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Monday, 21 June 2010
Page: 5948

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (6:52 PM) —I am delighted to have the opportunity to rise in the House this evening to speak about the issue of the relationship between the Commonwealth, the administration of the Territory of Norfolk Island and the Norfolk Island government. I have been in this place for just under 15 years and have been a constant member of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories since election in 1996. Members in this place are probably aware that, through the unique electoral processes on that island, a number of Australian citizens on Norfolk Island are also constituents of mine as, through that mechanism, they are attached to the Canberra electorate. That has given me a longstanding and reasonable understanding of the issues on Norfolk Island, the people who live there, the history of the place, the uniqueness of the place and the need for us all to work together to ensure that self-government on Norfolk Island not only remains but is enhanced into the future.

The Territories Law Reform Bill 2010 makes amendments to a range of Commonwealth legislation to improve Norfolk Island’s governance arrangements, including through the reform of the electoral system. A new financial management framework is also proposed. The new governance arrangements are really quite important. We are applying on the island the electoral and administrative law practices that are generally applied in the mainland jurisdictions, albeit with some variations. The process for selecting a Chief Minister, providing for no-confidence motions and allowing a Commonwealth minister to provide advice to the Administrator are useful additions to the democratic processes on the island.

The bill also clarifies certain aspects of the relationship between the Commonwealth and this external territory, the island, including the power of a Commonwealth minister to introduce a new bill into the legislative assembly, dismiss assembly members for unlawful or improper conduct and allow the Governor-General to dissolve the assembly. A minimum three-year term is specified under the bill, with a maximum of four years. These are important safeguards to the process of democratic governance on Norfolk Island.

The new financial framework provisions will apply the broad approaches of the Commonwealth and territories in terms of financial reporting. The role of the Commonwealth Auditor-General to investigate financial matters relating to the actions of the government is essential for transparency in government. On the whole, the transparency and fiscal affairs for which this bill and associated regulations will provide bring the island into closer alignment with practice in other Australian jurisdictions and support democratic processes and accountability to the people of Norfolk Island and the Australian taxpayer, where federal funds are deployed.

The application of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and freedom of information and privacy provisions to the island and the new role of the Commonwealth Ombudsman as the ombudsman of the island are also major improvements to the practice of governance on Norfolk Island. In fact, they are essential changes, giving Norfolk Island people the same basic rights under administrative law that all other Australians generally enjoy. As other speakers have said already, there is a certain level of apprehension in not all but some sectors of the community on Norfolk Island about some of these changes. I understand that and I respect that cautiousness.

To talk about the question of privacy provisions for a moment, my understanding is that under current legislation the Commonwealth Ombudsman can and does use those powers within the ACT, for example. Under the same legislation, Norfolk Island could have already passed legislation itself to bring that provision into action on Norfolk itself but has not done so. That has been available but it has not been done. I regret that reluctance on the part of Norfolk Island governments in the past, but the point is that we do not need to look back; we need to look forward. There is now every opportunity for the beginning of reform of governance on the island. Many people on Norfolk Island share our view and look forward to the reform as outlined.

Over the years I have had many opportunities, both as a member of the committee and as a backbencher with responsibility for those on the island who are attached to my electoral roll, to visit Norfolk Island. I have said it in this place before, and it is always a pleasure to have the opportunity to say it again: it is the most remarkable place. It is so unique and special, and it carries so much history of its own, as well as history connected to the mainland. To anybody listening to this debate: if you have not had the opportunity to travel to Norfolk Island, I implore you to do so. You could not go to a more beautiful place.

In saying that and in saying that I have had the opportunity and privilege to make many friends within that community over those years, there is also no doubt in my mind—with all of the reports that the joint committee has done over the years—that now really is the time to begin governance reform on Norfolk Island. That is not in any way to be seen as a challenge to its self-governing role. As long as the conversation continues between those on Norfolk Island and people here within the government and within the parliament generally to work towards an outcome with which we can both be very content, nothing but improvement and better governance can occur.

This bill will also improve keys aspects of public finances on the island. It brings the island closer to Australia on governance and accountability issues. In my view, this is probably not the beginning and end of reform of governance arrangements on Norfolk Island. There are many other things that we could consider as well. By saying that, I do not want to scare people on Norfolk Island or make them more apprehensive. I fully understand the level of apprehension in the minds of some—but not in the minds of all.

I really want to see these reforms pass successfully. I really want to see the conversation between the Norfolk Island government and this government and parliament continue in an open and honest fashion. I would like to think that both sides of the federal parliament could agree to implement a properly formulated reform program for Norfolk Island, one that would effectively establish the island as a jurisdiction within which Australian citizens have the same access to law, to freedom of information and to a raft of governance arrangements that we here take for granted. Those things need to be brought into line on the island. A reform program could involve various considerations for the future, but here and now we are looking at the bill before us and the proposals within that bill to begin that reform process.

I thank the current Minister for Home Affairs for bringing this bill forward. I compliment him, his officers and his officials on the discussions that have been held to date. I very sincerely thank those on the island with whom I have had discussions in the past and who are, I know, very keen and anxious to support this proposal and see it through.

To those on the island with apprehensions: please remember this is not an assault on self-government. It is not intended to in any way erode self-government. It is, in fact, intended to enhance it, preserve it and guarantee it for the future. If that is the approach taken by everyone here and, I hope and trust, by everyone on Norfolk Island, then I know we are going to have a successful reform process. I commend the bill to the House.