Australia

Residents of a tiny Australian island are calling for a return to self-rule to save their culture

Leah Honeywood and Catherine McCoy are lobbying for Norfolk Island's self-determination. Source: SBS News/Omar Dehen

On the external territory of Norfolk Island, a six-year fight against Australian rule by some residents is gathering momentum. It comes as a public inquiry begins into the suspension of its regional council - the island's last remaining local authority.

On the lawns of Norfolk Island’s old government building, a solitary green tent stands in daily defiance to Australian rule.

Signs around the tent embassy emphatically highlight the long-simmering frustrations among a sizable portion of the community here.

Painted in the island’s colours of green and white, one placard reads ‘Du We Giw Up, We Gwen Win’ in the traditional Norf’lk language. The translation: ‘If we don’t give up, we will win’. Another reads ‘Norfolk under Siege’ in English.

In the centre of town on this eight-by-five-kilometre island, a field of green hands - each one hand-painted and signed by a different community member – also serves as a symbolic demand for self-determination.

Residents on Norfolk Island warn their cultural identity could be wiped out if self-rule not returned
The 'Hands Up for Democracy' mural is a symbolic call for a return to self-rule.
SBS News/Omar Dehen

“If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say 90 per cent of our identity is gone,” says Leah Honeywood, a seventh-generation Norfolk Islander whose lineage traces back to the first permanent settlers on the former penal colony.

With a population of some 1,700 people, Norfolk Island has a rich, unique culture, its own language and a colourful history.

If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say 90 per cent of our identity is gone.

- Leah Honeywood, Norfolk Islander

In 1855, Queen Victoria granted Norfolk Island to the Pitcairn Islanders, descendants of the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty. A year later, 163 men, women and children were settled there.

As tears well around her eyes, Leah claims the legacy of her ancestors has been devastated in recent years.

Residents on Norfolk Island warn their cultural identity could be wiped out if self-rule not returned
Leah Honeywood claims the legacy of her ancestors, Norfolk Island's first settlers, has been eroded since the external territory lost its right to self-rule.
SBS News/Omar Dehen

“They worked so hard and for so long to become a people and a race, and in five years someone has come in and obliterated that.”

“What’s changed is the Australian government has come in here and imposed their governance and their rules, and things like that just don’t apply to Norfolk.”

Island history

Britain transferred Norfolk Island to Australia in 1914, just prior to World War One. In 1979, it became Australia’s first non-mainland territory to be granted limited self-rule. The island quickly instilled its own democratically elected Legislative Assembly, funding its own services, while Australia still retained ultimate sovereignty and final approval of proposed laws.

But the picturesque island, which is crucially reliant on tourism, fell into economic turmoil in the wake of the 2007 Global Financial Crisis. Its chief minister then stunned locals two years later, when he agreed to surrender the island’s self-governing status to Australia for a bailout.

The most controversial decision of all came in 2015 when Canberra ultimately abolished the Legislative Assembly and appointed its own administrator.

The New South Wales Government currently manages services including health, education and policing, in return for federal government funding. Queensland is currently in negotiations to take over when the NSW contract expires.

Since the transfer, Norfolk Island’s 1,000 registered voters have been added to the electorate of Bean in the ACT.

Residents on Norfolk Island warn their cultural identity could be wiped out if self-rule not returned
Norfolk Island sits 1,700kms north-east of Sydney.
SBS News/Omar Dehen

Ron Ward, a former finance minister on Norfolk Island, says the island was running at an annual deficit of approximately $3 million a year following the GFC. He accuses the Australian government of carrying out “unnecessary … economic warfare against the island”.

“We have no say in anything that is being decided for us.” 

“Everything is decided by expat workers and departmental staff in Canberra. It’s a most unsatisfactory way of running a place.”

We have no say in anything that is being decided for us. 

- Ron Ward, Norfolk Islander

Before Australia stepped in, a non-binding referendum in 2015 saw 68 per cent of islanders vote to keep self-rule.

A ‘Norfolk Island People for Democracy Movement’ has been growing ever since, and, with the support of local elders, took its fight to the United Nations. Since 2016 the movement has appealed to the UN and Human Rights Council to have Norfolk Island added to its list of ‘non-self-governing territories’. A ruling is yet to be handed down.

SBS Food: A culinary journey around Norfolk Island

“Prior to 2016, the island did need something to change. I believe that could have happened through communication with the Australian government,” says Catherine McCoy, an eighth-generation Norfolk Islander.

“I would like to see the Australian government realise that we do have an identity, and I want that back. I would also like the United Nations to step in, so we can determine our future.”

Regional council suspended

But locals have been angered further recently after the Norfolk Island Regional Council, their last local authority, was suspended over the new year by the federal government after an independent audit raised concerns about its financial management.

Questions over the council’s viability are the centre of a public inquiry that began on Norfolk Island this week. But disillusioned islanders claim it is another example of democratic rights being denied.

Residents on Norfolk Island warn their cultural identity could be wiped out if self-rule not returned
A public inquiry began on Norfolk Island this week after its regional council was suspended.
SBS News/Omar Dehen

“It’s definitely gone too far,” Ms McCoy says. “We have now no voice. We have no elected representation, and I don’t think that’s democratic in any community. I’m just angry about the whole situation.”

Land taxes, which for centuries never existed on the island, is one of the key grievances about Australian rule.
When Queen Victoria granted Norfolk to the Pitcairn Islanders, she also granted each family 50-acre lots. But in recent years Canberra has introduced property taxes.

Ron and Marlene Nobbs, who have been married for 56 years, live on the property of Ron’s ancestors.

Residents on Norfolk Island warn their cultural identity could be wiped out if self-rule not returned
Ron and Marlene Nobbs say some families on will be unable to afford annual land taxes.
SBS News/Omar Dehen

Ron, a former Norfolk Chief Minister, says they can afford the rates, but Marlene, 83, adds that many descendants cannot.

“Norfolk has always been asset rich, but money poor,” Marlene says. “They fear that they are going to lose their land because they can’t afford to pay rates.”

Ron says properties on the island are made up of many portions, which tends to create higher taxes on such cash-poor families.

“In a suburban setting, land rates, property rates, are a very reasonable and workable system for collective revenues to run government services,” he says. “[But] in our situation here, it doesn’t work.”

Opposition not unanimous

Some, though, say life on Norfolk Island is better thanks to Australia. Cherrise Clarke has lived on the island for 40 years and describes the introduction of a social security system as “marvellous”.

“We now have a safety net,” she says. “During the past 12 months, I can’t imagine life without being integrated in the Australian tax system. The support we were given helped the island to survive.”

Residents on Norfolk Island warn their cultural identity could be wiped out if self-rule not returned
Norfolk Island administrator Eric Hutchinson says things could have been better communicated.
David Bradbury/Frontline Films

The administrator on Norfolk Island, Eric Hutchinson, admits the transition could have been better managed but says the decision was justified.

“We’re only a very short way through what will be a transition.”

“I’m the last person in the world that wants to see those intrinsic things that make Norfolk Island different to other parts of Australia change if they don’t have to change. But equally, there are things that this community, and I know for a fact, appreciate.”

Australia's Assistant Minister for Regional Development and Territories, Nola Marino, who represents Norfolk Island, echoed Mr Hutchinson’s sentiment in a statement.

“The transition … has given Norfolk Islander residents access to Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, the Age Pension, child support, infrastructure investment (including $7 million this month for tourism spending to upgrade roads) and a wide range of other benefits,” Ms Marino said.

“Norfolk Islander residents have a strong representation in federal parliament … while electoral laws determine the population of Norfolk Island to be too small to have its own electorate.”

Residents on Norfolk Island warn their cultural identity could be wiped out if self-rule not returned
Norfolk elder Shane McCoy.
SBS News/Omar Dehen

But for every person who points to reasons why Australian governance is working here on Norfolk Island, there are others who will dispute it, making it a deeply divisive issue in this otherwise tight-knit community.

Leah Honeywood and Catherine McCoy describe Norfolk Island culture as its “soul”. They claim that culture is in danger every time community representation is reduced.

“It is my family, it is my ancestors. They built and paid for this place since 1856 and I want to see that continue,” Ms McCoy says.

It is my family, it is my ancestors. They built and paid for this place since 1856.

- Catherine McCoy, Norfolk Islander

Norfolk Island elder Shane McCoy says basic customs are beginning to disappear, including the tradition of waving to other drivers on the road. He claims that is tightly connected to the Australian transfer.

“I can’t say anything against Australia at all. We love Australia. But they’ve got to respect us as well,” he says. 

“I just hope common sense prevails.”

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