Christmas Island ponders questions about governing itself

Christmas Island ponders questions about governing itself

A parliamentary joint standing committee is looking at whether the Christmas Island status quo should change and whether the island should become a self-governing territory.

It is the island off the coast of Indonesia where Australia meets Asia.

Christmas Island is predominantly populated by Chinese Buddhists, but it falls under Australian rule as one of the nation's Indian Ocean territories.

A parliamentary joint standing committee, however, is looking at whether that status quo should change and whether the island should take care of itself.

Ryan Emery reports.

In 1958, Australia bought an island.

Christmas Island was a British colony under Singaporean control, with a profitable phosphate mine.

Australia paid Singapore 2.8 million pounds in compensation for the lost revenue from the volcanic isle lying less than 500 kilometres from the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

Today, most residents are from Chinese backgrounds, many others Malay, and a smaller minority come from Australia.

But everyone on the island lives under West Australian laws that have been adapted to federal ones and administered out of Canberra.

To confuse matters, the islanders are in the federal seat of Lingiari in the Northern Territory but are ostensibly part of Western Australia.

They receive that state's services under a Commonwealth agreement.

Still, decisions about the island are made in Canberra, and shire president Gordon Thomson says that just is not how a democracy should work.

"Everybody would put forward the view, I think, that the Commonwealth runs the place for its own interests. Whether that's a reasonable view or not, that's the perception. I think that it's a reasonable perception, given the facts -- the way the department deals with the people of the island, the lack of consultation, the absence of that democratic form which is election of representatives to make the laws that govern our daily lives."

A joint standing parliamentary inquiry is looking into the governance of Australia's Indian Ocean territories.

That includes Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands, more than 900 kilometres to the west.

The inquiry has heard from the islanders, service providers and current and former administrators who are the representatives of the Commonwealth on the island.

It will be some time before the inquiry reports, but an answer about what the people might want is already beginning to take shape.

The chief executive of the Shire of Christmas Island, Kelvin Matthews, is doing a thesis into the island's governance.

He has begun surveying the islanders about their views on having more of a voice in their own affairs.

"So far, interestingly, what we've found is that a lot of the local people have indicated that they want some form of self-determination. They're not 100 per cent sure, and that's the purpose of the thesis, but they want some form, even if it's limited self-determination."

Kelvin Matthews has enlisted someone else to run the survey to keep it separate from his role as the shire's chief executive.

He says the shire has also proposed a referendum be held in 2018 or '19 for the islanders to decide how they are governed.

But he says they have indicated in the surveys they need more information.

"So Christmas Island's never been afforded the opportunity, and it should have been. Cocos (Keeling) Islands were, in 1984, and they exercised their opinion and their rights to stay with integration with Australia. Christmas Island has never had the opportunity. So that may be a lever of pressure to apply to the Commonwealth, but, again, that's up to the community, and they need to know that information of what's available to them to take the course of action that they believe is best for their community outcomes."

However, a spokeswoman for the minister responsible for the island, Paul Fletcher, says the Federal Government has no plans to change how the island is governed.

The Minister for Territories, Local Government and Major Projects recently visited the Christmas and Cocos islands, the first time a minister has done so in about five years.

He visited to listen to the people and their concerns.

Gordon Thomson, the shire president, says some islanders were concerned a move to independence could mean losing existing services.

"There's a big open question. As soon as we start talking about self-government, local people start going, 'Oh, what's going to happen with local services?' Well, they shouldn't be reduced. The Commonwealth has an obligation to every community in Australia, and, if we're going to be like metropolitan Australia, we should be funded accordingly so the services are there. If they want to hold the territory, they need to work out why, and they need to work out how."

A visit by SBS to the island has found most locals cannot answer the why or how questions either.

Some want change, others are not bothered.

Gordon Thomson even acknowledges the Commonwealth has provided good services, such as the local school.

The responses from others suggest what the people really want is to know what is happening to their island and why.

And, to have a better opportunity to tell the bureaucrats what the island really needs, as opposed to what those in Canberra think it needs.












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