Government on Norfolk Island fears it will lose democracy
Norfolk Island seeks a say in Canberra's plans to reduce its legislative council to local government level.
The government on Norfolk Island fears it will lose its democracy if Canberra pushes ahead with plans to reduce the powers of its parliament.
It says it must consult the island's people.
The Chief Minister, Lisle Snell, says the changes the Australian government has in mind would end the island's ability to control key policy areas.
He told Don Wiseman it goes back several years to when the island was facing an economic struggle and sought help from Canberra.
LISLE SNELL: In 2010 it was brought to our attention that we were spending too much money in terms of areas of self sustaining the economy here. We were spending what we had in consolidated revenue in propping up the airline that was servicing the island. We probably overspent in providing some of the services, particularly in airport fire services, new fire appliances and so on,, resulting in a deficit in our budget, resulting in our then Chief Minister applying to federal government for financial assistance to the tune of about 3 million dollars. And that was granted in a certain fund agreement with milestones attached to it, and since that time, every year, up until the present time we have had to balance our budget with appropriation for essential service funding from the federal government. And the most amount we have applied and been granted is 7.5 million [Australian dollars] in this financial year. We are very appreciative of the Commonwealth in assisting us to provide the essential services such as police, education, health and so on, because here on Norfolk Island we have the 3 tiers of government - federal, state and local responsibilities.
DON WISEMAN: An increase in your need for financial help this year - so your financial situation is getting worse.
LS: The economic situation here is not improving that is correct, it is -
DW: Well, it is clearly getting worse if you are requiring 7 and a half this year, clearly things have got a lot worse haven't they?
LS: Oh we are providing a lot more services each time. We have been asked to commit to more services from the year before, for example. And some of those services - costly increases in certain areas are required, even though we are trying to prevent overspending on public service and things like that but some of our costs have risen, particularly in fuel, airport charges and so on. So there are areas that we have to take into account. We are subsidising to some degree electricity generation etc etc.
DW: While Canberra is prepared to come to the party here, it has also been reducing the powers of your government and you are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Would that be fair?
LS: Not at this present time. What happened in 2011 is that they introduced what was known as the Territories Law Reform bill which restricted certain legislative powers for Norfolk Island and handed more autonomy or authority over to the federal minister, generally through a Department of Infrastructure in Canberra. Now this is one of our great concerns and if they decide to change - there is a decision on the Government's model [for Legislature reform in Norfolk Island] - which if made, there needs to be full and meaningful consultation with the Norfolk Island Government and the Norfolk Island community, from Canberra.
DW: They are proposing to change what exactly?
LS: At the moment, as I said before, Norfolk Island shares a unique relationship. We have a Legislature here, a Legislative Assembly, that can made laws for the Peace, Order and Good Government of Norfolk Island. And that entitles us to be representatives of the community - they vote for us and we represent the community accordingly. Now if there is a Cabinet decision, and the indications that we have received from Minister Briggs in Canberra is that there will be a change and the change could result in the loss of all state type responsibilities. And that is the provision of education, some social welfare, some health, policing and so on - At the moment we pick up the expenses or costs for all of those. Now what we are asking for is that no governance model be introduced for Norfolk Island without full consultation with the government here and the people.
DW: You have a situation developing where there seems to be growing antipathy between the representative from Canberra and the islanders, and there was a protest of sorts at the Royal Show the other day. Is this unusual?
LS: There have been protests before but yes it is not in our culture to protest in this manner but when the people feel strongly enough over an issue and this is certainly a big issue here for Norfolk Island, then they will certainly take their feelings to the wider audience and at the moment we have a petition going. We have an online petition and we are seeking press coverage and so on to bring our cause [to the wider public]. One of the great things is that we appear to be losing a democracy. To lose a parliament in a manner such as has been intimated by the Commonwealth is disturbing for us.
DW: If they are talking about taking state rights off you it doesn't mean to say your parliament goes, does it?
LS: That could be so, but there are 3 tiers and if they reduce us down to the lowest level of local government we will probably not have any basis for a legislature in the affairs of 'Peace, Order and Good Government.' We may have the rights of authority over such things as garbage collection, mowing lawns and things like that but it would certainly be a retrograde step in Norfolk Island to lose the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly, which was established in 1979 under the Norfolk Island Act. What we are really asking for is that we be consulted. That if they are considering a model the details should be presented to us before it is given to the Cabinet in Australia and that a full costing of our preferred model of government - and we have submitted one - the Norfolk Island preferred model should be costed out and of course the Norfolk Island community to have a say through a referendum, a plebiscite. You know the greatest fear on Norfolk Island is that we lose democracy here.
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