On the lawns of Norfolk Island’s old government building, a solitary green tent stands in daily defiance of Australian rule. Signs around the tent embassy emphatically highlight the long-simmering frustrations among a sizable portion of the community here.
Painted in the island’s colors of green and white, one placard reads ‘Du We Give Up, We Gwen Win’ in the traditional Norfolk language. The translation: ‘If we don’t give up, we will win’. Another reads ‘Norfolk under Siege’ in English. In the center of town on this eight-by-five-kilometer island, a field of green hands – each hand-painted and signed by a different community member – also serves as a symbolic demand for self-determination.
“If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say 90 percent of our identity is gone,” says Leah Honeywood, a seventh-generation Norfolk Islander. Her lineage traces back to the first permanent settlers in the former penal colony. With a population of some 1,700 people, Norfolk Island has a rich, unique culture, its own language, and colorful history.
If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say 90 per cent of our identity is gone.
– Leah Honeywood, Norfolk Islander
As tears well around her eyes, Leah claims the legacy of her ancestors has been devastated in recent years.
“They worked so hard and for so long to become a people and a race, and in five years, someone has come in and obliterated that.” “What’s changed is the Australian government has come in here and imposed their governance and their rules, and things like that just don’t apply to Norfolk.
Britain transferred Norfolk Island to Australia in 1914, just before World War One. In 1979, it became Australia’s first non-mainland territory to be granted limited self-rule. The island quickly instilled its own democratically elected Legislative Assembly, funding its own services, while Australia retained ultimate sovereignty and final approval of proposed laws.
But the picturesque island, which is crucially reliant on tourism, fell into economic turmoil in the wake of the 2007 Global Financial Crisis. Its chief minister then stunned locals two years later when he agreed to surrender the island’s self-governing status to Australia for a bailout.
The most controversial decision came in 2015 when Canberra ultimately abolished the Legislative Assembly and appointed its own administrator. The New South Wales Government currently manages services including health, education, and police in return for federal government funding. Queensland is now in negotiations to take over when the NSW contract expires.
Since the transfer, Norfolk Island’s 1,000 registered voters have been added to the electorate of Bean in the ACT.
A former finance minister on Norfolk Island, Ron Ward, says the island was running at an annual deficit of approximately $3 million a year following the GFC. He accuses the Australian government of carrying out “unnecessary … economic warfare against the island”.
“We have no say in anything that is being decided for us.”
“Everything is decided by ex-pat workers and departmental staff in Canberra. It’s a most unsatisfactory way of running a place.”
We have no say in anything that is being decided for us.
– Ron Ward, Norfolk Islander
Before Australia stepped in, a non-binding referendum in 2015 saw 68 percent of islanders vote to keep self-rule. A ‘Norfolk Island People for Democracy Movement’ has been growing ever since and, with the support of local elders, took its fight to the United Nations.
Since 2016 the movement has appealed to the UN and Human Rights Council to have Norfolk Island added to its non-self-governing territories. A ruling is yet to be handed down.