Norfolk Island is only 35 square kilometers. A scrap of land easily lost in the sea mist and gigantic ocean swells fourteen hundred kilometers east of Brisbane. It is a beautiful place with golden ocean-swept beaches and towering cliffs and deep rich red volcanic soil, a legacy of the sudden eruption that raised it from the seabed 3 million years ago. It has a romantic history going back to the first days of Australian settlement and is home to a proud people whose Pacific history goes back even further.
I am unhappy to report that Australia has successfully invaded and subdued this small place without (so far) a shot being fired in anger. It’s not often that I get to cover a successful Australian invasion of any country (the locals argue it is a country) but sadly this time we are not even the good guys. I have this week travelled to Norfolk Island to report how Australia has effectively closed down an elected parliament, denied the democratic and human rights of the citizens, seized the radio station, dismembered a community and replaced local representation with arrogant rule from Canberra eighteen hundred kilometers away. Worst of all, fellow Australians, it has all been done in your name and without most of you even knowing.
Norfolk Island until recently was an autonomous region of Australia. It was properly accorded a large measure of self-government through a Legislative Assembly, democratically elected every 3 to 4 years. I find the people and place fascinating. Perhaps because I am a Tasmanian I respond to the island argument for historical, ethnic and cultural distinctiveness and hence for a measure of self- determination, even for small places. Almost half of the one thousand eight hundred population are the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Polynesian women whom the British Government settled on Norfolk Island from Pitcairn Island back in 1856. Incidentally, the authorities cleared out what were considered the very worst of the worst of England’s convict riff-raff, quarantined on Norfolk, to make way for the Pitcairners and dispatched those miscreants to Tasmania. Thanks for that.
To the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian consorts add a few Yankee whalers and blend in some adventurous immigration from Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific and the UK and the result is a people who are proud, self reliant and robust. They largely reject Australian style social welfare, eat their own wonderful cuisine and among themselves speak their own incomprehensible language, which seems to be a blend of 18th Century piratical English and Tahitian. They really are a distinctive people, a culture and (I think) probably a country in their own right, or they were until we moved against them.
At the stroke of a bureaucratic pen we have closed down their once autonomous, democratically elected, Legislative Assembly. We have removed the furniture and the parliamentary records leaving a bare chamber, as if by doing this we can expunge a proud history of independence going back to the reign of Queen Victoria. We seized the local radio station and sacked announcers who tried to report and discuss these actions. Then we started to broadcast our own propaganda (as you do when you invade a country) to try and win the hearts and minds of the people. The station now transmits messages about how much better life will be under the rule of Canberra. Accordingly they run advertisements for social welfare and directions on how to apply for the dole. “Our Financial Information Service Officers will give you information about payments and services,” Radio Norfolk now helpfully advises the locals.
Oh brave new world!
I suppose it could be a happy occupation unless you take self-sufficiency and small-state democracy terribly seriously. It might even be seen as a fairly gentle coup. “Generous welfare and sit-down money in exchange for your stubborn independence and your tiny Parliament. Is that really such a bad deal? I asked two of the radio station’s dismissed announcers.
“A terrible deal. We don’t want your welfare!” I was told.
“We’ve seen Australia’s world and there’s no reason to go down that road where one in every two people are living out of of the public purse.”
“You ungrateful mutinous bastards!” I joked.
“That’s us,” they laughed. “And hopefully we get to keep it that way.”
With the sacked Chief Minister Andre Nobbs, who goes all the way back to Fletcher Christian and those fearless Bounty mutineers who defied the tyranny of Captain Blight and the British Navy in 1789, I got a look inside the ransacked Legislative Assembly. It is a lovely old sandstone building looking about the same vintage as our own, larger Tasmanian Legislature. “We don’t want to be a bloody welfare state!” Nobbs’ angry voice echoes in the now empty hall. “We are proud. We look after our own people and our own infrastructures, schools hospitals. We run our own show, our own democracy and Australia has steamrolled over our rights and aspirations.”
Appallingly all that is left in that bare chamber is the palimpsest of democracy. Only few faint telltale lines on the wooden floor reveal where the elected members once sat. All furniture, pictures, curtains, even the Hansard, the record of the deliberations of that small chamber has been hurriedly removed.
Only the undying spirit of democracy remains.
“We will never give up” Nobbs insists. “We are now appealing to the United Nations. This is an invasion and a subjugation. The world must decide.”
Australia should never have taken this action without a proper debate in Canberra and on Norfolk Island. This matter slipped through the Australian Federal Parliament on one recent quiet day when both chambers were three quarters empty. There was no political controversy and no debate. It was merely a ‘procedural matter’. No one cared. In its defence, the Commonwealth now lamely asserts that Norfolk Island was deeply in debt. A bit like Queensland and Tasmania or indeed the whole of Australia, don’t you think? Close down all those Parliaments that run up debt and we’d have none. Surely the proper course of action when a Government becomes inept or even corrupt is not to terminate democracy, but to hold an inquiry and an election and then replace the old with a new government, hopefully a better one. Come to think of it we’ve been doing that in Tasmania for my whole life without much observable improvement. So now I am worrying that if one small island can lose its democratic right to self-determination because of mere governmental shortcomings, like running up debt or looking after mates or any of the other insular ills to which small democracies are heir, then we should all be concerned.
Today Norfolk Island. Tomorrow Tasmania?
Charles Wooley’s report on Norfolk Island featured on 60 Minutes on the Nine Network on Sunday 22nd of May 2016.