Hands off our island, Australia: Norfolk residents fight 're-colonization' – Reuters

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By , Thomson Reuters Foundation
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Norfolk Island’s 2,210 residents – many of them descendants of mutineers from HMS Bounty – have presented a petition to the United Nations accusing Australia of trying to “re-colonize” their tiny South Pacific island.
Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson flew to New York from London to deliver the petition on Monday in a last-ditch attempt to help Norfolk retain its status as an autonomous territory.
The Australian government signaled last year it would end the island’s local administration, and has already closed down its parliament, paving the way for rule from the Australian capital Canberra, nearly 2,000 km (1,200 miles) away.
A regional council is planned and elections are scheduled for the middle of next year.
The volcanic island covers just over 34 square km (13 square miles) in the Pacific Ocean, between New Caledonia and New Zealand. It was mapped by the British navigator and explorer Captain James Cook in 1774, and was occupied just 40 days after he established a convict settlement in Sydney in 1788.
In 1852, it became a prison for convicts who were sentenced to particularly harsh discipline. Jail ruins, barracks and the gravestones of executed convicts now form part of the island’s World Heritage area.
Robertson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from New York on Monday that Australia’s “heavy-handed attempt to re-colonize part of its domain” is internationally embarrassing as it coincides with its campaign to win a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“They’ve locked up the parliament and sent administrators from Canberra to run the place, even though it’s been running itself perfectly well for a long time,” he said.
“After 36 years of democracy, their self-governance has been abolished, their freedom of speech curtailed – any mention of opposition on a local radio station has been banned – and their membership of international sporting and political bodies like the Commonwealth has been canceled.”
In Australia Paul Fletcher, Minister for Major Projects, Territories and Local Government, said Norfolk Island had been an integral part of the Commonwealth of Australia since 1914.
“The Australian Government is ultimately responsible for the governance of Norfolk Island – as it has been for more than a century – and for the welfare of all Australians including those that comprise the majority of the Norfolk Island community,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
“The Australian Government established what was effectively an experimental form of self-government on Norfolk Island in 1979. The result of this experiment is clear – it has not worked very well.”
“That is why there was strong bipartisan support in the Australian Parliament for legislation passed last year which brought the experiment to an end and restored to Norfolk Island the same governance system used in Australia’s other external territories such as the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island,” he added.
Norfolk Islanders are themselves divided about the plan to abolish self-rule, with the descendants of Fletcher Christian’s mutineers leading the resistance campaign.
Christian was master’s mate on board the British naval vessel HMS Bounty during its voyage to Tahiti under Lieutenant William Bligh to find breadfruit plants. He led the mutiny on April 28, 1789.
Robertson said Norfolk’s cultural history was unique and the petition argues that a loss of autonomy would “destroy the democracy previously enjoyed by a culturally, geographically and ethnically distinct people”.
The island, Robertson added, is even “wonderfully free of Australia’s killer crocs (crocodiles), spiders and jellyfish”.
Australia has set July 1, 2016 as the date that the island will formally become part of the administration of the state of New South Wales, the parliament’s website says.
This is despite a referendum conducted on the island in May last year which revealed that 64 percent of residents objected to the plan for it to become an Australian territory, according to the petition.
Australia has said the island relies on loans from Canberra and its residents must pay Australian federal taxes if they are to receive the same health and welfare benefits afforded to its citizens.
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