A TROPICAL low is lurking over Norfolk Island like a dark shroud, bringing squally, unpredictable weather in its wake. And I am sitting in what has become known as “Tent City”, rain licking the canvas walls, speaking with peaceful protestors about the storm which has been brewing between island residents and the Australian government.
I knew there had been some changes to this remote Australian territory but like many mainlanders, remained naïve to what, precisely, they were, and what they meant to the locals. In a nutshell, since 1979 until July 1, last year, Norfolk Island has been a self-administering territory with its own Legislative Assembly, a Chief Minister, its own health care, own GST, and Council of Elders who represent each of the eight original Pitcairn families who came to the island.
But last year, despite 68 per cent of Norfolk Islanders voting in a referendum to have their own say over their island, the Australian government appointed a regional council system, said they must now pay tax, and in return, would received mainland services such as Medicare. Which would be fine if these services were being received but locals claim they are not. Nor, do they believe they should be called Australians, given their rich history, but Norfolk Islanders.
Fly out of Australia and you’ll discover just what a confusing mess the situation is. Firstly, you fly out of an international airport, with your passport and fill out your immigration departure card. About 10 minutes into the flight, you will then be handed an immigration arrival card, asking you questions such as “how long did you spend overseas” and “in which country did you spend the most time”. Um, Australia? As for where you intend to stay, I was unclear whether they meant my Brisbane address or my Norfolk Island address, and I was told by Border Force officials that I’m not the only one confused by the changes. (For the record, Norfolk Island had its own arrivals card which worked beautifully, I am told). Now, try being a local. Drive from the airport and one of the first things you’ll encounter is a field of green hands, known as Hands Up For Democracy, which is intended as a “silent protest in the paddock”.
Down at the Kingston, on the site of the former Legislative Assembly, you’ll find Tent City. Norfolk Island Tent City resident Mary Christian-Bailey, 73, has lived on the island for 50 years and has been part of a peaceful protest since April 29 last year.
“The message is we want the right to determine our own future. It doesn’t mean we want independence but we want a choice,” she says.
“Australia has to fulfill its obligations to list us as a self-governing territory with the United Nations. Australia has tried to rewrite history and say we are just a part of the Australian story.
“We’ve got a lot of friends all over the world, including the British Parliament, working with us. I don’t think Malcolm Turnbull even thinks we exist. When the legislation when through the Australian Parliament there were about five people in the Chamber. Most of them wouldn’t know why they’ve done it or how it’s affected us in any way.”
While some back on the mainland claim Norfolk Island residents are angry about having to become taxpayers, locals say they have no issue with tax, but a lack of services. They claim the Norfolk Island Hospital has been transformed from a hospital to a GP clinic, and there is no surgeon on the island. Pregnant women are forced to leave the island at 32 weeks to live on the mainland and in the case of an emergency, injured or sick locals are medivacked off the island in an operation which can take 6 hours to mobilise. Residents claim there have been 40 medivacs since July 1, at an approximate cost of $30,000 a time. Then there’s the issue of postal delivery and rubbish collection, as well as repairs on their potholed roads.
“Most people can’t see that there have been any benefits under the Australian government. It has happened on the basis of ignorance and lies. They could have worked with us but they’ve just ignored local knowledge and expertise,” Mary says.
“Trying to transplant the island into a completely different system has been very stressful for the older people. We have no problem with the Australian people, we have a lot in common with them. But we are pretty disappointed with their government.
“They have a real colonial, imperialistic attitude. We will sit here as long as it takes. We are a strong proud people with a strong proud heritage.”
And indeed they are. Norfolk Island is a place of immense beauty born of its remote and rugged locale. You’ll feel the history in the bones of the remaining stone buildings, which once housed some of the most brutal captors and some hardcore convicts. It’s a place of a scallywags, sailors, whalers, the lost and found and those still searching for something. This isolated island, 1000km from anywhere, will snatch a piece of your spirit and make you think hard. But go there, you must. Particularly if you are Australian. Despite being a tiny 8km x 5km, there’s plenty of places in which to disappear on this destination. Space to be alone. To contemplate this former convict settlement which possesses such natural charm. Walk in nature, dine on local food, feast on history, snorkel her reef and meet her characters.
Islander and local guide Rhonda Griffiths believes Norfolk Island possesses a masculine energy.
“You will notice how few roads are named after women. It’s always been about the bounty mutineers. We’ve never had a female Chief Minister and women are paid a lot less than men,” she says.
“I feel the strength of the island more than the nurturing.”
But Tania Anderson, of Norfolk Island Tourism, believes it’s more feminine.
“People are gentle here, but inside there is a toughness to some extent. It is a country town and small community but we are isolated,” she says.
“Our heritage is from Tahitian women and English sailors. There is something about a lot of the local women which is that island beauty.
“People say ‘what do you do on Norfolk?’. We never stop. On Norfolk you just have to get on with things.”
And get on with things they will.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Norfolk Island Tourism – http://www.norfolkisland.com.au and stayed at Broad Leaf Villas – http://www.broadleafvillas.com. For more photos of her stay visit Instagram @aglobalgoddess