Transcript of Interview: Radio International NZ
23 March 2015
Compere: The Australian Government says reforms planned for Norfolk Island will help deliver equity and economic stability, give residents access to essential services they've been denied. The Assistant Minister of Regional Development, Jamie Briggs, says there's wide-spread backing for the changes both on the island and in Canberra. He told me the island has struggled to survive for years; the first of a series of damning reports in 1997, which concluded the Norfolk economic model was not sustainable in the long run.
Jamie Briggs: So, it really is about ensuring the sustainability of Norfolk Island, so we can get better outcomes for people who live there, and also make the most of what is a very special part of Australia.
Compere: Yes, and I guess that's a critical part of it, isn't it, this unique cultural characteristic that Norfolk Island has; and as you say, they've struggled in recent years, but for a long time they've got a long quite nicely, haven't they. So why….
Jamie Briggs: Well, not really, sorry to interrupt. But since 1997, there's been reports, the first by the Commonwealth Grants Commission in 1997, which said that the system was not sustainable. So, it has been on the radar for some time. The Howard Government in 2006 considered these reforms, pretty much similar to what we've now introduced; the former Labor government in 2011 introduced significant reforms, called the Road Map, and this was another option that they were considering as well towards the end of their term in government. And so it has been talked about for a long time, because the island—and as you would understand, with a population of only 1500 to 1800 people, to deliver every government service is a task which is beyond them.
Compere: Something that's going to cost the Australian taxpayer an enormous amount of money and a lot more than Australia has put into Norfolk Island previously, I think $136 million; is that an annual amount?
Jamie Briggs: No, it's not, that's the amount over the next four years. There will be an ongoing cost though, of course, bringing people into your welfare system there'll be obviously some receipts as well from people who will pay tax and companies who pay tax. But it will cost more than it will deliver. And, I guess, that gets to the point, why would we do it? There's not a lot of positive politics or benefit from it, it really is something that we looked at, we've given consideration to over some time in the Cabinet, and decided that overwhelmingly this was the right thing to do.
In the Australian political environment, it is something which is supported by our opponents the Labor Party; it is something which is seen through the prism of bipartisanship here. Because we all absolutely respect the unique cultural contribution that Norfolk Island plays in Australia, or has given to Australia, and we don't want that to be diminished. And we don't think these changes at all diminish that. But we have to also deal with the reality of living in 2015. We don't think, as a government, that it's acceptable that people living in this environment, a long way from being able to get access to normal services, don't get access to basic entitlements, such as the pension, don't get access to family payments, and don't get access to basic assistance with upgrading local infrastructure. The roads, for instance, on Norfolk Island, haven't been upgraded since the 1970s. Now, that to us is just not acceptable.
Compere: Why didn't you or one of your colleagues go over to Norfolk Island and announce this? It was just put on the website, I understand.
Jamie Briggs: No, that's not quite true. I've written to everyone who lives on Norfolk Island. I've spoken to the Chief Minister, and I'm working my way through speaking to other members of the existing government. I've been to Norfolk Island, I've spoken to the community, we've asked Gary Hardgrave, who's the Administrator, to hold regular consultation forums, which he's been doing and he'll continue to do, we're sending officials this week after the legislation's tabled to be there as a point of contact with people on the island who've got questions.
The reality was last week was the sitting of the Federal Parliament, and the expectation of Prime Minister Abbott is that his ministers are in Parliament when Parliament sits. So, the way these things obviously work is the Cabinet makes decisions, in my view it was best to make the announcement as soon as the Cabinet made a decision, so we could give some clarity to people who live on the island. We'll introduce the legislation this Thursday, and it will be debated when we come back for what is the Budget session of Parliament in May.
Compere: There are quite a number of people, it would seem, from the ones we've spoken with on the island who are very angry with you. So, how are you going to overcome this antipathy to the change?
Jamie Briggs: Well, I think there are some people who are angry; to use the words you've described it. I don't get that sense from a vast bulk of people who live on the island. In fact, I would say the overwhelming feedback we've had in the last few months is this is the path that people wanted us to take. There are some on the island who, with certain traditional backgrounds, who want to make this into an us-versus-them, or that this is some takeover by the Australian Government; I would argue right now we've had more of a role in running the island than ever before, and that's because, as I say, they are, in effect, in administration.
You mentioned the cost before; what we didn't talk about is the cost of not doing anything. If we kept going the way you we were going, when you've got an electricity network which is about to fall apart, you've got roads which haven't been upgraded, you've got no capacity to grow the tourism industry, which is their best and greatest hope out of the situation they find themselves in, then would cost the Australian Government a whole lot more. It will also have a social cost; people shouldn't have to live in circumstances where they don't have a reliable government there to support them in these circumstances, and that's what being part of the broader Australian entitlements scheme will ensure.
So, I see this as overwhelmingly a good change for people on the island, and I think even those who are critical today will come to recognise in time that this was the best way forward to ensure that they're sustainable.
And, I guess, I make the final point, and that is you have to get to motive here: why would we be doing this if it wasn't for good policy reasons? It's costing us money; it doesn't particularly bring any broader political benefits. We're doing this because it is the right thing to do, and it is, frankly, something which has been going on now for 20-odd years, and it needs to be resolved.
Compere: That's Australia's Assistant Minister of Regional Development.