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Monday, 14 October 1991
Page: 1824


Mr SINCLAIR(4.07 p.m.) —- I wish to add to the remarks of the honourable member for Denison (Mr Kerr) with respect to this response from the Government on the report tabled by the subcommittee of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, entitled Island in the Sun. Unlike the honourable member for Denison, I am not that happy with the approach of the Government in several respects. I find really quite regrettable the complacency apparent in the departmental advice to the Minister for the Arts, Tourism and Territories (Mr Simmons)--rather than in the Minister himself, for he has not been there for that long--about the continuation of legal regimes which are demonstrably unsatisfactory. I think that the Department should have been alerted long ago to the fact that it is quite anachronistic for the Cocos and Christmas islands still to be subjected to legal regimes which are a product of the peculiar way by which they became Australian territory. I am not happy that there is to be no change before 1 July 1992. I suppose, to offset that, that one can say that at long last there is a date.

There are all sorts of fundamental problems which I found in what I saw as the departmental response as being really quite incredible. It is atypical of the bureaucracy telling us where we go. In recommendation 5 we have the statement with respect to Christmas Island where the State law is considered incompatible with Commonwealth legal principles. The point is that it is international legal principles to which we as a nation are a party and which are at the moment incompatible with the law that is applicable there. When we get on a little bit further there is the suggestion with respect to Norfolk Island, for example, that it is just not possible for a list of the laws that are actually applicable to be compiled.

I accept the limitation on resources. What the devil does the Government expect--that some poor litigant who finds himself aggrieved is going to go along to the courts and ask for a definition of the law only to find the response: `I'm terribly sorry, the law is imprecise. There is no list. There is no identification. There is no way by which you can find what law is applicable to the cause that you wish to pursue.'? So I accept the constraints on resources; I understand the difficulty and I regret that nothing has been done before. But, frankly, I say to the Minister's Department that there is a fairly urgent requirement firstly for expeditious treatment and secondly for the Department to accept that, from this Parliament's point of view, there is a need for some precision in the identity of the law.

There are several minor items I wish to raise. They are major issues but they are minor in the sense that, because I wanted to spend a little more time on one part of the report, I will mention them in passing. The first is with respect to negotiations with the Cocos-Malay community on Cocos about the environment in North Keeling. I found it a little sad that there is still no apparent capacity for us to establish some sort of a national park over the North Keeling group; it is apparently still subject to those negotiations. Those who have flown over it or know anything of that island group know that it is quite unique. I am very apprehensive about the extent to which that environment could be prejudiced. I would suggest that that is another matter in the handling of which there needs to be a certain amount of expedition.

As to the second issue, while I note that in the Government's reply it has commented that in due course the representation in this Parliament of the Northern Territory would need to be re-examined if the laws of Western Australia were applied to those territories, I think that it will be more appropriate as soon as possible for a request to be made to the Commonwealth Electoral Commissioner and, instead of a representative from the Northern Territory being the appropriate representative here, I would suggest that it be either the honourable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr Campbell), whose electorate of Kalgoorlie is more closely proximate to the area than anybody else's or, alternatively, a member from one of the seats in Perth, from which city communications flow.

It is important that there be a Western Australian member because, obviously, if Western Australian laws are to apply, it is important that we get somebody who lives in Western Australia, who has some communication from the standpoint of Western Australia, to be able to maintain that liaison. I think there are problems and the member for the Northern Territory really has no direct connection; it just seemed to be convenient at the time. We need to remember that right through there is this problem, that the nature of the law applied is the product of the history. That has been stated in the response of the Government and it is stated in our report. But we really cannot, in 1991, sit back and say, `Look, okay, it happened historically. It is not going to happen in the future'.

Like the honourable member for Denison (Mr Kerr), I am not particularly happy with the Government's response on Jervis Bay. In my view, again the Government has acted a little high-handedly and certainly that bureaucratic reaction comes through. It talks about the extent to which it disagrees with the environmental approach of the Shoalhaven Council. I can tell honourable members, there are not too many local government bodies that have anywhere near the resource to be able to handle the environment the way the Federal Government does. I can understand people saying, `We want to have this big purse looking after our resource'. But there is no reason in 1991 for Jervis Bay to be part of the Australian Capital Territory. Let us be realistic. Times have passed; circumstances have changed. It is not going to be a port for Canberra. It should not be administered by Canberra. Let us get our sticky fingers out of it as soon as we can.

Sure, we have to represent the Aboriginal community--and I do not demur from that. But I do not think in a transfer of responsibility there is any reason for us to forget that a lot of States have a lot more Aboriginals for which they are responsible in a direct administrative sense than the ACT. Certainly there is reason for us to try to accommodate, in my view, a transfer to New South Wales as soon as possible--and I do not agree with the Government's approach to that in any way.

The issue that I really want to come to is Norfolk Island. Since the Committee produced its report, there has been a survey of the people. They seem to be very insistent that they want to retain their own separate identity. I accept that. Perhaps as a result, were we to be producing our report today, I think I might look at the recommendations and see the extent to which the Norfolk Island community and its wishes are being contravened. Indeed, I think that any of us visiting Norfolk Island cannot but be impressed by the way in which they want to be a little bit independent, as our report has commented, but related to Australia and leaning on Australia--not having Australia lean on them.

There are aspects of the Norfolk Island response which I think are really very difficult. I am worried, for example, about the extent to which we are going to be able to call on cost recovery. There is a dispute. The Islanders complained to us about the extent to which the Federal benefit has been overstated; or, rather, the Federal benefit perhaps has been not seen as the Islanders see it. In other words, use of the airport, use of facilities that are part of it being a Territory of Australia, they say needs to be identified, and cost recovery needs to be more pertinent to their requirement as an independent territory than it does in the extent to which the Commonwealth has applied its laws.

It worries me that we talk about, in recommendation 44 on page 29, adopting the principle of increasing cost recovery in relation to Norfolk Island. The confusion over what costs what and who is going to pay for what worries me. I do not think the Norfolk Island people need to be given the short shrift that I have seen happen too frequently from Commonwealth financial officers. The most recent example of that was the air display at the Richmond air base at the weekend, where the Department of Finance placed an absolutely ridiculous obligation on the contractors. It meant the more successful the contractors were, the less money they got. I have no faith at all in the business approach of the Government and the Department of Finance and, therefore, I am concerned, when we talk about increasing cost recovery, that it is not going to be interpreted in a manner that will be to the advantage of citizens of Norfolk Island.

There are two other things that are important. Firstly, I am disappointed that the Government has not picked up my recommendation, which unfortunately we did not get around to putting in our report but which I think has the general support of the members, and that is that no member of the Legislative Assembly in Norfolk Island--that is, the NILA--should continue to be a paid employee of the Assembly. I might well not be accurate because the position may have changed since our visit and the report was produced in March, but I found it quite unsatisfactory to have one member, in fact the President of the Legislative Assembly, also a paid employee. I do not in any way object to a paid employee being a candidate, and I do not object to his being elected. But once he has been elected, in my view that should ensure that he no longer is a paid employee. There obviously has to be a conflict of interest between somebody who is a senior officer of the Legislative Assembly, who is his employer, and then who is also President. So he is an employer and an employee in a position where I would see his public and private duty as being in conflict. I do not believe that is satisfactory, and I believe there should be an obligation put in place to ensure that, once a person has been elected, he should not continue to be an employee.

There is also a problem in giving a vote to the people there. I understand the views of the Norfolk Island community. But I would say to the Minister: one way to overcome that, I believe, is that anybody who is presently a citizen of Australia should be allowed to retain his or her vote, if he or she is a resident of Norfolk Island, in the electorate from which he or she left. In other words, if he or she is an elector of Denison, though for the time being is in Norfolk Island and is not likely to remain there for more than two years, I believe he or she should be able to retain his or her vote in that particular electorate. That would both overcome the objections of the people of Norfolk Island and also, in part, meet the recommendation we put in our report.

My time has almost expired. I would just say that this area, I believe, has been understated, undersold and perhaps inadequately addressed over the years by this Parliament. It is extraordinarily important for Australia that we recognise that these territories are part of our responsibility. I know there are difficulties; I know the problems of distance. I know the problems of isolation; I know the problems of history. But it is tremendously important that we, in this Parliament, understand that those people are as much Australians as we are, and I am afraid that to date they have not been treated equally and, therefore, it is time and there is a need for something more to be done about them.