A PAWN IN THE PACIFIC.
Kingston, Norfolk Island, March 2019 –
The breakers crash into a rocky coastline with thunderbolt thumps as if the sea, like the
elders of this Pacific island, is enraged that Australia dissolved Norfolk’s nine-member legislature and
proclaimed every islander will now be subject to Australian laws and administration - no questions asked,
no protests accepted.
That was two years ago.
Since then the inhabitants have petitioned the British High Court and the United
Nations to restore their historic right to self-determination and liberate the island from the rule of
Australian officialdom, ignorant, myopic and overbearing in dealing with native rights in bygone
“We are not asking for independence, but we want to keep the self-determination granted to
Norfolk Island by Queen Victoria in 1856. We want to make our own decisions and not be subjected to
approval by a Canberra-appointed Administrator and his council,” said Vince Reaves one of the members
of the Centre for Democracy that has organized the cases against Canberra’s takeover.
Norfolk Island, a former convict colony until 1855, was a mere speck in the vast Pacific until
Canberra decided the speck was useful in consolidating Australia’s maritime rights in the Pacific. Until then
the island had been a free-wheeling entity. But now the 1748 islanders (last census) must apply for
Australian driving licenses, pay tax, ask for social welfare and unemployment benefits on an island on which
unemployment was unknown, driving licenses didn’t exist, no one ever paid taxes, a place where cattle and
poultry legally have right of way. Here a hospital with a surgeon and two nurses catered for the sick while the
seriously ill were airlifted to Brisbane or Sydney. Schools taught English and a local dialect is still spoken.
Decisions were made in an elected nine-member assembly. Yet today all requests or any project must be
approved by the Australian ‘Administrator,’ a modern label for the colonial term ‘Governor.’
The official annexation of Norfolk Island followed an almost under-the-table and hardly
reported and never debated act by the Australian parliament in 2016 which ignored as ‘bunk’
Norfolk Island referendum when over two thirds of the islanders voted to maintain their status quo.
The take-over went virtually unnoticed in Australia.
If you ask Australians today about the island located one thousand six hundred kms north-east of
Sydney in the Pacific, those who have heard of it will most likely answer: ‘Oh Norfolk? Isn’t that the island
that has to pay taxes now, just like us?’
The annexation of Norfolk is even more bizarre since a 1979 act in the Australian parliament
enshrined Norfolk Island’s right to self-administration, a right the island had enjoyed since the 19th century
when Queen Victoria named Norfolk an exterritorial part of Britain. The Queen gave permission for one
hundred and twenty-four descendants of the notorious Mutiny on the Bounty (living on overpopulated
Pitcairn island 6000 kms away) to be transferred to Norfolk Island. She granted each family fifty acres of
(The leader of the mutiny on the ship HMS Bounty was lieutenant Fletcher Christian. He and the
mutineers sent their brutal captain and those loyal to him off in a long boat, then sailed to Tahiti, picked up
native women, located a deserted island, Pitcairn, sank their ship and lived there for twenty years
undetected by British expeditions dispatched to locate and arrest them.)
Today over four hundred Norfolk Islanders still proudly trace their ancestry back to the
mutineers whose surnames they continue to bear.
What then was the logic that prompted Big-Brother Australia (on whose passport the islanders
travel and whose help they invoke in times of need) to absorb Norfolk as part of the state of New South
This riddle has never been officially explained except by the lame argument of Jamie
Briggs, Australia’s assistant minister of Infrastructure, who justified the take-over this way: ‘The
situation on the island has been unstable for some time. They have been asked to do too much
for such a small population.”
Of course, the locals speculate the real reason is globalisation and corporate interests in
suspected submarine gas and oil resources most likely already located in territorial waters around the island.
Then there is the recent tourism boom – 30,000 last year and the prospect for developers to build modern
hotels and resorts with spectacular sea views to attract big spenders, now absent from an island which has
barely a dozen basic diners or fish and chip-shops. And real estate is now open for purchase to Australians
and New Zealanders. In the past only a business or the estate of a deceased local could be bought by
Australians or New Zealanders – if no one on the island wanted to buy it.
But contradictions continue to exist. Despite the island’s annexation Australians and
foreigners who must fill out arrival documents each time they enter Australia must also fill out the
same immigration and customs documents when they fly from Brisbane or Sydney to Norfolk
Island. Even officials here cannot explain this double-document anomaly though it appears like
a de facto admission the island is still a ‘foreign’ entity.
Islanders like Reaves see a more sinister and geopolitical reason for Australia’s sudden
take-over: The island with its vital airport (used in World War II to refuel U.S. Airforce planes) is a strategic
garrison in the Pacific at a time China is buying up property all over the world and is expanding its military
clout in the South China Sea by annexing and building artificial islands with airfields, hangars and runways.
Under self-determination Chinese corporate interests might have persuaded Norfolk to accept
their investments and so gain a foothold on a strategic speck in the Pacific. (Australia’s Prime Minister
Scott Morrison has been visiting Pacific Island nations in recent weeks pledging investments as Australia
tries to stem the Chinese push into the Pacific.)
Norfolk has always been dependent on Australian goodwill. But over recent years, prior to the
takeover, mainland media reports constantly lamented Australia was financing Norfolk, a claim the locals
angrily deny here.
“It’s only over the last five years we had to borrow money from Canberra to balance our
budget, but never more than two and half million dollars (Aus)” said Reaves before he added
“in fact we would have a budget surplus had Australia given us at least some of the revenue from
foreign fishing licenses issued around Norfolk waters, money which Canberra pockets.”
In times of drought, like the current one, Australia has often come to the rescue. During a week in
February I watched a freighter from Australia anchored off-shore in heavy seas waiting day after day for the
sea to calm down so flat-bottomed Island boats could take off the supplies, mainly fruit and vegetables. The
islanders kept a weary eye on the sea arguing if the ship could not unload over the next days it would, as
happened many times, toss the rotting fruit and vegetables overboard into the ocean.
The story of Norfolk, often dubbed ‘The Rock’ in the Pacific, home of the Norfolk Pine and the
descendants of the rebels from ‘The Mutiny on the Bounty’ is as colourful, as dramatic and as wild as the
sea that has foiled until today any landing of big ships. It is an island of crater-like gorges and grassy peaks,
dense forest, narrow winding but roughly paved roads and cabins exposed to howling winds, all part of a
spectacular environment with a proudly independent population who fear they will soon be outnumbered by
newcomers buying up property.
Once a brutal convict colony in the early 19th century where the worst criminals were sent from
Australia and British officials and guards meted out whippings and torture for even minor offenses, the island
became virtually uninhabited when the convict colony was closed in 1855. Perhaps to ensure the French
next door in New Caledonia would not raise their flag on Norfolk Queen Victoria sent the descendants of the
mutiny on the Bounty to settle the empty island.
But all that is history now. Australia has imposed its rule.
The Islanders can no longer use their own postage stamps, issue their own liquor
bonds, sing their own national anthem or compete in international sports as a separate entity.
Executives of Radio and TV Norfolk as well as some teachers were dismissed recently by the
Australian administration after allegedly allowing criticism of the Australian takeover on the air or
in class. The flag, the Norfolk Pine on a green background, is outlawed and flies in defiance only
over the former assembly building occupied with a tent by the Centre for Democracy whose
volunteers explain to visitors why they petitioned the United Nations and Britain for a return of the
island’s historic rights.
More likely than not these petitions are doomed in a hectic profit-orientated world with no space
for a laid-back society with old habits, quaint customs, language and notorious for living with scores of
ghosts haunting the ruins of the old prisons, ghosts who, according to folklore, enjoy friendly relations with
This is an island with vast well-groomed picnic grounds along the seashores and above cliff tops
where in the evening neighbours and friends gather for barbecues, a chat and a laugh just as their ancestors
Next to the picturesque local nine-hole golf course along the wild ocean is the island’s graveyard.
There the convicts of old and the British officers who governed and brutalised them are buried side by side
with deceased locals. Among those simple graves is a modest new headstone with the name of Colleen
McCullough, a daughter of Norfolk and one of Australia’s most beloved writers, famous for her book
‘The Thorn Birds.’
In one of her last public statements McCullough denounced as ‘cultural genocide’ what
Australia was doing to her island. (ends)
Uli Schmetzer is a former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of six books all
available on amazon.com and Kindle.