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Tuesday, 21 May 1957


Mr MORGAN (Reid) .- I should like to commend the Government for bringing down this bill to give some measure of local authority to the inhabitants of Norfolk Island. It will grant them certain limited powers similar to those given to most local government bodies on the mainland. I respectfully submit, however, that the bill misses the real point. It overlooks the fundamental causes of the problems and difficulties of Norfolk Island and of the deep sense of frustration which was apparent to me and other honorable members who comprised the delegation from the Federal Parliament which went to the island last year for the centenary celebrations of the landing of the Pitcairners. From our observations, it appeared that one cause of that frustration was the isolation of the island and the lack of regular contact by the islanders with the outside world. A second cause was the dwindling population. There is a distinct minority of young people in the population, which was previously about 1,200 or 1,300, but now is about only 1,000. Most of the young people have gone to the mainland because they consider that there is no future for them on the island. A third cause was the sense of insecurity that prevailed throughout the island, not only because of economic difficulties, but also because of exposure to physical danger owing to the absence of local defences. In view of all these factors, the granting of local self-government to the island will be of very little use, especially if it is accompanied by the imposition of taxes and does nothing to the feeling of insecurity to which I have referred.

At this stage, I want to congratulate the Minister for Territories (Mr. Hasluck), the Administrator of the island and his lady, also the local officials and the islanders generally, for the manner in which the centenary ceremonies and celebrations were conducted. Those celebrations gave a real fillip to the islanders and, at least for the time being, made them feel that they were really on the map. One of my reasons for accepting the invitation to attend the centenary celebrations was that some time ago there was circulated among members of this House a petition signed by practically all the residents of the island, outlining certain grievances that they claimed to have. I took the opportunity to go to the island to investigate the complaints contained in that petition, which seemed to me to be in the nature of an appeal for help.

On arrival, we were approached by certain people who seemed to be quite decent types. They painted for us a rather unfavorable picture of some of the personalities connected with the administration of the island. Our first impression was that there was something radically wrong with the administration, but it seemed to be rather difficult to get to the bottom of the matter. There is no newspaper or other medium of public expression on the island and the only way that the people can ventilate their grievances is by word of mouth. Sometimes that is a good medium of communication, but it can also be bad, depending on the source from which the information comes.

It was difficult for us to investigate or discuss the matter during the festivities and ceremonies, but the honorable member for Banks (Mr. Costa), the honorable member for Watson (Mr. Cope) and I stayed on the island for a few more days with the express intention of making independent inquiries. It was really only on the afternoon before we left that we gleaned any real information, and then only because of an accidental call that we made on an old identity who seemed to have no axe to grind. We were able to get from him an unbiased picture of the situation. Let me say that the complaints made about the Administrator and other officials seemed to be quite unfounded and, perhaps, unfair. The complaints appeared to represent a sectional point of view and, to a certain extent, to be based on ignorance. For example, there was a complaint by some of the islanders who had come to the island to settle there because there was no income tax and customs duties were very light. An increase was made of customs duties just at a time when one or two of them had arranged to import cars. They were caught napping and thought that the Administration should have given them some warning of the impending increase of duties. Honorable members who know anything about customs and excise duties are aware that that sort of information is not allowed to leak out, but these people were smarting under a sense of grievance because they thought they should have been told about it.

Personally, I thought that the Administrator and the officials were, generally speaking, sympathetic and had the interests of the islanders at heart. They appeared to be anxious to help them. The Administrator was keen to make a success of his job, but he was in a somewhat difficult position. He had inherited a situation of long-standing which was not of his making. Most of the islanders regarded the Advisory Council, although it was elected by the residents, as a rather innocuous body, with no real power to implement its decisions. Consequently, the people felt that they were left more or less at the mercy of the whim of the Administrator and that there would be irritating delays on the part of officialdom. All those factors contributed to the sense of grievance and frustration which we found was prevailing on the island. That was not the fault of the Administrator. As I have already said, he had inherited a situation which had its origin in the days of the penal settlement and the days when, after the arrival of the Pitcairners, the island was made a Crown colony and was controlled from the mainland. In those days, the people were subjected to the disadvantages of an imperialist colonial system of government in an island outpost. They had no parliamentary representation and no real power in their own hands. Their remoteness from the mainland of Australia and the difficulties of communication aggravated the situation.

But Norfolk Island is no longer a remote place. Means of communication have improved. It is no longer isolated from the disorders of the world. During the recent war in the Pacific, it was very much on the map. It does not seem a great distance from Australia now, because it is possible to travel there in a few hours by air, but previously a voyage of many days or weeks was involved and only an infrequent shipping service was available.

Other factors increased the sense of grievance and frustration. Some, of an economic nature, were of recent origin. Previously, this island, which is very rich and fertile, provided the means of subsistence for most of the islanders. After the landing of the Pitcairners, farms were established. The people were able to produce enough food for their families and also to export fruit and other products to New Zealand, which was their natural market. Unfortunately, they became victims of the trade barriers that arose between Australia and New Zealand. For example, when Australia restricted the importation of potatoes from New Zealand, New Zealand retaliated by cutting off its trade with Norfolk Island, and this seriously affected the incomes of those people. It affected also the shipping service to the island, because when trade was reduced the visits of ships became more infrequent. That, in turn, affected the tourist trade, which previously had been moderately good.

As the Minister has quite rightly said, Norfolk Island is an idyllic place. It has been properly described as the Madeira of the Pacific. It is a place of great historic interest, not only because of the penal establishment that existed there, but also because of the settlement that was established after the landing of the Pitcairn islanders. They were taken under the protective wing of the British Crown. Queen Victoria had a particular regard for these patriotic people in the Pacific of whom she had heard so much, and who had become almost wholly Christian. When the British Empire went to war they showed their appreciation for what had been done for them in the past. Ten per cent, of the male population volunteered in the last war, and a considerable number volunteered in World War I. For humanitarian reasons, and because it is our duty, we should take a far greater interest in the welfare of these people, whose needs have been so greatly overlooked in the past.

There is also the aspect of defence. During the last war Norfolk Island was a vital base, used mainly by the American forces. It also has a cable station, and while we were there we were told a rather fantastic story of the part that had been played by the cable services of the Pacific during the Battle of Midway and the north African campaign especially. Norfolk Island is now a base on the civil air route between Australia and New Zealand, and could be used as a naval and submarine base for this country. If that were done, not only could the island be defended, but also we should be establishing a strongpoint in the defence of Australia itself.

No racial problem could arise because the population is 100 per cent. British stock. If we were once more involved in war, and the tables were turned in the Pacific, it would be a very serious matter if Norfolk Island fell into other hands. The Chairman of the Advisory Council, Mr. Ray Nobbs, who is a kind of island patriarch, spoke to us from his hospital bed, being unable to participate in the celebrations. He told us some of the problems of the island and made this very significant remark, " If anything happens to this place don't say I did not warn you ". He is looked upon as a good Christian and a patriotic citizen. He implied that if, in desperation, the Norfolk islanders were driven into the hands of some other country the outlook for this country would be very serious. For all these reasons Norfolk Island should receive greater consideration than it has in the past.

First, trade with the mainland and with New Zealand could be stimulated. Secondly, technical advice and assistance in agriculture could be given. In recent years crops have failed because some disease has crept into the soil and affected its productivity. Not only the export trade but also the food supply of the islanders, has been affected. Thirdly, the Government might consider boosting the tourist traffic to the island, which is ideal for that purpose. More people could be brought there. Something could be done for workers and others who might want to spend their longservice leave or annual holidays there. A greater tourist trade might result in other people settling on the island. The population has greatly decreased because the young people have left for the mainland.

The Minister referred to the many historic relics and buildings on the island. These could be restored as has been done by the Tasmanian government. The fact that some of the buildings have been allowed to remain in ruins and deteriorate further, is deplorable. I have in mind not only the old penal settlement buildings but other Government and church buildings. On our visit we saw the Anglican church which had been established by the Melanesian Mission. It is beautiful inside, but unfortunately the roof is beginning to deteriorate and the islanders cannot afford to effect repairs. The Government could do something in that direction also.

The factor that is contributing most to the feeling of insecurity and discontent among the islanders is the lack of real social services. The islanders do not enjoy child endowment, age pensions, widows' pensions or any other social services, such as may be had on the mainland. That was stressed by the islanders. The population is ageing and the failure of crops has worsened the economic position of all. Many old people are concerned for their future security. They stressed that they would appreciate the provision of an adequate pension scheme.

I met an elderly couple who had resided in my former electorate but had sold up their home and moved to the island to retire. Having put their money in the bank, they found themselves because of the means test, outside the pensions scheme. They had some difficulty in getting the pension restored. Other islanders are not entitled to such social services. A limited health scheme may be availed of by the descendants of the original Pitcairners who pay a nominal amount for hospital services but other islanders, who have come from the mainland, are not entitled to any concession of that nature.

Those are some of the things that could be considered by the Government. The bill is a forward step and I commend the Minister for at least giving the islanders this measure of local autonomy. However, the bill should go further and give them direct representation in this House. The establishment of the council is an improvement, but its authority will be limited to matters of a local government nature. Indeed, it will result in further burdens being placed on the islanders. The Minister may know the exact figure, but 1 understand that there are about 200 miles of roads on the island. The people will also have to provide sewerage, drainage and all the other matters set out in the schedule to the bill. I see no reason why the islands should not be given direct representation in this House, as are the citizens of the Australian Capital Territory and the citizens of the Northern Territory. Lord Howe Island is included in the electorate of East Sydney and there is no reason why the thousand residents of Norfolk Island should not have a similar privilege. No racial problem would be involved in linking Norfolk Island with one of the existing Federal electorates or, alternatively, with the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory, New Guinea or some other Commonwealth territory.

The argument is raised that, if they are given social service benefits, they should be called upon to pay taxes. Various leading citizens put to me the view that probably no objection would be raised to paying taxes, provided the islanders received the usual social service benefits and obtained reasonable security in regard to their economic standards generally. However, I do not see any reason why taxes should be imposed, or why the islanders, if they receive social service benefits, should not be given tax concessions similar to those applying in Papua and New Guinea and the Northern Territory. Those are only matters of detail, but I am sure agreement could be reached upon them if the islanders had direct representation in this House. No racial problems have to be met; the islanders are 100 per cent. British stock, descended from the Pitcairn Islanders with, perhaps, a tinge of Polynesian blood.

If they were given direct representation, their member would visit them from time to time. I understand that we were the first group of. Parliamentarians to visit Norfolk Island. We took an interest in the islanders because we felt that, as they had no representative to listen to their problems, we might listen to them as unofficial representatives for the time being. We are not under any obligation to them; it is simply out of goodness of heart that we raise these matters. If they had a direct representative in this Parliament, he would have to report to them from time to time and submit himself for election, as other members of this House must do.

This is an indirect way of bringing their problems to the attention of the various authorities. The powers to be given to the new council relate only to matters of a local government nature and do not relate to problems of an overall nature or questions of social security generally. The action now being taken by the Government under this measure is the least that could be done for these friendly, hospitable people of 100 per cent. British stock in an island outpost who, for the most part, are forgotten by the rest of the people of Australia.







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