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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories - 09/04/2015 - Governance in the Indian Ocean Territories

ANDERSEN, Ms Regine, Secretary, Christmas Island Women's Association

KOH, Ms Nora, President, Christmas Island Women's Association

Committee met at 15:56

CHAIR ( Mr Simpkins ): I declare open this public hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories for its inquiry into governance in the Indian Ocean Territories. I am Luke Simpkins, the chair of the committee. I now invite the other members of the committee to introduce themselves.

Mr VASTA: I am Ross Vasta. I am the federal member for Bonner, in Brisbane.

Mrs GRIGGS: I am Natasha Griggs. I am the federal member for Solomon, which is in the Northern Territory.

Senator BACK: I am Senator Chris Back, from Western Australia.

CHAIR: Firstly, I take this opportunity to welcome everyone and to thank those people who have taken the time to come and speak to the committee today. I also welcome anyone who has come along to observe today's proceedings. Yesterday, the committee heard from the residents of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Today is an opportunity for the residents of Christmas Island to be heard, and tomorrow as well.

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 communities' engagement with the Australian and state governments; local government's role; and opportunities to strengthen and diversify the economy. The terms of reference provide the framework for the issues to be explored. We are starting today's hearing with representatives from local government and community based organisations. Tomorrow we will be taking community statements and also speaking to representatives of Soft Star. The committee look forward to hearing a range of views on the unique issues facing the residents of Christmas Island. You are encouraged to speak freely, although I would ask that the content of your statement remain relevant to the inquiry's terms of reference.

Before I proceed to our first witnesses, I make a formal statement which applies to all. Participants should be aware that today's proceedings are being recorded by broadcasting. A Hansard transcript of today's discussion will be produced and published on the committee's website in the near future. I also advise participants that, although the committee does not require you to speak under oath, you should all understand that this forum is a formal meeting of the Commonwealth parliament; giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament.

It is my intention to give each organisation about 10 minutes to cover their views on the terms of reference, then the committee will have five minutes for points of clarification; and then we will move on to the next group. I welcome representatives of the Christmas Island Women's Association. For the Hansard record, could each of you please state the capacity in which you appear?

Ms Koh : I am the president of the Christmas Island Women's Association and I will be addressing points No. 2 and No. 4 and Regine Andersen, the secretary of the Christmas Island Women's Association, will present to you points No. 1 and No. 3.

CHAIR: Excellent. Thank you.

Ms Koh : I will start with point No. 2, which talks about consultation. It is essential that there are more effective ways of communication between the government and the community in order to ensure that the various organisations of Christmas Island are not continuously disadvantaged. Community information should be transacted in the three languages of English, Mandarin and Malay. It is necessary that the community be heard in all its diversity. Communication requires support at every level. Communications should be the channel to the various organisations of Christmas Island and the community consultative committee.

The community has no direct and easy access to consultation reports, such as the reports on aged care and accommodation and social economic reports. The public can only access these reports through the Freedom of Information Act. Without government action and support for any of the recommendations and findings of these reports, the government has wasted a lot of money and time on consultants to compile these reports. The Christmas Island community as a whole is underresourced and, therefore, we have no adequate financial support for equipment and facilities. Standards fall below those on the mainland.

Point No. 4 talks about the economy. It is likely that tourism will become a large part of the Christmas Island economy. Therefore, the marketing capacity needs to be increased. At present, marketing is somewhat ad hoc. An upgrade to the airport is most important. Tourism is impossible to operate with our present facilities at the Christmas Island airport. The current condition of the airport can only facilitate a pass of 302. This depends on good weather. If there is bad weather, flights have to fly back to Perth. The lack of communication, power and the limited land strip prevent flights from landing during poor weather. As a result, flights are either cancelled or forced to return to Perth. This happens on a regular basis. This adds extra expense to both airlines and passengers with connecting flight booked in advance. As a result, many prospective visitors hesitate and reconsider when planning a visit.

The next point is the colossal airfare. The fare to and from Christmas Island is much too high compared with other destinations. Furthermore, to increase tourism, the flightpath must be changed. It is Perth to Christmas Island and Christmas Island to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur then return via the same route back to Perth. Since the price of oil has been reduced, almost every country in the world has reduced the petrol price except Christmas Island. The price is still very high in Christmas Island. A litre of petrol is $2.25.

The lack of competition has resulted in serious profiteering. The majority of senior citizens struggle already with the extremely high cost of food. The very high cost of living in Christmas Island also affects the economy of Christmas Island. Like everywhere else in Australia, we also have an increasingly ageing population without adequate aged care, including residential aged care or lifestyle retirement village. Many families are forced to separate from their ageing parents as they have no other option than to relocate them either north or to Perth.

In Christmas Island young families are growing and not able to find any available land to buy to build their own homes. The lack of available land is also preventing the public and private sectors from developing business investment opportunities. We fully support the development of agriculture mining enterprise. There are MINTOPE and organic vegetable production proposals. There are secret gardens on Christmas Island.

We the community of Christmas Island are becoming tired of being consulted yet again with so little outcome. For this reason many people are now so discouraged by the constant lack of supported action that they feel attending yet another meeting or inquiry is a waste of their time. Some people take off work for a day without pay only to realise their voice may again not be—

CHAIR: Excuse me. Basically, every group gets 10 minutes, so—

Ms Koh : This is my last one. They no longer believe that their needs and concerns are ever going to be considered by the government in Canberra. This is why we think talk without any action is a waste of time. We urge the Commonwealth that it is time to move from thinking and planning to doing. Thank you.

Ms Andersen : I am a volunteer secretary for the Christmas Island Women's Association. I am addressing point 1, regarding the role of the Administrator and capacity and appropriateness of the Administrator taking on a stronger decision-making role. The Christmas Island Women's Association wishes to ask the government to review if in fact there is a real need for any Administrator role on Christmas Island. Based on the fact that the Administrator has not been elected by the local community to represent the community CIWA believes that the role of the Administrator and capacity of the Administrator taking on a stronger decision-making role would not be appropriate. The appointed representatives usually do not represent the views, interests and needs of the community with the exception of the Hon. Mr Jon Stanhope, who has been the first administrator in the past 40 years who took an active interest in islanders' welfare and equality and who genuinely acted favourable in support of the CIWA.

I will now address point 3, local government's role in supporting and representing communities in the Indian Ocean Territories. The view of the CIWA is that the role of the Administrator could possibly be considered as unnecessary or obsolete. As an alternative, the local government shire could be given increased capacity to serve as a representative of both the minister and local government. This would seem more appropriate considering he or she has been elected by the local community to represent the local community whereas the administrator has not been elected. Could a local government shire's role, for example, be extended to include the role of an Administrator being the minister's representative?

With regard to the service delivery agreements—the SDAs—the shire in liaison with the community consultative committee already undertakes formal consultation of reviews and renegotiations of SDAs, which are now represented by WA government and government contact officers. The unnecessary cost of maintaining any ineffective Administrators on Christmas Island could be better spent on making local government shire services more efficient and effective. The directors, by working together in consultation with the shire, could help reduce duplication. Duplication delays decision making.

In our community, decision making has stalled or decisions were made without regard for the voices of the community or their representatives. This has been evidenced by numerous examples over many years, including some of the following: failure to respond to and act on the various recommendations made in several reports prepared for government and submitted over the years, resulting in wasted time, effort and money spent on commissioning these reports—for example, the May 2006 report of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories and its 13 recommendations published in the inquiry report. All recommendations were practical and addressed the transparency and accountability of decision making on CI and Cocos and providing fairer working relationships between Canberra and the islanders, yet in 2007 the government rejected it.

CHAIR: I am sorry, but we are out of time. I invite you to provide your written notes as a submission. At least that way we will know.

Ms Andersen : Yes, we plan to do that. Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Do the members of the committee have questions?

Senator BACK: I would like to ask how many members you have in the association.

Ms Koh : We have 360.

Senator BACK: And they would be widely representative? You were mentioning the language groups of English, Mandarin and Malay.

Ms Koh : Yes, it is a mix.

Senator BACK: What would be the proportion off the top of your head? Could you give us some understanding?

Ms Koh : Of course, the Chinese population here is still greater, so most are Chinese women, then Malays or Caucasians.

Senator BACK: And the proportions that would be longer-term as opposed to shorter-term residents?

Ms Koh : The majority are long-term. Short-term also join—fly-in fly-out also. The officers who work in the detention centre will join for a couple of months. It is a good association, and they like to join us. Recently we produced a cookbook to represent international recipes for the interpreters and officials of different races working in North West Point. We will present the cookbook to you all when you have finished.

Senator BACK: It won't be much use to me, but it will be for my wife!

Mrs GRIGGS: I pick up on the point that you made about extending perhaps the shire's responsibilities and removing the Administrator's responsibilities. Could you elaborate a little bit more on that thought that you suggested?

Ms Andersen : Certainly. This is a thought that was discussed during our committee meeting. What we conclude is that we cannot expect anything to change if we continue to do what we have always done. We are just considering an alternative to what we have always done.

Mrs GRIGGS: How do you see that idea progressing? How do you see the responsibilities transferring and working?

Ms Andersen : That is a very good question. My knowledge of government, laws and regulations is not as good as yours, but it is an idea that we thought would be worth pursuing because we are looking at saving costs, and preventing duplication could be a way of saving costs.

Mrs GRIGGS: In your discussions with your committee group were there some other ideas expanded, or was it just that we could transfer responsibilities to the shire? I am trying to delve down a bit deeper into the thinking.

Ms Andersen : It was basically just the question. Would it be possible to consider doing that?

Mrs GRIGGS: Okay.

Ms Koh : We have the two directors at the moment working in the territory office and one director working here. There is one general manager working in Canberra. These four people working together with shire may be a bit better in the way that the work can be done and communicate more with each other. That is what we talked about as with the ladies who stay here. There is much communication and much working together as a group, not separately.

Mrs GRIGGS: Okay.

Mr VASTA: This question might be a little different from the others, but when we arrived here we saw a sign that said 'the cooked duck has flown away'. Is that in reference to the recipe book or something else!

Ms Andersen : Is it alright if I answer that question?

Ms Koh : Yes.

Ms Andersen : It is actually a proverb. Not sure what culture it has come from, but the cooked duck is interpreted as something that was obtainable, and that it has flown off the island means it has been taken away. My personal opinion is that it may have something to do with the previous inquiry by the standing committee and the beautiful 13 recommendations that were very good but were rejected by government. They were taken away. I think so.

Mrs GRIGGS: As a new member of this committee I find it very offensive that the community here is already judging this committee when we actually have a very good track record. That is not a very fair way to treat us. The other thing I noticed when we came in was that there is no Australian flag. I also find that very offensive.

CHAIR: I am afraid that we are out of time. Thank you very much for that and, of course, we welcome anything you hand up.

Mr VASTA: And we look forward to the cookbook as well!