The lands that democracy forgot: ignoring the rights of Norfolk, Christmas and Cocos islanders

The Commonwealth is smothering the distinctive cultures and societies of these communities.

Serious tensions exist between the populations of Australia's three settled overseas island territories – Norfolk Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island – and the federal government. These populations expect to be consulted seriously when changes to their system of government are considered, and failure to do this can be regarded as a denial of their democratic rights. This article traces some of the relevant history, and presents a view of the current tensions that is sympathetic to the islander position.

While the three islands were all initially outposts of the British Empire, they were marked by very different influences: on Norfolk, the convict and then Pitcairner origins of the settlement; on Cocos, the copra plantations under the Clunies-Ross family governing as virtual lords of the manor; and on Christmas, the phosphate mining industry supplemented recently by the immigration detention centre.

Norfolk became a territory of the federal government in 1914 and, in 1979, after a royal commission, received the institutions of responsible government, with its own legislature, ministry and public service. Bolstered by income from tourism, it seemed fairly stable until that resource dwindled in recent years, provoking the governance crisis noted below.

Cocos and Christmas were affected by the worldwide movement to decolonise after World War II. They had been loosely attached to the British Crown colony administration based in Singapore but, as Singapore approached independence in the 1950s, they were transferred by inter-government agreement to Australia. Under United Nations protocols, Cocos was registered as a non-self-governing territory, and the UN decolonisation committee visited in 1974 and in 1980. Supervised by that committee, the islanders voted, in what has been described as "the smallest act of self-determination ever conducted", to choose integration as their preferred form of association with Australia. For reasons that have been seriously challenged, Christmas Island escaped such international attention.

Australia's federal Territories Law Reform Act 1992 subjected Cocos and Christmas to many Western Australian laws: thus, WA's local government laws now apply, and WA agencies supply many infrastructure services to these islands under contract to the Commonwealth. The people of the islands vote in federal elections, but – in an arrangement that confounds all reasonable notions of community of interest – they vote in the electorate of Lingiari, which is centred on Alice Springs.


Application of Australian territory status has led to the democratic impasse that now exists. These islands have small populations and are regarded by many politicians and bureaucrats who deal with them as mere pinpricks in the ocean, not worthy of any special governance treatment that might recognise that they are culturally distinct from mainstream Australia. It is, however, easy to show that they do have cultural distinctiveness, and their populations spend much effort in seeking a set of governance arrangements that recognise that fact. They, and their friends outside the islands, are very critical of the Commonwealth's failure to consult seriously in devising appropriate governance arrangements, and the situation that now prevails can be seen as a significant example of what political scientists call "democratic deficit".

The blend of English mariners (from the Bounty mutiny) and their Tahitian followers has provided Norfolk with an enduring legacy. They brought with them from Pitcairn a modest social system that valued mutual self-help, they developed their own language mixing English and Tahitian roots, and so on. No one would deny that the application of elements of Western law and order was needed, but it was unwelcome if it crowded out such local distinguishing features.

The plantations on Cocos were worked by labourers imported from several east Asian countries, who made their homes there, brought their own religions, developed a social system and spoke a local language derived from the Malay trade language of the 19th century – English was only spoken in the homes of officials. South and east Asian labourers also worked the mines on Christmas; Buddhist, Muslim and Christian religions are represented there with their own places of worship and cultural festivals, and Cantonese and Mandarin are the main languages spoken.

There is a strong sense of a distinctive history conditioning life on all three territories and explaining their customs and values. The islanders do not identify closely with the existing Australian political system and, if they are to be a part of it, they want to be represented in ways that recognise their special identities.

At a policy level, there is a clear reference in the Administrative Arrangements Order allocating administration of the territories to a federal minister and department. However, with frequent changes in government and public service reduction programs, there has been little stability about those arrangements in recent years. Norfolk has increasingly felt itself "at war"; and the Indian Ocean territory islanders have found that their efforts to communicate have had very unsatisfactory outcomes – or no outcomes at all. In particular, they say that, as WA law now plays such an important place in their governance, they should have some representation in the making and operation of that law.

A quite substantial body of knowledge about the administration of small territories now exists, and application of this knowledge would be very relevant in helping all concerned with governance on Norfolk, Cocos and Christmas to achieve better outcomes. It seems, however, that very little of this knowledge is brought into range of vision by the politicians and public servants involved. Instead, they conduct themselves as if Australia is still a colonial power.

In the Australian Parliament, the joint select committee on the national capital and external territories has a watching brief. It has paid brief visits to Cocos and Christmas in 2006, 2012 and early in 2015, and its reports back to the Parliament show some awareness of the problems as the islanders see them. Thus, it reported in 2006 that the shire councils on the islands should have formal recognition as advisers to the federal minister, that there should be a framework of consultation with WA in relation to service delivery arrangements, and that the Commonwealth should develop options on future government arrangements in conjunction with the island communities to go to a referendum. In 2012, the committee noted that the government's failure to address the issues raised in the earlier report had irritated residents. By June 2015 – with still no positive action – it was reporting on the day-to-day challenges the residents faced:

There are many strongly held views within these communities ... One thing that was made very clear was the high level of frustration with the current system of governance, which has many layers of bureaucracy and unclear delineations of responsibility.

Whether the relevant minister of the Turnbull government, Paul Fletcher, and the public servants under him will do better than their predecessors in handling this issue remains to be seen. But the handling of the recent issues affecting Norfolk Island shows that the federal "system" is not, at present, geared to develop a sensible approach to governing small offshore territories that have clear cultural and social characteristics distinct from those of mainland Australia.

Norfolk has had its self-government removed, with its Legislative Assembly abolished and its service delivery arrangements drawn into the NSW system; it now votes in federal elections as part of an ACT electorate, and further changes are to come. The change in the federal government has not mattered much, as Labor and Coalition ministers (in this and the previous government, and government and opposition members alike) have shown themselves impervious to cries from a large majority of Norfolk's population to desist in their destructive approach. Norfolkers are now seeking ways of alerting the UN to their anti-federal government position: they have voted on it, and have demonstrated fairly dramatically in opposition to the federal policy.

Finance is the main issue raised by the Commonwealth to justify its hardline approach. Obviously, Norfolk is not self-sustaining: it receives regular budget subsidies from the Commonwealth, and it needs funding support for major infrastructure projects. It is beyond doubt that all three territories need some such support, and that the subsidies paid should be subject to normal public accountability tests. But do these subsidies justify cancelling Norfolk's self-government, and apparently refusing to consider a more consultative and democratic approach to governance in the Indian Ocean islands? If federal financial support for units within the federation that are not self-sustaining and their self-government are not compatible, then Tasmania and the Northern Territory should lose their self-government, too. If such an action were proposed, the democratic deficit would be very obvious.

These island communities want to defend their distinctive cultures and social systems by preserving them from being smothered by mainstream Australian forms and practices. Surely it is possible for us to devise forms of governance that take account of these desires and, at the same time, ensure a comfortable accommodation within the Australian system at large. That does not seem an impossible task. And it is likely it will be aided materially in its accomplishment if the relevant system designers take account of designs established by other countries that have found themselves with small offshore island communities as a result of winding down old imperial networks. It is obvious that Australian system designers – at least those of the recent period – have not taken much advantage of such supports.

Roger Wettenhall is an emeritus professor with the Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra. This article is based on a discussion at an October meeting of the ACT Group of the Independent Scholars of Australia Association. The author thanks Jon Stanhope (a former ACT chief minister, deputy administrator of Norfolk Island, and administrator of Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands) and Alan Kerr (a former administrator of Norfolk Island) for their contributions.