Norfolk Island: A revolt in the Pacific

Norfolk Island: A revolt in the Pacific

"Inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me, ye have done it unto me." – Lines from the Pitcairn Anthem

Roughly between Australia and New Zealand there is an island. It's a tiny bit of land and, from the air, an unlikely outpost in the vast indifference of the South Pacific. It rises out of the sea in high cliffs, whose edges are lined with ancient pine trees. It must have been the implausible sight of these pines that prompted Captain Cook to call his discovery "paradise".

Auckland's Waiheke Island is twice the size, with four times the population. Around 1800 people live here. Residents are found in the phone book by their nicknames: Crowbar; Paw Paw, Diddles. Roaming cows have right of way on the roads. The community is safe, hardy and totally remote, and yet its people claim they're being invaded. They say one of the world's biggest economies is trying to erase them from the Earth.

Every morning, on the exceptionally brief commute from Government House to his office in the capital Kingston, Norfolk Island's Administrator, Gary Hardgrave, is met with a camp of protestors. For two months they've occupied the grounds of the old Parliament building, which is encased in the walls of a 19th century military barracks. The compound is across the road from Hardgrave's driveway, and within earshot of his residence. His car passes banners unfurled over the stone walls – "Tell the truth Hardgrave", "Adminis-traitor get out of our home" – before making a right turn over a cattle stop and into the grounds of his office, which is contained in the walls of another, almost identical barracks. The two structures, remnants from a penal colony, stand facing the surf as it collides with the island's southern reefs.

Ernie Christian is the local plumber, and one of the protestors living in the tent city. He's sitting beside a gas heater in the makeshift mess hall, digesting a meal of Norfolk Island beef. I ask him how long he'll stay.

"As long as it takes," he says. "I'm not leaving until we get our government back."

Ernie is known for a unique form of protest – quietly standing in close proximity with people from the Administration in public places. In cafes or at the airport terminal, Ernie attaches himself to officials. Sensing conflict, his targets move away and Ernie follows, stopping just short of them, and wearing a nonsensical grin.

"I make them uncomfortable," he says. "They've come onto my island; they've made my family uncomfortable, and they've made me uncomfortable. So I give back."

Norfolk Island: A revolt in the Pacific


We soon realise Ernie is my first cousin, once removed. My grandfather, who emigrated to New Zealand when he was six, was his father's brother.

Like Mr Christian and many of the islanders, I'm descended from Fletcher Christian, who led a mutiny on Captain Bligh's ship, The Bounty, in 1789. The crew were returning to Britain from Tahiti when they overthrew the tyrannical Bligh and cast him adrift. Taking the ship, Fletcher returned briefly to Tahiti, where he married a daughter of one of the local chiefs. Nine mutineers and 17 Tahitians then set off in search of the far-flung Pitcairn Island, finding it months later.

The Bounty was set on fire, condemning them to a life in isolation and beyond the reach of the British Navy. Pitcairn's existence had been reported years earlier, but never verified, which meant the mutineers lived undetected for a quarter of a century. 

When an American sealer finally chanced upon the island it found a community of women and children led by John Adams, the last surviving mutineer. All the other men had succumbed to murder, disease, alcoholism and other ills. Mr Adams had become the island's patriarch, using a copy of the King James Bible to teach literacy and Christianity. To Britain, he was now more of a curiosity than a criminal, and he was pardoned for mutiny rather than hanged for it.

In 1856, having outgrown Pitcairn, its population of nearly 200 re-located to Norfolk Island. Before their arrival, this pine-studded rock in the South Seas had earned a reputation as "hell in the Pacific", serving as a British penal colony for "the worst description of convicts". The Pitcairners occupied many of the abandoned jail buildings, and gradually set up their own whaling and farming industries.

Since 1914, Norfolk has been an external territory of Australia. It was self-governing for 40 years until, last year, Canberra dissolved its Parliament. In 2010, the Australian government began giving the island millions of dollars in subsidies in exchange for ultimate power over its laws. The global financial crisis crippled the island's crucial tourism industry, and it has struggled to recover.

Norfolk Island: A revolt in the Pacific


But a referendum held by the legislative assembly before it was abolished found almost 70 percent of the islanders were opposed to losing their self-determination. Australia's first legal action after stripping the island of its government was to remove its power to hold referenda.

Where the island once legislated for itself, from this month it will be run by a new regional council, and subject to New South Wales law. Its local GST system will be scrapped, and residents will have to pay federal income and company tax for the first time, as well as land rates to the new council. Services that had previously been run by the community, such as the school and hospital, will become Canberra's assets. The Australian migration system will also be applied here; New Zealand-born islanders, who make up around 20 percent of the population, will have to apply for a visa to stay. That rule even applies to the owner of the local supermarket, who's lived on the island for more than 50 years.

Going along the island's pot-holed roads, and receiving the famous "Norfolk wave" from passing drivers, the rural vistas inland suggest a small New Zealand settlement. The place is in fact geographically closer to "Kiwi", as the islanders call it, than Australia, and is part of the submarine ridge that joins us with New Caledonia. New Zealand is known for its enlightened attitude in the Pacific, generally allowing its territories to govern themselves. But our Government has no opinion on Norfolk's situation.

On the morning Australia's reforms came into force, the island's church bells tolled 160 times and flags were flying upside down – an international signal of distress. Hundreds of people marched through the town Burnt Pine in peaceful protest. "July 1 – Invasion Day" read one of the banners.

Norfolk Island: A revolt in the Pacific


The message from residents seemed to be that there was far more than a 1400-kilometre moat of sea separating them from Canberra. Norfolk has its own flag, anthem and language – Norfuk, a creole dialect borrowing from Tahitian and English. The island has competed in the past eight Commonwealth Games as its own country. In 2014 it marched 54 places behind the Australia, and humbled South Africa in the sport of lawn bowls.

Ernie says the Australian government is "destroying a race of people".

"They're ripping my heart out. I call myself a Norfolk Islander; I've never called myself an Australian."

Bob Turner, affectionately known as "Jesus" – probably because of his beard and long hair – used to host a satirical spot on the local radio station called The Very Nearly Relevant Show. But after the station was handed from local government to Canberra, Jesus and several other staff were asked to leave. Radio Norfolk's slogan, "your community station", became "your government-owned station". Jesus' show was replaced by a jukebox and Canberra-sponsored ads for the soon-to-be-available dole, which played "at least 10 times a day".

Meanwhile, the group Norfolk Island People for Democracy, which has around 760 resident members, or more than half the island's population, was banned from running its community announcements, which were now deemed "politically biased".

"It was great fun while it lasted," Jesus says of his time on air. "We were just calling the Australian government on what it was doing. If we'd just been telling blatant lies, then sure, I'd expect to be fired. But we never did."

Mr Hardgrave is a former radio shock jock. He was also once a liberal MP. In the week I spent on the island, he was variously described to me by the islanders as a "liar", "bully", "fruit loop" and a "real piece of work". There are even shops on the island which have declared themselves "Hardgrave-free zones".

It must take a unique specimen to live in a place where one is so passionately disliked, with a gulf of ocean in all directions. I step over the cattle stop and into his barracks. Mr Hardgrave has been in his role for two years, and Canberra has asked him to stay on for another nine months.

"Look, it's illegal, what they're doing," he says, sitting on a couch in his vast office and squinting through his spectacles. He's talking about the tent city down the road.

"They are encroaching in, and damaging a world heritage-listed property, and they'll have to leave. Tourists are just shocked by the mess they're creating – moving in generators, refrigerators, showering, toilets overflowing. It's a bloody mess."

Norfolk Island: A revolt in the Pacific

Norfolk Island's Administrator, Gary Hardgrave

Mr Hardgrave seems to regard himself as the undeserving victim of an impetuous and ungrateful band of thugs.

"The verbal and physical abuse that's been hurled at me and others is outrageous, but it's only a small group of people. There is an undercurrent here that's not pleasant. There's bullying. It's a small town with some big bullies in it, and it's not good enough.

"But look, you can't judge a whole society by the actions of a few bad people."

He says the takeover is aimed at finally extending federal services – healthcare, welfare – to previously disenfranchised Australian citizens on the island, who he estimates make up 95 percent of its population. He rues the day the Australian government granted the island a nine-member Parliament in 1979. It's a mistake Canberra must take responsibility for.

"People on this island, anything up to about 50 percent are at or below the poverty line, and we just couldn't sit by and let this experiment in limited self-government continue to fail and hurt people." 

Australia's attempts to extend power to Norfolk appear to work on a cyclical basis; they have happened several times since the Pitcairners moved here. "Failed experiment" was the same language Governor-designate Viscount Hampden used to describe the Pitcairners' self-governance in 1859, amid calls for Norfolk Island to be annexed to New South Wales. Soon new laws were in place; the islanders lost any say in electing their chief magistrate, which became a government appointment made in Sydney. Now, 120 years later, the same phrase is being echoed by another official.

In response to claims the island has become a financial basket case, residents say Australia has stomped on all their attempts to diversify the economy. A plan to grow medicinal cannabis and sell it to Canada was overturned by the Administration, as was a move to allow gay marriage on the island.

From this month, Norfolk's borders will be opened to fruits and vegetables, and a duty on imported goods will be removed. There are fears the local food production sector will be decimated.

Meanwhile, international fishers pay royalties to Canberra to access the island's fishery – an EEZ around the island with a 322-kilometre radius.

Seismic testing has also found the seabed is likely to contain oil. The last available figure for international fishing revenues from the zone was US$68 million in 1978, according to the Fisheries Economics Research Unit.

In the following year, the island was granted self-governance again. One of its attached objectives had been to access money from its fishery, which it was denied. 

In April, international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson lodged a petition with the United Nations in New York, on behalf of the local population.

"Abolishing Norfolk Island as an autonomous territory may not seem to matter in the grand scheme of things," Mr Robertson said then, "but for an international order that cherishes self-government and proclaims the right of self-determination of people, it is a regressive and unimaginative action, an example of the inability to tolerate democracy and difference." 

The petition aims to see the island added to the UN's list of "non self-governing territories", or NSGTs. More than 80 former colonies comprising some 750 million people have gained independence since the creation of the United Nations. Currently, 17 of these territories remain to be decolonised.

Norfolk Island Council of Elders president Albert Buffet and former chief minister Andre Nobbs have been flying around the world in recent weeks, meeting officials, journalists and religious leaders, trying to drum up support for the UN petition and other initiatives, including a complaint with the Human Rights Council at Geneva. Their plane tickets are bought with money raised from community fundraisers on the island.

In order to be listed as an NSGT, a territory must be geographically separate, and culturally and ethnically distinct, from its host country.

"I think there are people who see themselves in certain ways, and that's fair enough; people are allowed to see themselves in certain ways," says Mr Hardgrave, who happens to be a former Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs. He seems exasperated by any mention of the islanders' Bounty heritage.

I ask him whether he thinks Norfolk Island meets the NSGT criteria.

"I don't have any expertise on any of that. And people are free to make any submissions that they like. Look, whilst it's nice to pretend it was something more, the world recognises that Norfolk Island is, and always has been, part of Australia. It has been part of the Australian story since the very earliest of days, since the very earliest of days."

Standing at the island's highest point and watching the sea meet the coast in boiling swells on all sides, and beyond nothing but horizon and not so much as a ship, the extreme dimensions of the place can almost be felt physically. Its distance from other nations isn't only intimidating to the spirit, but it is expensive and impractical.

Norfolk's inhabitants are here because they want to be, and their lives have depended on ingenuity and sheer grit for centuries. It seems unreasonable that a people who live on the edge of the world should have to answer to anyone else.

But for hundreds of years, the island has found itself in the sights of the Australian political machine. So what is the island to Canberra? A strategic outpost in the Pacific? An area of seabed potentially rich in minerals, oil and gas? Or a unique chapter of Australian history, whose residents are deserving of the same rights afforded to those on the mainland?

Could Australia be performing this takeover out of the goodness of its heart? Could it possibly be stopped?