Transcript of Press Conference: Blue Room, Parliament House
19 March 2015
Thank you for being here. Look, today I'm announcing the Australian Government has decided to deliver significant reform to governance and services delivered on Norfolk Island, reforms which will deliver equality and provide the Island with economic growth and long-term sustainability. Norfolk Island has a unique and important part of the Australian story. For too long, the Island has been left to decline as a result of unrealistic governance arrangements and the absence of basic services and support.
Since 1979, the Norfolk Island community of around 1800 people has been excluded from a wide range of services which most Australians take for granted. The small community has been asked to carry an unreasonably heavy load, and has been expected to provide federal, state, and local government services, including immigration, quarantine, customs, healthcare, and education, without access to anything like a sustainable revenue base. Over the last four decades there have been a plethora of reviews and reports looking at these arrangements. This includes a royal commission, conducted in 1976, 12 separate parliamentary inquiries, and more than 20 reports from experts in various fields, including outgoing reports from former administrators. All of these reviews, reports, and audits have been unanimous in recommending significant reform.
Today I'm pleased to announce that the Abbott Government will be delivering these much- needed but long-neglected reforms, and with them a brighter future for the residents of Norfolk Island.
The reforms consist of two key elements. First, Norfolk Islanders will have the same rights and obligations as all other Australians; they will pay income tax and they will receive Social Security benefits as appropriate, such as the Age Pension, and Family Tax Benefits. Norfolk Island businesses will pay company tax and be entitled to the same tax deductions as other businesses. The existing Norfolk Island taxation system will be abolished. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the reforms will address the fundamental issues of governance. The Norfolk Island Government Act will be amended to transition the Norfolk Island legislative assembly to a Regional Council. This arrangement will ensure that local issues continue to be driven at a local level where ever possible, without placing unreasonable expectations of a community of only
1800 people. The Commonwealth will also provide a modern legislative framework, modelled from NSW law.
These reforms will be introduced in stages, with most to come into effect on 1 July 2016. During the transition process the local community will be represented by an advisory council, responsible for steering the reform processes. These reforms have the broad support of the community, and this was clearly demonstrated through a consultation process undertaken last year. The outcome of the consultation process was unequivocal. The community overwhelmingly supports reform, and is of the view that the current governance arrangements are not suitable.
These reforms are long overdue, and they have bipartisan support. I will be proposing to introduce legislation next week to the Parliament that will give effect to the reforms as soon as possible. We expect the bills to pass some time in the Budget sitting.
These reforms represent major change for this small community, and it is essential that residents are well informed and actively engaged in the reform process. In addition to direct engagement with the Administrator, a new website has been launched today on my department's website to keep the community informed, and a shop front will be established on the island in the coming weeks. There will be a host of issues that we need to resolve very quickly; nevertheless, today we are taking a very major step forward. I look forward to the Norfolk Island community continuing to support and engage on these reforms to create a stronger and better future.
Jamie Briggs: Mr Briggs …
Jamie Briggs: Apparently the Chief Minister of Norfolk Island was only notified at 5:30 yesterday afternoon, this announcement. Why take such an antagonistic approach to the local leaders there?
Jamie Briggs: Well, look we haven't at all. We have been working with the Norfolk Island Government for some time on the proposals, and in fact they have been very eager for us to come to a conclusion. These are very complicated changes we are proposing to make. The Cabinet ticked off on them earlier this week, and we have spent the last couple of days preparing for the announcement. But we have consulted very widely on the island, not just with the government but with the community. I wrote twice last year to all residents on the island, I've written again today to everyone on the island. We have asked them their view. Overwhelmingly, people have told us that they want a change.
This is not just keeping an election commitment to introduce taxation and welfare, which is what we proposed at the election, but it is going a step further and doing something that was proposed in 2006 by the Howard Government, and they didn't go ahead, was contemplated in 2011 by Minister Crean, and there was changes made by Minister Crean at that time, but they didn't go to this step. This is fulfilling, I think, something which has been building for some time. So, I don't think anyone on the Island will be surprised that this has got to this point. The Chief Minister has contacted again this morning, and we will continue to have dialogue about the transitional arrangements. But I'm confident in the end that people will see that this is the right way to go forward, because what the existing situation was just simply not sustainable.
Question: The Norfolk Island Government suggested becoming a Territory along the lines of the ACT. Was that ever considered by the federal?
Jamie Briggs: Look, they suggested that back in 2011 as part of the discussions with Minister Crean, at that point in time, when he was the appropriate Minister. The decision was taken, something I completely support, with 1500–1800 people, there is just no capacity to support the delivery of all those services. The revenue base isn't there. They are in effect in administration as we speak. The Federal Government bails them out—this year, we'll bail them out to the tune of $12.5 million. They don't have the capacity to deliver the services we have expected them through the act in 1979. So, what this is doing really is just giving them, not only a local voice, but we are taking the responsibility for the issues we should take responsibility for. We are asking NSW to do the same, and we are paying NSW to do that.
But the other point I would make about local voice; this will be the first time they have actually had a genuine democracy operate on Norfolk Island. The system that operates at the moment is not one vote one value. There are allocations of votes to certain family groups, which distorts the voting process. So, the regional council process will be, as any normal local government voting process would be, it's one vote one value. Something that we all expect, as Australians, to have as a right.
Question: What services will NSW provide?
Jamie Briggs: So, they will provide what would normally be state-based services—health, education, and those services. The one difference will be we will continue to supply police through the AFP, which we have done, which is similar to Christmas and Cocos Islands. So, it will be a similar arrangement, if you like, to what operates on Christmas and Cocos. It will be slightly better to the extent that the regional council on Norfolk Island there will be elections, and they will have an established role under the NSW Local Government Act.
Question: Mr Briggs, apparently the Education Minister threatened David Leyonhjelm with a double dissolution, according to the Liberal Democrat. Do you endorse that negotiating tactic?
Jamie Briggs: Look, I wasn't there. But I think the point that the Government has made is that we need to have a relationship with the crossbench in the Senate, which is respectful, and ensures that we can fulfil the mandate that we went to the election with. The crossbench has a variety of different perspectives on policy, and in that respect it is difficult to line all the ducks up in a row at once. But we did it on numerous occasions last year, and I think we will continue to be able to do that. Obviously this week we weren't successful, but we will try, try again.
Question: Have you been involved in any meetings discussing the prospect of a double dissolution as a way to break the deadlock?
Jamie Briggs: No.
Question: You haven't been discussing it at all with your colleagues?
Jamie Briggs: No.
Question: Do you think it is a potential prospect of a way to break this deadlock in the Senate after the Budget?
Jamie Briggs: Well no, I think the Prime Minister's office this morning released a comment that we expect to serve the full term, and that's something I would support.
Question: Can I ask why GST was not included, and when it will be?
Jamie Briggs: So, GST is not applicable on Christmas and Cocos as well. And there is a judgment that we have made that the effect of applying the GST would have a negative economic impact over there, at a time when the economy is in the doldrums, at best. So it is, in a sense, trying to give Norfolk an opportunity to firstly adjust to the new system, because it will be a substantial change. There has been 30-odd years of a very different system operate, so we are trying to give them a kick start. There will also be a bit of infrastructure spending on the island to bring some of the roads back up to reasonable condition, because they are not at the moment.
Norfolk will have, in effect, the new regional council will have access to similar payments, like Roads to Recovery, Black Spots Programmes, those types of local Government support which they haven't had before, which will give them some direct infrastructure money to spend as well. So, that's the main reason. At this point, there is no intention to introduce the GST. The judgment is the amount of revenue you would get for the impact wouldn't be worth it, which is the judgement the Government has made for a long period of time on Christmas and Cocos as well.
Question: Are you surprised this situation has gone on as long as it has?
Jamie Briggs: Yes. Yes, I am.
Jamie Briggs: I mean, I've had very little idea about this situation until my first briefing, really, after we won government. And it is diabolical; it's quite concerning that it's been left for so long. I mean, one of the points I think that I made this morning on radio is that there is no great political benefit for us to go down this path; it's costing the Commonwealth $136 million to do this over the next four years. It's not something that brings us great kudos throughout the community, and there's no great benefit for the Labor Party to support what we're doing either. Which makes you think maybe what we're doing is the right thing. And I think, in the end, what we are trying to do, is the right thing.
Question: What's the Government doing to promote economic growth on the Island? Is that even possible? Tourism and the like. What's happening?
Jamie Briggs: Well, we think it is possible, but they need to upgrade the product they're offering, and one of the opportunities they have is with cruise ships particularly. And four years ago, the previous government allocated, I think it's $15 million for the upgrading the Cascade Pier, which will allow cruise ships to have more regular servicing of Norfolk Island. At the moment, if the weather's in bad condition, they can't get the boats to and from the cruise ships, so they can't take advantage of it. So, that happens on a regular basis.
In that four years, the government hasn't been able to move that forward at all, so we're taking that money back, my Department will now go ahead with that project, and implement that project ourselves. And we think that will help. There is obviously an opportunity with the lower dollar and so forth for tourism, not just on Norfolk but more broadly, to get a bit of a boost. So, there is a chance, we think, with a bit of extra attention on infrastructure, and taking away some of these sort of crisis points that they're at at the moment, constantly just trying to deal with a day to day crisis. It might actually allow for them to be able to start to grow that industry. Because that is clearly their best hope of becoming a sustainable community.
Question: Can we just take you back to the double dissolution issue?
Jamie Briggs: Sure.
Question: Are you personally worried about losing your own seat at the next election?
Jamie Briggs: No. I will always take my seat very, very seriously, but I'm confident that the people of Mayo are wise and will continue to support me and the Government, because I think they know that what we are trying to do is build a stronger country, and we're putting in place changes which will mean that in the future we will be more prosperous than we are today. In that respect, the feedback I get from my community constantly is, look, we want you to do a better job than you're doing at the moment as a government, but we support what you're trying to do. And in that sense, I'm confident we'll continue to get the support of my electorate and many across the country.
Question: What about the Education Minister, who's in a marginal seat in South Australia? He's had a pretty tough week, should he be worried?
Jamie Briggs: Look, anyone who knows Christopher Pyne knows that he is the toughest fighter in this place. And, writing off Christopher Pyne is a business which is very ill-advised. I think Christopher will be fine. He's a unique personality in this Parliament, he does a terrific job here, and he's a very well-known and substantial figure in South Australia. And I'm sure he'll continue to win Sturt for as long as he wants to be the member for Sturt.