April’s guest speaker was Jon Stanhope, the ACT Chief Minister 2001-2011. Jon subsequently took a two-year term as Administrator of the Indian Ocean Territories (Christmas & Cocos Islands), in 2012-2014. Jon was also Norfolk Island Deputy Administrator for two years in 1991-93.
Jon’s message is that we have not dealt with our historical failure to extend our democracy to the people of Cocos and Christmas Islands, nor have we dealt fairly with Norfolk Islanders.
Here is a report on his talk:
COCOS AND CHRISTMAS ISLANDS are remote and isolated; 3000 km north of Perth, though only 300 km south of Java. There are few regular plane flights, and it’s a long flight to Perth. The population now is about 800 on Cocos Island and 2000 on Christmas island; another 500-600 FIFOs (fly-in, fly-out); and 5,000 to 6,000 asylum seekers.
John Clunies-Ross, a sea captain, brought Malayan Muslims as indentured labour – slave labour – in the 1820s to the island. This system lasted all the way through to the 1970s. Today still only half of the population over 40 speak English.
The Hawke government and Tom Uren as Minister for Territories closed down the feudal Clunies-Ross system on Cocos in the mid-1980s. The people love Bob Hawke for this act of deliverance.
Settlement began in the 1890s with indentured labour for the phosphate mine. In 1956 Christmas Island was transferred from Singaporean control to Australia.
Between 1890 and 1912, 1200 Chinese labourers died as the result of accidents in the phosphate mines. Beri-beri (vitamin B deficiency) killed hundreds of mine workers. All together this is probably the highest death rate at work in Australian history (of course, this period predates actual Australian sovereignty over the islands; nevertheless, it is part of our history).
The phosphate mine ran the territory, its immigration and its housing, until the middle of the 1970s. You couldn’t protest, for fear of getting the sack and being deported. Passports could be stamped “Never to Return” until the late 1970s.
Most Malays on Christmas Island have chosen permanent residency there, rather than full citizenship, keeping Malaysian citizenship so that they can own land in Malaysia. All the Chinese are Australian citizens; but they refer to Singapore as home, as Penang is to the Malays.
There is no self-government on the island. Why do we maintain this “neo-colonial empire” on the edge of our very functional Australian democracy? Is it because the inhabitants are Asian? They are represented by Warren Snowden, the member for Lingiari in the Northern Territory! He goes there for 6 days a year. All decisions are made for Christmas Island by one person, a manager in the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development. This person made one 3-day visit to Cocos over the 2 years of Stanhope’s tenure as Administrator. There is no advisory body; a shire council mows grass and mends roads.
One very strong group is the Union of Christmas Island Workers, set up with the help of a Canberra teacher, Michael Grimes. But people still don’t like to complain, past history still having a strong effect.
The Commonwealth government now contracts services such as administration of schools to the Western Australian government. But there are no school boards, nothing is published, no annual reports. There is very little social infrastructure or social capital. Also no aged care. It’s a patriarchal community; women and families take care of it. Stanhope arrived with the experience of running the ACT and thought he should foster these things. He told one story of a woman in her 70s caring for 5 years for her aged and incapacitated father-in-law, her own father, and her husband who was almost blind. In response to Stanhope’s request, two consultants arrived to investigate the lack of aged care. After months of delay and no report, he put in a FOI request. It turned out that the report had been rejected, another version demanded by the department. There were 17 versions, but still nothing allowed to be seen by the Administrator; and it cost him $4,200 in FOI fees.
There are three detention centres on Christmas Is. and more on Cocos. During Stanhope’s two years, the peak years for arrivals, 600 boats arrived and as many as 30,000 asylum seekers, on Christmas and Cocos Islands. From Sri Lanka to Cocos is a trip of 16 to even 30 days, and people arrive in bad condition. From Java the trip is only 2 to 4 days. These fishing boats use reconditioned car engines, not really up to the purpose.
Stanhope was moved by the government’s dehumanisation of refugees, so would go down to the jetty and try to say hullo to as many people as possible. Our entire conversation about refugees lacks empathy. But in fact the local staff from the Immigration department and SERCO were OK; only a few were over-aggressive or shouted. Similarly, the behaviour of Customs and Navy staff was almost always exemplary.
The impact of detention on asylum seekers is horrible. There is now an immediate turn-around for Sri Lankan arrivals: they might arrive on a Friday and be back in Colombo 5 days later. There is no opportunity for interaction between the asylum seekers and the local community, so the Christmas Is. population has approximately the same feelings about refugees as the rest of Australia. The separation is deliberate: the government knows that interaction will cause people to feel more kindly towards refugees. A question from the meeting wondered why, when Christmas Is. is so far from the mainland, anybody needed to be locked up at all, and the answer was precisely this, to prevent sympathy towards the asylum seekers. Both SERCO and the Immigration department go to extreme lengths to stop photos being taken, even legally from public land.
A comparison was made between Australian and Italian behaviour towards asylum seekers: Stanhope described a completely different attitude here, much more military. People are locked down on board, stuck in the hold.
Bipartisanship is a problem: the ALP is very compromised on refugees. They have not produced the promised response to the Triggs report. Its first recommendation was that all the children be released. The ALP is in breach of its national platform here, as it is with respect to Norfolk Island.
See Jon Stanhope’s article with Roger Wettenhall, “We’re not listening to Norfolk Islanders as their democracy is quietly stolen, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 March 2015.
Norfolk Island has a peculiarity whereby residents can choose to vote in any electorate in an Australian election provided that they can prove a substantial connection to the area. Otherwise, Canberra is their default electorate. The general manager for Pacific Islands in the Dept of Infrastructure is at the level of Assistant Secretary, SES Band 1. NSW provides services at state level. Pitcairn Islander families moved to Norfolk in 1856, are fiercely independent and don’t think of themselves as Australian, believing that they were granted the island by Queen Victoria.
There is a recent history of attempts by Norfolk Island to normalise administrative matters, starting with a 2011 Memorandum of Understanding, by which they would pay tax and the Commonwealth would provide a Centrelink office. But it looks as though the Commonwealth has just run out of patience and cancelled everything already in motion. The ALP has now gone along with the Commonwealth external territories committee’s recommendation that Norfolk Island lose its self-government; Stanhope is very unimpressed. The recommendations came from an enquiry into tourism; nothing was said about self-government. Gai Brodtman is their federal member, but she has not stood up for them. The relevant bill was introduced on the last sitting day of Parliament and will be brought to a vote on the first sitting day of the next session, 12 May 2015. Stanhope was dismayed to find that his Mt Rogers ALP branch had not tabled his motion for discussion of the Norfolk Island bill on its meeting agenda: nothing can be done before the parliamentary vote.