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Thursday, 27 March 2014
Page: 3359

Mr SNOWDON (Lingiari) (11:26): I commend the Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development for his statement on the governance and finances of Norfolk Island and say that we agree with the direction in which the government is heading. My friend the member for Canberra is sitting alongside me because she is evidence of the support that exists across the chamber for the changes the minister has indicated. Norfolk Island is a very important place in our national story and will always be emblematic of our nation's history. But this is an opportunity, as the minister has rightly pointed out, for us to determine a new future, a new pathway, for that community.

The report from the Australian National Audit Office is salutary reading. We need to be very concerned about what it has indicated to us. Paragraph 1.3 of this report says that the administration of Norfolk Island has forecast significant negative cash flows from operations to total $7.4 million in 2014-15, $7.4 million in 2015-16 and $7.8 million in 2016-17. It says:

The Commonwealth of Australia's funding commitments to the Administration—

of Norfolk Island—

ends at 30 June 2014 and as at the date of signing these financial statements, no further financial assistance to the Administration has been negotiated.

The report indicates that 'these conditions give rise to a material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt' upon the administration's ability to continue as a going concern, and 'in the event that the administration of Norfolk Island does not obtain additional funding from the Commonwealth of Australia and/or reduce expenditure in line with available revenue' the administration may not be able to continue its operations as a going concern. That is the nub of the problem. The issues of governance and finances have been vexed issues for over four decades, as the minister rightly pointed out. I have had the great fortune of visiting Norfolk Island on a number of occasions, in the early 1990s in particular, in an endeavour to advance some of the changes which we are talking about this morning.

The minister mentioned that in many remote communities—and Norfolk Island is remote—maintaining infrastructure and general job opportunities has its challenges. The population, although now 2,000, is declining, which is an issue of significant concern. As an example, in the year August 2011 to September 2012, about 25 per cent of the male population aged between 25 and 50 had left the island and the overall population dropped by 9.4 per cent. The minister referred to the issues dealing with social services and the requirement for a basic safety net which could protect the vulnerable. Last year, there were reports of people getting by on charity parcels and shooting wild chickens—that is not what Australia should be about

As he rightly pointed out, there have been 12 parliamentary inquires on this issue and more than 20 reports have been commissioned from experts in various fields. On 2 March 2011 the Norfolk Island Road Map was agreed upon between Simon Crean, the then Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government, and the Hon. David Buffett, Chief Minister of the Norfolk Island government.

The Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories tabled its Report of the visit to Norfolk Island 29-30 April 2013, and on 5 June 2013 noted:

Since the passage of the Territories Law Reform Act 2010, four funding agreements have been made between the Australian and Norfolk Island Governments. These agreements have seen the Commonwealth grant specified funds for specified purposes to the Norfolk Island Government in order to allow the Norfolk Island Government to continue to provide essential services to the community. $3.829m was granted in December 2010, $5.629m in April 2011, $2.9m in September 2011 and $4.5 million in December 2012. In each case, the funding was tied to stipulated conditions for the reform of governance or finances under the Territories Law Reform Act 2010 or the Norfolk Island Road Map.

Those of us in this place who have had any experience of Norfolk Island know of the need for change. You very rightly pointed out, Minister:

It is clear that the problems facing Norfolk Island are getting worse, the financial position of the island is deteriorating, and the population continues to decline.

You further said in your speech,

Members will be aware that the Australian government has an election commitment … to integrate Norfolk Island with the mainland taxation and social security systems.

We absolutely concur, and we are determined to assist you in that process. You have rightly pointed out that the Australian government will not be introducing welfare benefits without the obligation of the Australian taxation system, and we concur with your position. We also concur with your observation that Australians should be treated the same, no matter where they live.

We support the development of a discussion paper, but I think those of us on this side of the chamber with experience of Norfolk Island, which we have had over many years, would say to you: let us expedite this process. We are very supportive of your communications with the Norfolk Island community and interaction with the community residents, because clearly they have got to be partners in this process. I am sure the member for Canberra and I can attest to the strong feeling of support for change. No longer can we be stuck in the ideas of Queen Victoria. They are no longer relevant, despite what the Prime Minister might think from time to time.

It is very important that we actually address the needs of the community on Norfolk Island. Your observations and the examples that you provided about those people who are missing out are salutary reminders of what we need to do in this place as parliamentarians to make sure all Australians are treated fairly and equally. Can I again say to the minister that we on this side of the House want to work with you in a bipartisan way to get the best possible outcome for the people of Norfolk Island.