Transcript of Interview: ABC Western Plains with Dugald Saunders



19 March 2015


Dugald Saunders: Jamie Briggs is the Federal Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development. Good morning.

Jamie Briggs: Good morning.

Dugald Saunders: So, why has this decision been made now?

Jamie Briggs: Firstly, I don't necessarily agree with your version that it is a removal in self-government. What we're doing is changing the nature of self-government to better reflect the capacity on the island to deliver services for people who live on the island, for Australians who live on the island. The reality is that since 1997 the Commonwealth Grants Commission was the first body to report to the Australian Government that the self-government arrangement that was in place was unsustainable. There's been 20-odd reports since then. Nearly every administrator who's been on the island and left has said that there needs to be structural change that the way the Government operates. That's been backed up by the Auditor-General, the Commonwealth Auditor-General who said it was a growing concern in a report last year. It's been backed up by a parliamentary committee report which was bipartisan in its nature. Both the Labor Party and the Government supported the recommendations in that report and what the Government's doing is simply acting upon the advice that we've had and that is to firstly give people who live on Norfolk Island access to what any other Australian would expect to get access to as far as services from the federal government. That is family payments, the pension, they would expect to contribute through taxation as all other Australians are required to do and of course people on Norfolk Island have been paying tax, they've been paying inefficient local taxes already. They will all go and the normal Australian taxation system will apply but for the GST which will be excluded from operation on Norfolk just like it is on Christmas and Cocos Islands.

So, this is a significant change, but it is not taking away something from people on Norfolk Island, the fact it is I think cementing the role of local governance because it's giving people the opportunity next year to elect a regional council and for the first time introducing genuine democracy. At the moment, the system that operates as far as the voting system is that there are certain clan groups who have more power in voting than others. What we'll be introducing next year is a one vote, one value proposition where everyone on Norfolk Island will have the opportunity to vote for who they want on their regional council. That is a much better system of governance than what has been operating.

Dugald Saunders: You're slightly playing semantics if I may say; I mean to say that there's no change to self governance is…

Jamie Briggs: No, I didn't say there's no change. I said that is not removal of self-governance…

Dugald Saunders: [Talks over] Well, but at the moment though…

Jamie Briggs: I mean, you have to be very careful here that people don't play this game some have called it the so called colonial overlords are coming into strip people of their cultural identity. It couldn't be any further from the truth. What we want to do for this very special part of Australia is make it sustainable and no one in their right mind can argue at this time it is sustainable or has been sustainable since really 1997 when the Commonwealth Grants Commission first rang the alarm bells about this.

Dugald Saunders: But of course there would be people who will argue against that and I'll be talking to the Chief Minister Lisle Snell.

Jamie Briggs: Well, there are people with vested interest, of course. There are people who have an investment in the current system and that's understandable, that's always the case. The fact is though we consulted very widely with the community in a lead up to the Joint Standing Committee report that was put together. We then consulted about the report. I've written to everyone on the island twice last year asking for them to express their view. I can absolutely tell you because their views were expressed to me and emails that came directly to me, there was a very consistent theme that came through, people on the island want a change, the wanted to be treated like any other Australian.

Dugald Saunders: But you've mentioned that to me before as well and there have been conflicting reports about how many letters were sent by people, but if there was (sic) a small number of people out of say 2000, I was told there were about 70 that were in favour that came to you. Now that's not an overwhelming proportion. I mean, was there enough feedback from the community?

Jamie Briggs: That's not right either. I mean this is—again, I mean this has operated for a long time by a group on the island who wanted to protect their vested position and I think people need to understand that, that is a perfectly understandable position. However, the reality does not support the claims. We've written to everyone on the island twice, I've written personally to everyone on the island twice…

Dugald Saunders: Well, how many responses have you had, you know?

Jamie Briggs: We've had well over 200 responses…

Dugald Saunders: So, that's 10 per cent.

Jamie Briggs: No, there are about 1500 people on the island because population is being shed because the situation is so difficult out there. I mean, really, you've got to ask yourself the question here: Would the Australian Government be bothering spending $136 million over the next four years in a time when the budget is difficult if we didn't genuinely think this was an important thing to do? I mean, you've got to understand here what is the purpose—why would we be going through this process and why would the Labor Party be supporting it as well? I mean, it comes to a point when you've got to say: who here has a vested interest? It's certainly not the Australian Government; let me put it that way. We have got, you know, our interest here is making what is a very special part of Australia sustainable, we want to boost the opportunity for the tourism industry to take advantage of increased activity on cruise liners and a perfectly understandable point is this.

The former government gave the island government $15 million to build an improved wharf facility to get better access to the cruise liners some four years ago; not one cent of that money has been spent. Not one cent. Not one tender has been released. Not one plan has been put out. There is no capacity on the island to be able to actually deliver for the people who live there. So, that's why we thought it was important that we actually step in, do what really should have happened for a very long time. That being: the Federal Government take responsibility for what are federal issues, the State Government take responsibility for delivering services as they do everywhere else across the country—the different states—and local councils take responsibility for what are local issues. That is what people in Orange expect, that is what people in Dubbo expect, and that is what people who live on Norfolk Island should expect, and that's what the Commonwealth Government is going to deliver for them.

Dugald Saunders: So, will the council regime that comes in, will it be any different to any other local council, though, or is it going to have slightly different powers?

Jamie Briggs: No, it'll be very similar to how other councils operate. It'll have responsibility for local issues, as it should. It's a community of some 1500 to 1800 people. It's a small community and it is a remote community. It's got a very large distance between it and the mainland, so delivering services to the island community are difficult. However, like many remote communities in Australia, people have absolutely the right to choose their local government. Absolutely. And they should be able to do that on a one vote, one value basis. People who live on Norfolk Island at the moment do not get that opportunity, right? They do not have one vote, one value. Now, I would have thought most of your listeners would think to themselves that's a pretty common, consistent process that Australians get access to. Well, it's not true on Norfolk Island. We are introducing that. We want that to be the case; we want people to have the opportunity to vote for their local representatives.

Again, it gets back to would we be doing this if we didn't think it was absolutely important to do so. There is no gain here for the Australian Government to go down; there is no special political reward, there's no reward for the Labor Party to support what we're doing in this respect. There was no reward for Simon Crean when he took steps down this path four years ago. The Howard Government considered doing this in 2006, and as I say, the first report which said this was unsustainable was in 1997. This has been something that should have been fixed some time ago. We're fixing it because it's got to the point where the island is unsustainable. It is—as the Auditor-General said last year, not a going concern, and we will not accept that Australians who live on that island should be treated differently than other people on the mainland.

Dugald Saunders: One of the things I know that the Chief Minister will bring up is that the island has been asking for a hand up, not a continuing handout. One of the things that he's argued about before is that they weren't given a fair go with things like, for example, trialling growing medicinal cannabis there, which could have started a whole new industry. How do you think things like that have been handled?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think what you see is a sort of constant attempt to find the next get-rich-quick scheme. It was not just medicinal cannabis; we heard about the plans to be a sort of online casino hub a couple of years before that. You know, if [inaudible] don't want a handout, we just want a hand up mentality [inaudible]. Why is it that the money that's been allocated to build the new Cascade Pier has sat there for four years? I mean, at some point, someone's got to ask some questions here. Is there capacity on the island actually to deliver any of this? I mean, the Chief Minister often says things were going along swimmingly until 2010. Well, that's simply not true either. As I said, the Commonwealth Grants Commission in 1997 said that this was not sustainable. So, I understand the Chief Minister's passion for Norfolk Island and I appreciate it very much. However, the reality of the situation is that it is not a sustainable situation for people who live on Norfolk Island and we're not going to stand by and let Australians not get access to the services they deserve, no matter where they live. It's not an appropriate principle and we don't support it. And by the way, neither do most of the people who live on the island.

Dugald Saunders: Can I just ask you finally…

Jamie Briggs: Of course.

Dugald Saunders: …you've mentioned that there seems to be support from all sides on this. Do you think this will get through when the Government hasn't had a great record lately of getting things through the upper house? Is this going to get through without any problems, do you think?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I don't accept that contention either. I mean, there's been attention on some bills that haven't passed the upper house. We've also passed several very important pieces of legislation such as the abolition of the carbon tax and the mining tax. Our Direct Action Scheme passed the Parliament last year, so we've had a great deal of success. Seventy-five per cent of the Budget has passed the Parliament. So, there's attention on bills that don't pass and that's understandable, but we continue to work on getting through our agenda as appropriate.

When it comes to this legislation, the Joint Standing Committee Report of the Territories Committee was bipartisan. I've been speaking to Warren Snowden, who's the appropriate shadow minister in the Labor Party and Gai Brodtmann who's the Member for Canberra and has a real interest in this issue as well. In fact, Norfolk Island will be allocated to Canberra as part of the changes, as far as the federal elections are concerned, and they've indicated, barring anything being particularly different in the bill when they see the bill, which they'll get very soon and it'll be tabled next Thursday, they will support the passage of the legislation.

Dugald Saunders: Alright. Appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

Jamie Briggs: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

Dugald Saunders: Jamie Briggs, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development with us here on ABC Western Plains.