Canberra says Norfolk reforms will ensure sustainability
Australian government adamant that Norfolk reforms are the best way to ensure the long term sustainable of the island.
The Australian government says reforms planned for Norfolk Island will help deliver equity and economic stability and give residents access to essential services they have been denied.
And the assistant minister of regional development, Jamie Briggs, says there is widespread backing for the changes, both on the island and in Canberra.
He told Don Wiseman the island has struggle to survive for years, with the first of a series of damning reports in 1997 which concluded the Norfolk economic model was not sustainable in the long term.
JAMIE BRIGGS: So it really is about ensuring sustainability of Norfolk Island so we can get better outcomes for people who live there and also make the most of what is a really special part of Australia.
DON WISEMAN: Yes. I guess that's a critical part of it isn't it, this unique cultural characteristic that Norfolk Island has and as you say they've struggled in recent years but for a long time they'd got along quite well hadn't they?
JB: Well not really. Since 1997 there's been reports that the system was not sustainable so it has been on the radar for some time. The Howard government in 2006 considered these reforms pretty much similar to what we've now introduced. The former Labor government in 2011 introduced significant reforms called the 'road map' and this was another option that they were considering as well towards the end of their term in government and so it has been talked about for a long time because the island with a population of only 1500-1800 people to deliver every government service is a task which is beyond them.
DW: Something that is going to cost the Australian tax-payer an enormous amount of money and a lot more than Australia has put into Norfolk Island previously, I think 136 million dollars, is that an annual amount?
JB: No it's not. That's the amount over the next four years. There will be an ongoing cost though of course bringing people into your welfare system. There will be obviously some receipts as well from people who will pay tax and companies who pay tax but it will cost more than it will deliver and I guess that gets to the point why would we do it if there is not a lot of positive politics or benefit from it? It really is something that we looked at, we've given consideration to over some time and the cabinet decided that overwhelmingly this was the right thing to do. The Australian political environment, and this is something that is supported by our opponents the Labor Party, it is something which is seen through the prism of bipartisanship here because we all absolutely respect the unique cultural contribution that Norfolk Island plays in Australia or has given to Australia. We don't want that be diminished and we don't think that these changes at all diminish that but we have to also deal with the reality of living in 2015. We don't think as a government that it's acceptable that people living in this environment, a long way from being able to get access to normal services, don't get access to basic entitlements such as a pensions. Don't get access to family payments and don't get access to basic assistance with upgrading local infrastructure. The roads for instance on Norfolk Island haven't been upgraded since the 1970s. That to us is just not acceptable.
DW: Why didn't you or one of your colleagues go over to Norfolk Island and announce this? It was just put on the website I understand.
JB: No. That's not quite true. I've written to everyone who lives on Norfolk Island. I've spoken to the Chief Minister and I'm working my way through speaking to other members of the existing government. I've been to Norfolk Island. I've spoken to the community. We've asked Gary Hardgrave, the Administrator, to hold regular consultation forums which he has been doing and will continue to do. We're sending officials this week after the legislation is tabled to be there as a point of contact with people on the island who have questions. The reality was last week was the sitting of the Federal Parliament and the expectation of Prime Minister Abbott is that his ministers are in parliament when parliament sits. The way these things obviously work is that cabinets makes decisions. In my view it was best to make the announcement as soon as cabinet made the decision so it could give some clarity to people who live on the island. We introduce the legislation this Thursday and it will be debated when we come back for what is the budget session of parliament in May.
DW: There are quite a number of people it would seem from the ones we have spoken with on the island who are very angry with you. So how are you going to overcome this antipathy to the change?
JB: Well I think there are some people who are angry, to use the word you used to describe it, but I don't get that sense from a vast bulk of people who live on the island in fact I would say the overwhelming feedback we've had in the last few months is this is the path that people wanted us to take. There are some on the island who, with certain traditional backgrounds, who want to make this into a 'us versus them' or that this is some take-over by the Australian government. I would argue right now we've had more of a role running the island than ever before and that's because as I say they are ineffective in administration. You mentioned the cost before. What we didn't talk about is the cost of not doing anything. If we kept going the way we were going when you've got an electricity network which is about to fall apart you've got roads which haven't been upgraded, you've got no capacity to grow the tourism industry which is the best and greatest hope out of the situation they find themselves in, then it will cost the Australian a whole lot more. It will also have a social cost. People shouldn't have to live in circumstances where they don't have a reliable government there to support them in their circumstances and that's what being part of the broader Australian entitlement scheme will ensure. So I see this as overwhelmingly a good change for people on the island and I think even those who are critical today will come to recognise in time that this was the best way forward to ensure that they're sustainable. I'll make the final point and that is why would be doing this if it wasn't for good policy reasons, costing us money, it doesn't particularly bring any broader political benefit. We're doing this because it is the right thing to do and it's frankly something that has been going on now for 20 odd years and it needs to be resolved.
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