Transcript of Interview: ABC Western Plains Mornings with Dugald Saunders

Interview

BPC023/2015

14 May 2015

E&OE

Dugald Saunders: Well, after years of debate things are now in swing to ring Norfolk Island into Australia's taxation and welfare system. It's something we've talked a fair bit about. A series of bills passed the Senate yesterday that will see the island's legislative assembly dissolved and replaced with a regional council type of body. Jamie Briggs is the Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development. Good morning.

Jamie Briggs: Good morning.

Dugald Saunders: So, what exactly happened yesterday?

Jamie Briggs: Well, yesterday the Senate passed the laws in a bipartisan manner. They were passed on what's known as a non-controversial section of the Senate sitting yesterday, so there was no dissent from what the Government had proposed. The Labor Party, the Greens and the Independents all joined with the Government to put in place changes which will strengthen Norfolk Island, absolutely. As you said at the beginning, this has been debated for a very long time. The situation on Norfolk is at a critical stage. We need to put in place a much more sustainable framework for the future and that's what the Government's interested in doing and that's what the Parliament supported yesterday.

Dugald Saunders: They went through fairly quickly didn't they? Was that expected that they would get through both Houses so quickly.

Jamie Briggs: I think the point you opened up with is exactly right, this has been debated now for a very long time. The issues are not getting better, they're getting worse. A series of former administrators and ministers have made this clear that something needed to happen. Simon Crean being the immediate minister before me made changes along this path and he's [indistinct] support the direction the Government take and the former administrator Neil Pope is also a former Labor state minister was very quick yesterday to congratulate me for the changes there were put in place.

So, I think you see over a long period of time a discussion about this. Sure there's some people on the island who are unhappy with the outcome and that's their right, but I think there's some myths that's been put around which is just simply not true. We're not removing self-government. What we've done is change the way self-government operates on the island. We've taken responsibility for what should be federal issues, taxation and welfare will apply on Norfolk Island for the first time. We're asking the state government to take responsibility for the issues that they should be responsible for and that New South Wales through Mike Baird has indicated they'll do that on our behalf and will be giving local people an opportunity to vote for a regional government. So, they've got representation, they've got an opportunity to vote for their local government and their local government will look after important services.

And what you're going to see of course is actual infrastructure investment. You're actually going to see some capital invested on the island which hasn't happened for a very long time. Now we've already begun the process of doing an assessment of the roads on Norfolk Island and we think that will lead to some upgrades for those who've been there or those who are living on the island you know, that there needs to be upgrades for the infrastructure. It hasn't been upgraded for a very very long time. And this is the sorts of benefits that people on Norfolk Island are going to begin to see very soon.

Dugald Saunders: There have been some quite vocal opponents from people living on Norfolk Island including the current Chief Minister of the Legislative Assembly Lisle Snell. I just want you to hear a little bit of what he's had to say after yesterday's decision.

[Excerpt]

Lisle Snell: I've spoken to a few people on Norfolk Island. They're shattered. The news was one that we hoped the amendments would be referred to a Senate select committee for further investigation because the advice that has been given to Assistant Minister Briggs has been flawed, the Joint Standing Committee for which they base a lot of their decisions upon, particularly that of recommending the removal of the Norfolk Island government is [indistinct] flawed by the Joint Standing Committee. Advice was flawed and the advice to the assistant minister has been flawed. It is a done deal. We've spent the last three days down in Canberra walking the corridors of the power of that place. We've spoken to senators, particularly in the backbench and crossbench and some of them gave us an indication they would assist us where they possibly could. Regrettably that did not occur in the decision today.

[End of excerpt]

Dugald Saunders: That obviously did not occur. That's Lisle Snell who's the current Chief Minister. What are your thoughts on that?

Jamie Briggs: I appreciate Lisle's passion for Norfolk Island. He's someone who's given great service to the community. In fact, I would hope that he would continue to give great service to the community. He's a man of experience and obviously he knows his community and he's in touch with community very much. But I think he's mistaken some of the comments he's just made to you. The advice we've got isn't the first time that the Government's had this advice, in fact it's been on more than 20 occasions. The first time that these issues were raised in a substantial way was 1997 by the Commonwealth Grants Commission. Even Lisle himself admits this reform has to take place, he just disagrees with the [indistinct], with the direction that the Parliament has decided to take.

So, change has to happen on Norfolk Island. This is change which will benefit people who live there in a very substantial way. We think this will strengthen Norfolk Island, take away the need for them to look after areas of government that they don't have the capacity on the island to do and it should allow them to focus on their strengths. There are great strengths on Norfolk Island. It is a very unique and special part of our country. It's been a disgrace that governments allowed this situation to continue for so long without genuine reform.

Dugald Saunders: Well, I guess one of the things he's brought up is that he thought the whole way through the way things have been reported has been flawed and he'd hoped it would be referred to a Senate select committee. So, why didn't that happen then?

Jamie Briggs: I think we've had enough inquiries on this. I don't agree with him that it's been flawed the advice or the feedback from the community. I'm sure there are people on the island who are not happy with the outcome. Lisle 's obviously one of them and I'm sure he's spoken to people. I don't at all question his honesty in what he says to you, but what he doesn't equally tell you is there are people on the island who were ecstatic, and I got emails last night, tweets in fact from people saying how pleased they were this has occurred.

With big change you're always going to have different views but I don't think the answer was to have another inquiry. We've had multiple inquiries about Norfolk Island. The Joint Standing Committee report last year was a bipartisan report. We didn't force the Labor Party to agree with us and as you know often the Labor Party doesn't agree with us on many issues, but on this issue they stood with us side by side because they saw the need for reform, they were part of that Joint Standing Committee which made these recommendations. Again, I think the fear of change will be greater than the actual change itself. In the end, you'll see a much better outcome for this part of Australia.

Dugald Saunders: What about the referendum? I mean that was a bit of a last ditch effort by Norfolk Island's Legislative Assembly to show what people were feeling and although not everyone on the island was able to vote because they're not all Australian citizens, there was a fairly overwhelming I think three to one type of vote against the change. Did you take that into consideration at all?

Jamie Briggs: If you look at it, it was an online voting system so there are obviously questions about the credibility of it. But putting that aside it's accepted the vote is right. The question was a very broad question about supporting democracy and we absolutely support democracy. In fact, I would argue very strongly that there will be increased democracy or an increased democratic right for people living on Norfolk Island following these changes. The situation at the moment is that people on Norfolk Island don't have a considered voice in the Federal Parliament. That's now changed; they will now be part of the Canberra electorate. Gai Brodtmann is the Labor Member for Canberra, will be their representative and they'll be required to vote like all other Australians in federal elections. That hasn't been the case before. And secondly they will be voting for their regional government. They'll be the ones who choose who run their local affairs and people again will have a voice in that—just as people who live in Dubbo and get the opportunity to elect their shire; people on Norfolk Island will have the same opportunity. So, the question was a broad question about support of democracy and I'm not surprised that a lot of people support democracy.

Dugald Saunders: Talking to Jamie Briggs this morning, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development after the change yesterday to Norfolk Island's future, a series of bills that passed through Parliament yesterday which will see the legislative assembly dissolved and replaced with a regional council to run things at Norfolk Island. One of the things I'm aware that since last you and I spoke which was a month or so ago, the Youth Council at Norfolk Island actually got in touch with you as well and put together a video showing their dismay at some of the decisions that have been made. Did you respond to that?

Jamie Briggs: I didn't see it, I must admit. It may have got lost in the wash, but look I'm happy to see if it's there and I'll check with my office where it was, but look again, I think the fact that people have a view, which is their right, but ultimately government's about making decisions and this is not a decision which has been taken quickly, it's been something that's taken a very long time to achieve. The problems on Norfolk Island are deep, as far as the Youth Council's concerned, a very clear issue on Norfolk Island is the lack of opportunity of work, lack of opportunity in jobs and that's why people are leaving the Island. You're seeing a reduction in population in Norfolk Island which is getting to a point where it becomes critical. You don't have enough people for the sustainability to be maintained. I think what the changes we've made will not only strengthen the social framework of the island by producing the welfare system with the requirement of paying tax like all Australians have, but you'll see a much simpler, cleaner system on Norfolk Island which will allow them to play to their strength, make the most of their tourist potential which they're not at the moment, for all sorts of reasons, and it will upgrade infrastructure which is so desperately needed because for the first time the regional government on Norfolk Island will become eligible for light payments on Roads to Recovery, Black Spot funding. They'll actually have infrastructure investment which they have not had for a very long time.

Dugald Saunders: Let's talk about that—can we talk about that—so what happens from here, because my understanding is the legislative assembly in its current form runs until the end of next month, end of June…

Jamie Briggs: Yes.

Dugald Saunders: …and then it gets replaced by an advisory council so how does that happen?

Jamie Briggs: So, the advisory council will begin early July and it will be community members. We've asked for nominations, they close on 22 May and we've had quite a bit of interest in that. We've already had David Buffett, the current speaker of the Norfolk Island Assembly agree to be part of that advisory council. We're looking for other members from the community to be a part of that. I asked the current Chief Minister Lisle Snell to join and he's declined, that's his right. That advisory council will help establish the regional government system and it will also advise on implementation issues alongside my department.

My department is sending out quite a number of officers to be on the ground and there are already some but there'll be more heading over very soon. There'll also be an executive director, who'll be employed to coordinate the change. We're establishing an actual shop front on Norfolk Island so people have got a physical presence. If they've got questions they can go into the shop front and talk it through.

There will be significant requirements from people to engage with our entitlement system, the Australian entitlement system, so there will be information that's required to get them—you know, to be a part of whether it be the Centrelink system, whether it be Human Services or whether it be the Medicare system and obviously the taxation system for business as well.
So, there is quite a bit of work to do and the advisory council will play a key role in establishing that. Then next year there will be election for the first regional government which will take shape on 1 July 2016 and. So these things will move pretty quickly. The majority of the changes will come in on 1 July 2016, so there's a lot of work to do in the 12 month period. People will need to be engaged in that work. I've written to every resident of Norfolk Island overnight so there's a letter that will be sent to them today explaining what happened yesterday, explaining now the process forward and opening up the opportunity for people to seek further information on what that will look like.

Dugald Saunders: We'll certainly keep in touch on this; I appreciate your time this morning, thank you.

Jamie Briggs: My pleasure, thanks very much.

Dugald Saunders: Jamie Briggs, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development.