Norfolk Island needs new governance model
Ludicrous and ill-conceived. That's what former Norfolk Island Administrator Neil Pope has said about the island's self-government, and I agree. Established more than 30 years ago, it is simply not viable, and I wonder if it ever was.
Norfolk Island is a small, remote, island community with a shallow economic and revenue base almost entirely reliant on the fluctuations of a fickle tourism industry, a smattering of duties and charges and a goods and services tax.
In August 2011, Norfolk Island's population was 2302, which included visitors. That year the population of one suburb in my electorate, Rivett, was 3167. Anecdotal evidence suggests Norfolk's population has fallen to about 1600, as people have left the island to seek work on the mainland, which would make it smaller than almost every suburb in the seat of Canberra.
Of this decreasing population, about 200 public servants support an administration responsible for every layer of government - federal, state and local - from customs, immigration, health and education, to roads and rubbish.
Successive Norfolk Island administrations have not made significant inroads into broadening and diversifying the economic base, or addressing the internal barriers and impediments to increasing tourism and business investment. And it has only been at the behest of the Commonwealth through the "road map", which seeks to integrate Norfolk Island into the Australian tax and social security system, that the administration is now considering municipal rates and taking steps to abolish policies that discourage growth.
In its report on the 2012-13 financial statements, the Australian National Audit Office noted that the Norfolk Island administration estimated it would not hold sufficient cash and cash equivalents to cover operations in 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17. The forecast for Norfolk Island's public finances puts it in the red to the tune of $7.4 million, $7.4 million and $7.8 million respectively.
In the 27 months to June 2014, Australian taxpayers spent $40 million keeping it afloat.
So, without yearly Commonwealth bailouts, the administration can't pay its bills.
And the impact of this economic position on the residents of the island is dire.
I've visited Norfolk more than 10 times since I've been the Member for Canberra. I've attended committee hearings, held mobile offices and business roundtables, taken part in Bounty Day celebrations, spoken at women's and Labor functions and been to school presentations.
Every time I've visited the island I've noticed a further deterioration. In April 2013, economic activity was down some 24 per cent on the previous year, about 40 per cent of the shops had closed and 25 per cent of the island's 25 to 50-year-old men had left since August 2011.
Although the islanders are Australians, they pay no tax and so get no Commonwealth services. They have no access to Medicare and are not eligible for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or any of the other services most of us take for granted. Norfolk is part of Australia but because it is an external territory, Australians have to take their passport and fly out through the international terminal to get there. These anomalies ultimately only do harm to the people of Norfolk Island.
Imagine being out of work in an economy doing it tough with no access to Newstart payments or jobseeker support. Imagine having to work three to five jobs to make ends meet or relying on donated food parcels to feed the family each week.
There is no point in having self-government for self-government's sake.
It is now clear to me that the current governance arrangements have met only the most basic social and economic needs of Norfolk residents.
For self-government to have my support, it needs to be stable, economically responsible, democratic, sustainable and in the best interests of the people it serves. This is not the case under the current governance model on Norfolk Island.
There will be democracy on Norfolk Island under a new arrangement. What that governance model looks like is yet to be decided, and must be determined in close consultation with the Norfolk Island community. This consultation is something I am passionate about, and I will continue to work to ensure it is meaningful and inclusive.
A new model will provide the best chance of economic, social and cultural sustainability and prosperity for the people of Norfolk Island. After all, it is home to an incredibly unique history and culture, and it is in the interests of all Australians to keep this history and culture alive and vibrant for centuries to come.
Most importantly, it will be a governance arrangement that will protect the human rights of the residents of Norfolk Island through access to opportunity, equality and fairness. As their federal representative, this is my primary concern.