Territories Law Reform and Norfolk Island Reform Bill 2010
It has been most interesting listening to the member for Stirling on this issue and it is a great pleasure to speak today in support of the Territories Law Reform Bill 2010. It is also a great pleasure to speak about reform to the most remote part of my electorate, which is Norfolk Island. While this bill also addresses the way Western Australian laws apply to the Indian Ocean Territories, its main feature is Norfolk Island. As I said in my first speech, most people are aware of Norfolk Island’s rich history and language. They are also aware that Colleen McCullough lives there, that interesting pine trees grow there, that you need a passport to get there— which is quite amusing and I think Kate Lundy and I are probably the only people who actually need a passport to go to part of our electorate—and that it is also a great place for a holiday.
For most Australians, their knowledge of Norfolk Island would pretty much begin and end there. So they would not be aware that the island is in need of reform, and that is what this bill does. And they would not be aware that, even though Norfolk Island is part of the Commonwealth, part of Australia, its people do not enjoy the same privileges that most Australians now take for granted. This bill, which has been a long time in the making and long overdue, provides that. Norfolk Island has been the subject of many reviews over many years and this bill is the culmination of all that work. The bill amends the Norfolk Island Act 1979 to strengthen the island’s electoral, financial, governance and administration framework to ensure a more transparent, equitable and economically stable future for Norfolk Island. This is particularly important. Despite what was said before, the changes are not radical and they are supported by the Norfolk Island government, as the member of Stirling has pointed out to us just now. They also do not erode the Norfolk Island government’s ability to self-govern. Those powers are still there. What it does is strengthen a range of economic, financial and governance elements to ensure the future of Norfolk Island.
The bill provides a clearer approach for Norfolk Island’s administration. The bill provides a clearer understanding of Norfolk Island’s financial position. The bill articulates conventions and clarifies roles and responsibilities. The bill allows for greater Commonwealth oversight of Norfolk Island legislation to ensure compliance with our international obligations and other areas of national interest. The bill modernises Norfolk Island’s governance and harmonises it with the rest of Australia. The global financial crisis underscored the need for greater transparency in matters financial and regulatory and this bill brings a modern framework to the island—a modern framework that has been operating on mainland Australia for years, if not decades. I have only been to Norfolk Island once and my visit was brief. It was earlier this year. But in that short time and since my election I have managed to get a very broad overview of the issues that are confronting the island and understand the need for reform. There needs to be reform in a number of areas. I am looking forward to going back there in December to attend a women’s forum with my colleague Senator Kate Lundy. The women on the island have a strong tradition of being opinionated and strong and I am really looking forward to getting the opportunity to meet with a number of them and talking to them about a range of social policy issues. I am sure the reform issue will also be discussed in those meetings. While Norfolk Island has had self-government for decades, these reforms will close the gap between the conditions we enjoy on mainland Australia—that we take for granted—and those experienced on the island.
For the benefit of the House I would like to take a moment to outline the complex and fascinating governance road that has led us to this point. Norfolk Island was not occupied when it was mapped by Captain Cook in 1774, although there was evidence of early Polynesian settlement. Between 1788 and 1814, and again between 1824 and 1855, the British used the island as a penal colony. In 1856, the descendants of the Bounty mutineers—the history is just fascinating —who had married Polynesian islanders agreed with the British government to move from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island, and the descendants of those seven families are still there today. Meeting them you really do feel as if you are touching the past—it is quite extraordinary. Going to the graveyards down on the beach where the penal colony used to be is also quite extraordinary, reaching back into history and having descendants of those people actually telling you about the history of their families.
Between 1856 and 1897, Norfolk Island was a separate British colony with its own governor, who also happened to be the Governor of New South Wales. In 1897, the Crown transferred administrative responsibility of the island to the colony of New South Wales and on 1 July 1914 the island became Australia’s second external territory under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia. But it was not until the mid-1970s, and following a royal commission into the future status of the island, that the Fraser government passed the quasi-constitutional Norfolk Island Act in 1979 and committed to self-government. The act enabled the territory to be self-governed and administered by an administrator with three essential functions. These are to represent the Crown, similar to a state Governor-General’s role; to represent the Commonwealth on the island and communicate between the federal government and the government of Norfolk Island; and to act in any specified statutory capacity as conferred by either the Norfolk Island government or the Commonwealth.
The act also establishes the Legislative Assembly of Norfolk Island and grants them powers to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the island, including laws to raise taxes and impose charges. It is an old hangover, but one of the reasons you need a passport is the old Customs Act. What we are suggesting here with the reforms is not in any way imposing on these powers; it is just reform and good governance. This means the assembly has the capacity to legislate for all things except coinage, the raising of a defence force, the acquisition of property on other than just terms and euthanasia. Once the assembly enacts a law, the Norfolk Island government is equipped with broad executive powers and responsibilities to administer and enforce that law. That said, there have been several reviews and reports into the governance of Norfolk Island over recent years, arising from concerns that the island was falling behind the modern frameworks that apply on the mainland; hence this bill. Probably the most significant was the 2003 report of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories. As I said, this reform is long overdue and has been a long time in the making. It was seven years ago and we are just finally talking about this and hopefully getting it through now seven years later. The recommendations of this report were delayed by the Howard Government, and I welcome the Gillard Government’s commitment to progressing reform. Labor has a strong tradition of reform and this is just another one. What the report suggested was not a dramatic, radical, revolutionary change, as has been suggested, to the way things are done in Norfolk Island. Instead, the review advocated greater financial transparency. What is so radical about that— reform to the electoral system, improved auditing and reporting, and an extension of basic administrative rights, fundamental and tested aspects of good governance?
The bill largely relies on the joint committee’s recommendations and it will reform four key areas. The first is in the electoral sphere. The bill will create greater electoral stability, aid in the implementation of legislation and bring the Norfolk Island system more into line with the Westminster system. The bill introduces changes that will give greater certainty about when elections are held, with set minimum and maximum fixed terms; more clearly outline the roles, titles and responsibilities of elected representatives —for instance, executive members will now be called ministers; prescribe a process for selecting and dismissing a Chief Minister and ministers; entrench the separation of executive and non-executive positions by providing for a maximum number of ministers to ensure effective backbench scrutiny; and codify current practices. Just read this. This is really radical! The bill will also establish a no-confidence motion process for the Chief Minister and enable the making of regulations for changes to the electoral system.
The second key reform is in the area of financial management. The bill establishes a tailored financial framework to ensure responsible management of public money and property, preparation of budgets, financial reporting, annual reports and procurement. It appoints a Commonwealth Financial Officer for Norfolk Island to manage this framework. It clarifies the definitions of public money and public property of the territory—modelled on the FMA Act that applies here—and establishes a territory authority to provide a complete picture of the island’s financial position. It ensures the Norfolk Island finance minister prepares annual financial statements—a significant plank in any efficient and effective financial management— and it ensures the Commonwealth Auditor-General now conducts audits of Norfolk Island’s financial statements, which must be tabled in the Norfolk Island assembly.
The third key reform is in the area of governance. The bill allows the Norfolk Island Administrator to access a greater range of advice when presented with bills for assent to ensure consistency of compliance and it allows the Governor-General and the federal minister responsible for territories to take a more active role in the introduction and passage of Norfolk Island legislation. The final reform is in the critical area of administration. The bill applies the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act to Norfolk Island to ensure a high-quality, independent merit review process. It applies the Freedom of Information Act to Norfolk Island, so now the people of Norfolk Island can enjoy the same right to access information that has applied here for decades. It ensures the Commonwealth Ombudsman assumes the function of the Norfolk Island Ombudsman under Norfolk Island legislation. It requires Norfolk Island public sector agencies to adhere to the information privacy principles in the same way as Australian government public sector agencies. It ensures Norfolk Island public servants adhere to a set of values. It has been suggested that a community of 1,500 will find this onerous to manage. There are government agencies that have only 1,500 —small government agencies that are applying not just the FMA Act but a whole raft of Commonwealth legislation. They have not crumbled under the weight of that, so I find that whole notion hard to understand.
I welcome the Gillard government’s reforms to the governance, financial and electoral management and administration of Norfolk Island outlined in this bill, and I would like to thank the various members of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories that have reviewed Norfolk Island issues over the years—particularly for their patience in waiting all this time. These reforms continue the agenda that Labor has been rolling out in infrastructure, health, education, the economy and climate change. I would particularly like to thank the committee for consulting with the Norfolk Island community to inform their recommendations in a rigorous yet inclusive way. I know that some think the reforms go too far and others think they do not go far enough. Whatever the view, I am pleased the community has had a chance to have its say. I would also like to acknowledge my fellow Canberran Senator Kate Lundy for the great work she has done as a former chair of the committee. She did great work on this issue for a long time.
The Commonwealth has an ongoing responsibility to the Australian citizens of Norfolk Island. This bill is an important step in strengthening transparency and accountability to ensure the future good governance of Norfolk Island and continues the tradition of reform of Labor governments. I am particularly pleased that the Norfolk Island government recently came out in support of the passage of the bill. I congratulate Chief Minister David Buffett and the Norfolk Island government for recognising the need for reform. The government came out recently and supported the bill in toto. There were no particular elements that they said would be all too hard. This is an important step in ensuring Norfolk Island is a sustainable, just and equal part of Australia into the 21st century and I support this bill.