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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
Governance in the Indian Ocean Territories

SORENSEN, Mr Bjarne John, Director, Northern Bay Pty Ltd

Committee met at 10 :08

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR ( Mr Simpkins ): I now declare open this public meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories for its inquiry into governance in the Indian Ocean Territories. Under the inquiry's terms of reference, the committee has been asked to consider the role of the administrator, consultation mechanisms and best practice for small remote community engagement with Australian and state governments, local government's role, and opportunities to strengthen and diversify the economy.

I take the opportunity to welcome everyone here and on the line, and thank participants for making time to speak with the committee. I also welcome anyone who has come along to observe proceedings. Today's hearing follows on from hearings held in the Indian Ocean Territories, in Perth and in Canberra. During the hearings, a range of issues have been raised. Some are clearly longstanding issues and some are more recent. The committee has this week tabled an interim report on aspects of economic development, with recommendations to help kick-start the economy. Today, we will continue discussions on economic development with a focus on economic diversification and sustainability.

Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, you should understand that these hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of parliament.

Thank you for your written submission. Would you like to make a brief introductory statement before we proceed to questions?

Mr Sorensen : Firstly, I would like to make a small but important correction. I have stated that Mr Don Taylor is the administrator. It should read Bill Taylor, as you, Mr Snowdon, would recall the name. That is a correction. I have read a number of the submissions lodged with this new committee inquiry from individuals, community organisations and business peoples, including two from administrators. To me, it appears there is a lot of frustration and a bit of anger in those submissions. Certainly in my own submission, I have been exposed to quite a bit of frustration and anger, in a way, in the way we have been put aside. Having said that, if I may concentrate on what I rightfully can call my personal case.

We have presented evidence earlier to the joint standing committee in 2005which resulted in the 2006 report. As lodged with my submission for this new inquiry, it is basically our wish that this committee will, as per my closing statement, examine the findings of the previous committee and honour the work that they did. Of course, Mr Snowdon, you were part of that committee and are well aware of the whole lot. The statement I make is followed up with a statutory declaration by Mr Richardson, which was made under oath. I also ask this committee to consider the seriousness of giving a statutory declaration and consider the truth of the matter.

The third thing I pointed out is the ombudsman considered the case worthy of investigation, but the reply we received is that the ombudsman is expressly prohibited to investigate a decision taken by a minister. So we took that as hitting a brick wall. It is quite hard to understand the ombudsman's function. That is my own case. Please ask questions if you would like.

CHAIR: Thanks. Has anything really changed since the 2006 report by the committee and the government's 2007 response to that report?

Mr Sorensen : Yes. The changes are, as pointed out, starting with recommendation 3, where the committee in 2006 recommended that my company and I should be compensated because the Commonwealth government did not follow the policy on which we based our investment on Christmas Island. Further evidence to the committee's findings can be seen in the statutory declaration by Mr Richardson, where he clearly states—and I draw attention especially to paragraph 10—the policy of the government at the time. I think a statement made by one of the Commonwealth's own employees—so to speak—or officials should definitely, in my opinion, be considered by the government and taken into reconsideration with the Howard government's 'do not support' statement. It is vital evidence to support the committee's findings. Basically, that is new evidence and it should be considered.

CHAIR: What I would say is that a lot of people have said over time, whether with regard to this committee or the Indian Ocean territories or a lot of other committees, that a committee recommended it and then the government did not agree with the recommendation. That is a very common situation for committees. Mr Snowdon, do you have any questions?

Mr SNOWDON: I think Mr Sorensen expresses the frustration that he has felt for a decade. I am very sympathetic to your position, and I notice in your submission that you make some recommendations about what you think ought to happen into the future. Have you had the opportunity to see the committee's interim report?

Mr Sorensen : No.

Mr SNOWDON: It addresses two of the issues: you mention the casino and you also mention international students. Both of those are issues which have been picked up by the interim report where the committee basically believes that we should be supporting those initiatives. Mr Simpkins can respond and give you more information about what the government is thinking, but I have seen correspondence from the Prime Minister saying that he wants Minister Briggs to facilitate and expedite a process around a casino licence. So there are two positive things which I think you can take away from what is currently happening. But I accept the basic propositions which you have put—that is, that governments have been loath to respond positively to the various recommendations of this committee for over two decades now.

Mr Sorensen : That is great news for Christmas Island—and also with my continued financial economic interest in the island. Down on the waterfront we have six lots that are tourism zoned blocks. There is interest from potential investors but there have been risks in developing further on them. They have been fully developed and ready to build on, but again and again and again, when we tried to attract investors for further development and the building of tourism accommodation, there have been investigations by investors into the future outlook for Christmas Island and into Commonwealth policy and everything has fallen over with the changing of not only governments but also refugee policy on the island. I understand now, with the new policy of transferring people to various offshore places, Christmas Island, all of a sudden, has lost what had become a sustainable economy—if you can call it that—to many people on Christmas Island , or to a few people with the large fly-in fly-out workforce.

I welcome the decision if the resort casino will reopen on Christmas Island. With my history, I remember those days because I lived on the island and it was great. There was a lot of employment on the island—I think more than 300 jobs. This is great news. The infrastructure to further develop tourism on Christmas Island is not only a good drive from the airport down to the casino for high rollers and whoever may visit the gambling venue but also for tourism into the rainforest and the beautiful ecotourism potential that Christmas Island has. I welcome that decision if it is moving in the right direction. I am a bit cautious and a bit nervous about the reasons, going back, the casino licence was cancelled and the statement from the Howard government that gambling is no good for the islanders. In my personal opinion, that was a bit of a flat statement. What is the difference between Christmas Island, Hobart, Darwin and Alice Springs? But, once again, it is welcome development if a sustainable tourism industry can be kick-started on Christmas Island with the casino reopening.

Mr SNOWDON: There is no certainty that this will happen, but clearly there is a process now. The government is moving toward seeing if it can happen, and that is a very positive thing. But I would just ask you to think about the period from the early nineties to now. You would be aware of the cycles that the economy on Christmas Island has gone through. Apart from the mining operation, government services and minimal tourism due to the lack of infrastructure, really the immigration detention facility has been the base of the economy. We have seen it ramp up, and now it is going into a phase where it will still have people to look after it but it will potentially not be what it was in the past. That will probably mean that a lot of off-islanders will go back to where they came from, and the island economy will be sustained by the people who have always sustained it; that is, the population who have always been there and are not going anywhere.

I think if we can actually work on the tourism aspects and the mine longevity, and use tourism in the way that you have described it in your submission, then that is a very positive thing. But my own personal view—not that it is worth anything—is that it will be a while before we really get a booming economy on Christmas Island again. I think that is going to be reflected in real estate sales, if they do not reflect it already.

Mr Sorensen : Yes.

CHAIR: I would say that we are very enthusiastic about the possibilities for the future. The interim report addressed some of the more obvious things that need to be done, and in the future we are certainly very keen to address the land tenure issues and a range of other issues as well. So that is where we are going to be going in the future.

Mr Sorensen : You mentioned land tenure. Personally, with land on Christmas Island, I have been exposed to the Commonwealth government abandoning their policy of releasing land for development by private developers to cater for the needs of both the Commonwealth government and the private sector. With landholdings still on Christmas Island, I think it should be a fair release of land under tender and auction, like in the nineties and early 2000s; but, of course, policy changes. We based our investment on the policy at the time—but when policies are broken by the policymakers, so are we. That is my whole reason for turning back to my own situation. We lost everything on Christmas Island. As I said at the bottom of my submission, I just want to get on with my life and get justice and financial satisfaction for what happened then.

The recommendation by this committee can be for the Commonwealth government to look to take over our six lots on Christmas Island. It has been done before—the Commonwealth government has taken over private land where needed. If you and the Commonwealth government are confident in the future of Christmas Island, please recommend to have a look at it.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your submission today. Unfortunately we have to suspend as a committee now because of some members' other business. If you would like to hold on that is fine—we will still be about another 10 minutes—or we can conclude now, if you have said everything that you need to say.

Mr Sorensen : We can talk a bit more, if you have time. On the other hand, I appreciate and thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation and, further to my submission, bring in a few points, which I have done in this conversation. I thank you for that. I can say no more than that it has already been considered. New evidence has been put forward to my personal case.

CHAIR: We will come back to you, then. Thanks, Mr Sorensen.