 37 per cent and the island “suffered short-term cash flow” problems.
He says the island shouldn’t be judged on a time when everyone was in the doldrums, particularly as, he claims, Canberra didn’t provide Norfolk Islanders with the assistance doled out to mainlanders.
Islanders have long said they have been dealt an unfair hand. The lucrative fishing rights around the island do not belong to them. While damning assessments of healthcare and infrastructure are more Canberra’s than Norfolk’s fault, says Mr Magri.
“Our pre-existing health arrangements far exceeded anything in rural and regional Australia [but] as a direct result of the changes in Government there will be a reduction in health services,” he says.
He points to a 23-bed hospital on the island that is effectively closed due to the lack of staff.
‘BROKE MY HEART’
Although the island’s assembly was only officially shut down last year, Mr Magri says the Federal Government has essentially controlled the island’s purse strings since 2010, including road maintenance. The pot holes are as much Canberra’s failing.
“It’s this type of garbage coming out of Canberra that makes having any rational discussion about government almost impossible.”
A report of the island’s finances in 2009 by auditors KPMG found the coffers were forecast to be in the black but money for infrastructure improvements was heavily dependent on tourist numbers recovering to their previous highs. They haven’t and far more than the current 26,000 annual tourists could be accommodated, if only they turned up. Cruise ships, which could bring in lucrative tourist dollars, are unable to dock due to the inadequate port.
Pro self-rulers are pinning their hopes on a plea to the United Nations to be recognised as a non-self-governing territory.
Effectively preserving the status quo, it would enshrine Norfolk Island’s status in a similar way that the relationship between the Cook Islands and New Zealand has been formalised.
But Ms Brodtmann says Norfolk Islanders are missing out by not being closer to the motherland.
“What broke my heart is that I have been to many openings of new schools and libraries funded by the Federal Government and they missed out on all of that because they’re not part of our system.
“[This is] not about attacking the rights of people living on the island but I agree wholeheartedly with the implementation of these reforms,” she said.
“The reforms are the best way to preserve the rights, culture and welfare of Norfolk Island.”