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Monday, 14 October 1991
Page: 1829


Mr SIMMONS (-Minister for the Arts, Tourism and Territories)(4.30 p.m.) —-The report of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs that is the subject of debate this afternoon, Islands in the Sun, dealing with the legal regimes of Australia's external territories and Jervis Bay, provides the most comprehensive review of the legal regimes of our offshore territories and Jervis Bay yet undertaken. I take this opportunity to sincerely convey the appreciation of the Government for the work done by the Committee. Its report makes a very timely and welcome contribution to the process of reform that is currently under way for the administration of Australia's external territories.

That is particularly the case with respect to the Indian Ocean territories. As the right honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair) quite correctly pointed out, we have to take into account the historical background of Australia's involvement in those particular island territories. I appreciated his comments in relation to my tenure in this portfolio. Nonetheless, progress has been made, and significantly that progress will be developed over the next few months as the new legal regime systems begin to operate from 1 July 1992.

This year has been a very significant year for the Indian Ocean territories, in particular the Indian Ocean territory of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. In March this year the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Cocos Island Council which, to all intents and purposes, brought into effect the decision that the islander community made under a United Nations act of self-determination that went back as far as 1984. Clearly, at that time the Cocos-Malay community decided that it wished to be part of Australia. In one sense, this Parliament can take a great deal of pride from the fact that the progress towards the integration and incorporation of the Cocos (Keeling) Island community within the broader Australian community has certainly been advanced in terms of the United Nations timetable.

This Government believes that the residents of those territories have a right to enjoy the same benefits and the same opportunities and, importantly, to exercise the same level of responsibilities as do other Australians. This is certainly very much in keeping with the Government's commitments towards the principles of social justice, access and equity for all Australians. Significantly, this extends to the question of the legal regimes and the fact that those communities should have access to modern legal systems and the full range of legal rights and protections that are available to anyone who lives in mainland Australia.

The Committee concluded that, with the exception of Norfolk Island, the legal regimes of the inhabited territories are inadequate to the needs of the territories' residents. I repeat that the Government certainly has long recognised this deficiency. Those difficulties are at least being addressed through the normal legislative process. In particular, we are seeing quite significant moves over this financial year in respect of the Indian Ocean territories.

The Committee recommended radical reforms to achieve the necessary modernisation of the legal regimes of the territories, particularly in the case of those Indian Ocean territories. It adopted as a general approach the application to the territories of the legal regime of the nearest mainland jurisdiction. It noted that the laws of the Northern Territory already apply to the Ashmore and Cartier Islands under the Ashmore and Cartier Islands Acceptance Act.

There are a range of issues in the report that I could deal with. As I said, it is an excellent report in terms of the issues that it raises. I should take the opportunity to respond to some of the specific points addressed by the honourable member for Denison (Mr Kerr), the right honourable member for New England and the honourable member for Fisher (Mr Lavarch) in relation to the report.

In the case of the Indian Ocean territories, there was a clear inadequacy in the operation of those regimes. At present, the legal regimes consist of a mixture of the laws of the United Kingdom and Singapore, local ordinances and a small number of Commonwealth Acts. The Committee correctly diagnosed these laws as of Byzantine complexity with serious deficiencies in their coverage of basic human rights. We could all say, `Hear, hear' to those comments by the Committee.

The existing regimes also obstruct the Commonwealth's commitment to extend to Christmas and the Cocos (Keeling) Island residents the same rights as those enjoyed in mainland Australia. The application of Western Australian law is clearly the most appropriate course, given the geographic proximity to the State of Western Australia and the obvious linkages that exist with that State. The Government will certainly be moving in that direction with a proposal to apply Western Australian based legal systems to both territories by the beginning of the next financial year. Importantly, the territory communities agree that this is the best course of action.

When this issue was debated in the House on 7 and 14 March, the right honourable member for New England noted that tourism seems to offer the best prospects for future economic development within the Indian Ocean territories. The adoption of a Western Australian based legal regime is one way in which the Government can encourage tourism investment and jobs in those particular islands.

I take the opportunity to assure the right honourable member for New England and other members of the Committee that the Government is addressing the issue of a regular air service to the territory. My Department is presently considering proposals for a commercial service to replace what we in my office affectionately call DASETT Airlines. We do not particularly feel that DASETT should be in the business of running a charter airline operation to the Indian Ocean territories and we would hope that with a commercial operation the island residents will receive a better service. Importantly, on a regular passenger service basis, it will also provide greater opportunities for investment within the tourism industry.

I also noted the right honourable member's concerns for environmental protection in those particular territories. Both the Commonwealth and the Western Australian governments' conservation and environment legislation will apply and each will be examined on a case by case basis to achieve desired outcomes in a consultative arrangement with the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service as well as the State conservation officials. The application of subordinate conservation legislation in areas outside the parks and reserves in these territories will also be examined on a case by case basis following similar consultations.

I also make reference to the point about the possible incorporation of those island territories in the Indian Ocean within the State of Western Australia. They will remain, as the Government has indicated in its response, part of the Federal division of the Northern Territory for Federal election and referenda purposes. Incorporation of the territories into the State of Western Australia would, under the Constitution, require a referendum to change the State boundaries. Secondly, the people of the territories have indicated to me that they are not ready to consider a step like this until they have had time to adjust to some of the major changes that are occurring in their way of life at present. There has not been a rush of people in either Cocos or Christmas islands to have those divisional relationships changed at present. Clearly, the views of the Western Australian Government would also have to be taken into account.

I turn now to some specific comments in relation to Norfolk Island. I appreciate that the Committee found very little to criticise in Norfolk Island and concluded that the Island's legal regime was generally appropriate to the needs of the territory. In 1979, the then Government set Norfolk Island on a path towards internal self-government and successive governments, including this one, have since endorsed the policy of self-government for the territory within the framework established by the Norfolk Island Act 1979. The Committee reported favourably in relation to self-government for Norfolk Island and endorsed the constitutional arrangements established by the Act.

I think it is fair to say that the Committee made only two substantive recommendations in relation to Norfolk Island; they relate to the question of citizenship and the issue of optional enrolment. The question of the Australian citizenship requirement for membership of the Legislative Assembly was abolished in 1985 after the matter was carefully considered by the Government. In the Government's view, there are not any compelling reasons for changing that decision. To do so would have a serious impact on about a quarter of the permanent population of the Island, preventing those people from participating in the local elections--that is, for the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly.

On the question, though, of the Federal parliamentary representation, the Government is of the view that the right to vote in elections for the national Parliament is a fundamental democratic right and Australian citizens resident on Norfolk Island should not be denied the opportunity to exercise that right. Accordingly, we have adopted that recommendation.

However, I take this opportunity to spell out a number of points. Nothing in this decision alters in any way the Government's resolve to establish an appropriate level of self-government in that territory. Indeed, on the very day that the Government considered its response to the legal regimes report, I wrote to 11 of my ministerial colleagues proposing the transfer of further powers to the Norfolk Island Government. In deciding this particular recommendation, the Government has no hidden agenda. There is no creeping effect as has been suggested by some residents of the Island. Nor does the Government accept, as has been suggested, that this is some sort of a thin edge of the wedge proposal for the subsequent integration of Norfolk Island into mainstream Australia. The Government has no plans for that, and I suggest to anyone who says that is the case that those suggestions are certainly mischievous.

Despite some impressions to the contrary, the proposal for optional enrolment--I stress the word optional--was not put to the Norfolk Island electorate in a referendum in February. The question put at that referendum was broadly framed and involved possible taxation and other implications to which a simple yes or no answer had to be given. At the time of the referendum, the published documents of the inquiry had not been canvassed and certainly had not canvassed the issue of optional enrolment.

As already noted, nothing in the decision affects in any way the Government's resolve to continue down the path of ensuring that the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly essentially has those State, Territory and local government type functions that are appropriate. There is no logical reason why this decision should be resisted or should give rise to claims of annexation and the like as has been reported in the local press; nor is it correct to say, as has been suggested by the Norfolk Island Government, that at issue is the island's political autonomy; and nor, as has also been said, is the island being `integrated' into the Australian political system. The Government merely considers that the option to vote in Federal elections should be available to Australian citizens who happen to live on Norfolk Island.

They are the important issues that I want to address. The issue of Jervis Bay has been raised by a number of honourable members. It is true that the functions that the Commonwealth had in mind back in 1915 or thereabouts when it set up an opportunity for a possible seaport have long since changed but, in view of some of the other changes that the Commonwealth is proposing with respect to the establishment of a marine national park at Jervis Bay, I think it is terribly important that the Commonwealth does exercise a great deal of power in that area and, for that reason, the Government sought not to make any changes.

Once again, I thank the members of the Committee. In my view, they have produced a landmark report dealing with some of the legal and related issues with regard to the external territories. As a result of their deliberations and the Government's response, I think all the residents in those external territories, and indeed in the Jervis Bay territory, are better off.

Question resolved in the affirmative.