Norfolk islanders are fighting Australia to win back their independence

Norfolk Island is fighting the New South Wales Government for its independence after the Australian government placed restrictive measures on their economy and sustainable way of life.
Norfolk Island is fighting the New South Wales for its independence after the Australian government placed restrictive measures on their economy and sustainable way of life.

Led by London-based lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC, islanders argue that Australia, by taking away a large measure of its self-government in 2015, has undermined their political and civil rights.

They fear, ultimately, that Australia will colonise the island, one of the most isolated places on the planet, and take for itself the strategic and potential economic value of Norfolk’s exclusive economic zone: 165,000 square miles (428,000 sq km) of ocean.

In their claim to the United Nations, islanders argue they are a “distinct and separate” settlement, quite different from Australia, with their own language – “Norf’k” – a historical mix of English, Tahitian and West Indies creole which is taught in local schools.

Read more: Westminster MPs risk angering Australia over tourist island 10,000 miles away

The row has highlighted Norfolk Island’s unique and curious history.

Named in honour of Mary Howard, Duchess of Norfolk, it was discovered in 1774 by Captain Cook and from 1778 was used to supply food for the penal colony in Botany Bay. In 1814 it was abandoned, but 11 years later was re-established as a penal colony for the “worst of the worst” convicts. An Alcatraz on a island of 21 square miles, more than 400 miles from its nearest neighbour (New Caledonia).

Captain William Bligh (1754 – 1817) being cast adrift in a small boat with some members of the crew of the Bounty, after the mutiny near the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific. Photo: Getty

Its second incarnation as a penal colony was short lived and it was abandoned again in 1855 but Norfolk’s fate then took an unexpected turn. The descendants of the Bounty Mutiny, who had thrived on Pitcairn, to the extent the island struggled to contain them, petitioned Queen Victoria for help. They were offered and accepted Norfolk Island and, in 1856, 194 arrived.

Many of Norfolk’s current population are descendants of six British sailors who mutinied and set Captain Bligh adrift. The names of Young, Christian, McCoy, Buffett and Warren feature prominently in the phone book.

Their descendants continued to be British until 1915, when London handed the administration of the territory over to Australia, but NI’s remoteness meant the islanders lived a largely autonomous existence. In 1979, Australia, recognising this, granted them limited self-government to run their own affairs.

‘Act of regression’

However, two years ago Australian MPs rescinded self-government and imposed a regime the Islanders say rides roughshod over its uniquely independent and separate status.

It was, Mr Robertson has said, a “heavy-handed act of regression” made by people nearly 1,200 miles away.

The population is now governed by New South Wales, but has no say in the government. Its residents can only vote in federal elections in Canberra.

circa 1850: A convict settlement on Norfolk Island in New South Wales, Australia. Photo: Getty

The takeover was prompted by the financial difficulties following the global downturn. Tourism, its economic mainstay, plummeted, sales tax fell and several budget deficits required Australian bailouts. With its infrastructure rundown and in need of investment, and health care a growing problem, MPs believed something radical was needed.

Direct rule has proved unpopular with many. Critics say censorship was imposed on Radio Norfolk and officials insisted on the Australian anthem being played at war memorial commemorations, rather than the customary “God Save the Queen”.

Economic blockades

Islanders acknowledge the economic problems but say Australia has thwarted its efforts to become self-sustaining. A variety of schemes, including minting coins, establishing an offshore financial and banking centre, or the creation of an international shipping registry, were all proposed. Norfolk twice issued licences for the cultivation of medicinal cannabis. The Australian government blocked them all.

Islanders say they want to explore different paths. Andre Nobbs, a former chief minister, points to New Zealand’s relationship with overseas territories such as Niue and the Cook Islands in the South Pacific as a benchmark. Both have free-association agreements with Wellington, meaning they self-govern but are entitled to Kiwi citizenship, while expected to “share common values”. Both receive economic aid.

Norfolk Island

Other alternatives suggested include examining the UK-Falklands relationship or the payment of an annual fee from Canberra as “rent” for the benefits Australia enjoys from NI’s location, strategic value and exclusive economic zone. Payments for the right to fish in the waters around NI go directly to Australian coffers. The idea of customs duties on selected imported products is another.

Most importantly, economist Dr Chris Nobbs suggests moving away from the idea of Norfolk “as part of New South Wales” and instead as a “world-relevant, semi-autonomous model for 21st century sustainable living”.

Whatever the solution, it is clear the spirit of Fletcher Christian, the leader of the Bounty mutineers, is still alive and well in the remote parts of the South Pacific.

Originally published at inews.co.uk 0n

 

Many thanks to Rob T for the link to this story.

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