SMH: It's time to bring Norfolk Island back into the fold
02 May 2016
Sydney Morning Herald
If you are an Australian living on Norfolk Island today you are effectively a second-class citizen.
You are not covered by Medicare or the PBS: if you want healthcare on Norfolk Island you must contribute to an island-specific public health fund, which costs $1200 a year and only provides partial cover once your medical costs have exceeded $2000.
You are not covered by the Australian social security system: that means no Newstart Allowance if you lose your job, no Disability Support Pension and no Australian Age Pension.
You have no access to a range of other Commonwealth programs, including funding for childcare and aged care, student assistance and support for job seekers.
Average incomes on Norfolk Island are lower than the rest of Australia and prices are much higher — many islanders have to work two or more jobs to support themselves and their families.
The local economy has contracted sharply in recent years and the main street, Taylors Road, is full of empty shops and businesses.
Things have been getting worse, not better, for quite some time.
Tourism is the island's main industry — but visitor numbers are down from 40,000 15 years ago to 25,000 today. Over the same period, the population has dropped around 18 per cent, with large numbers of working-age men and women leaving the island to find opportunities elsewhere.
Steadily, living standards have been falling further behind the rest of Australia.
For several decades Norfolk Island has operated under an experimental system of self-government used nowhere else in Australia — with a Legislative Assembly of nine people trying to govern this tiny population, seeking to do all the things that state and local governments do elsewhere in the country and many of the things the federal government does as well.
The result of the experiment is clear — it has not worked well. The local administration is unable to deliver the range or standard of services that Australians rightly expect from their governments.
Public infrastructure on Norfolk Island is run down: one study found that $77 million of new investment is needed for repairs and new projects. Critical services, like the local hospital, are not accredited to mainland standards.
That is why there was strong bipartisan support in the Australian Parliament for legislation last year that brought the experiment to an end — and restored to Norfolk Island the same system used in Australia's other external territories such as the Cocos Islands and Christmas Island.
From July 1, Norfolk Islanders will be brought into the Australian social security, tax and Medicare systems. Australian law will apply — together with some modern state laws based on those in NSW.
There will be a new Norfolk Island Regional Council, with the same kinds of responsibilities as similar remote area councils in NSW. Complex state services, such as health and education, will be delivered with the assistance of the NSW Government.
Economic advisers retained by the Australian government estimate these changes will give the Norfolk Island economy a significant boost: "gross territory product" will rise by 14 per cent and household consumption by 38 per cent.
Like other Australians, Norfolk Islanders will be represented in the Australian Parliament (in the electorate of Canberra) and will be free to run for office and vote for any candidate they choose — as well as to run for and vote in elections to select the Regional Council.
There are some on Norfolk Island who have done well under the current arrangements. They oppose the changes the government is making and are deploying many arguments including the claim this represents "colonialism".
Prominent lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has been retained to petition the United Nations.
The argument is threadbare. Norfolk Island has been part of Australia for more than 100 years.
The democratically elected government of Australia — responsible for the welfare of all Australians including those on Norfolk Island — has decided to change the governance arrangements for Norfolk Island.
The policy rationale is clear: to provide Norfolk Islanders with a standard of service from government in line with that provided in other, similarly remote, parts of Australia.
A ruling from the United Nations will make little difference in the lives of Norfolk Islanders.
By contrast, the changes the Australian government is making will deliver better services and a better life for many on the Island.