Norfolk Island – An end to self-governance

With self-governance of Norfolk Island about to come to an end we thought it was a great opportunity to look at the interesting Constitutional arrangements of the Island.

A long history

Just six weeks after Botany Bay was settled by the British the first ships arrived at Norfolk Island to claim it as an auxiliary settlement of the colony of New South Wales. A small amount of settlers and convicts occupied the Island.

By 1790 it had become a penal colony where shipping masts were constructed using the famously tall and straight Norfolk Pines. By 1825, because of its inaccessibility Norfolk Island had become a penitentiary for misbehaving convicts. In 1844 it was transferred to the Colony of Van Diemen’s Land and by 1855 it was closed as a penal colony.

At this time the inhabitants of Pitcairn Islands were beginning to request the English government find a new location for them as the resources of the Pitcairn Islands were in decline. These people were the descendants of British subjects that had orchestrated the Mutiny on the Bounty in 1789 and had a very colourful history. They were settled on Norfolk Island in 1856 and were met by the H.M.S. Juno with a statement from the Governor of NSW which outlined the occupancy.

A quick history of the Pitcairn Islanders

On 28 April 1789, some 1,300 miles west of Tahiti the Mutiny of the Bounty occurred. William Bligh and his crew had been sent to Tahiti to collect breadfruit and transport the cargo back to the West Indies. There is some dispute as to whether the crew of the ship were mistreated by Bligh or whether they preferred the idyllic lifestyle of Tahiti, but on the way back to the West Indies the crew Mutinied. They set Bligh and a small number of crew loyal to him afloat in a small boat and took control of the Ship “Bounty”. The Mutineers sailed back to Tahiti, where they enticed some men and women onto the Bounty and then quickly set sail to the Pitcairn Islands to prevent the Tahitians leaving and to avoid detection by the English authorities. The Bounty was burned and sunk off the Pitcairn Islands and the mutineers and the Tahitians began a life here.

It wasn’t until 1808 that the first ship arrived on the Pitcairn Islands to discover the inhabitants and in 1837 the Pitcairn Islands were incorporated into the British Empire. By 1855 the population had grown to such an extent that the Islands were beginning to become uninhabitable. It was at this point that the British government offered to resettle the Pitcairners on Norfolk Island. The Pitcairn Islanders have remained on Norfolk Island until this day.

What happened at settlement of the Pitcairn Islanders?

In 1854, just prior to the Pitcairners settlement on Norfolk Island the British Government had recommended transferring Norfolk Island to the colony of NSW. However by 1856 it had been recommended that Norfolk Island should not form part of any adjacent colonies, but should be kept altogether distinct from and independent of them. The instructions received back from the British Government later that year were that Norfolk Island was a distinct and separate colony that was placed under the jurisdiction of the Governor of New South Wales.

The Pitcairners that arrived on the Island believed that the Crown had granted Norfolk Island to them in 1856 and this sentiment continues today.

By the mid 1890’s there was discussion about what to do about Norfolk Island. As a newspaper article from the time outlined:

The British Government wants New South Wales to take over the government of Norfolk Island; New South Wales appears to be doubtful whether she should or not; Norfolk Island itself wants to be left alone, and New Zealand comes in as a claimant to do that which England would have done by the mother colony. 

In 1897 Norfolk Island was transferred to NSW on the request of the British Government, although the legislative powers of Norfolk Island remained separate. A proclamation was issued:

"And whereas by an Order in Council dated the fifteenth day of January,1897, made in pursuance of the said last-mentioned Act, Her late Majesty, after reciting that it was expedient that other provision should be made for the government of Norfolk Island, and that, in prospect of the future annexation of Norfolk Island to the Colony of New South Wales, or to any Federal body of which that colony might thereafter form part, in the meantime the affairs of Norfolk Island should be administered by the Governor of New South Wales, as therein provided, was pleased to revoke the said Order in Council of the twenty-fourth day of June, one thousand eight hundred and fifty-six, and to order that the affairs of Norfolk Island should be thenceforth, and until further order should be made in that behalf by Her Majesty, be administered by the Governor and Commander-in-Chief for the time being of the Colony of New South Wales and its dependencies.

In November of that year all of the laws in force were repealed and a new set of 23 laws were proclaimed. A council of 12 members was elected with responsibility of road maintenance and public reserves. The Pitcairners opposed this change and sent a delegation to Sydney to protest.

Then in October of 1900 by an Order in Council the Governor of the State of NSW was to administer the affairs of Norfolk Island in lieu of the Governor of the former Colony of NSW. By this time the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 had passed and was to come into effect on 1 January 1901

In 1903 an Executive Council was set up that included two elected representatives and four members appointed by the Governor. It was around this time that the Sir Henry Rawson, the Governor of NSW and Norfolk Island advised the Islanders that as a dependency of NSW they had to follow NSW laws. He pointed out that only the Commonwealth had the power to make different laws for different communities and if the residents of Norfolk Island would like their own laws they would need to consider being annexed by the Commonwealth of Australia.

Becoming an external territory

By 1913 the financial system of Norfolk Island was beginning to struggle. A newspaper article from the time outlines this struggle:

The financial resources were so limited on Norfolk Island that in April of 1913 the Deputy Administrator stated that he did not desire to continue in office unless he received regular remuneration. For some years he had no salary attached to his position but on occasion a bonus had been paid.

In December of 1913 The Norfolk Island Act was passed to provide for the acceptance of Norfolk Island as a Territory under the authority of the Commonwealth. The preamble of this Act states:

And whereas the Parliament of the Commonwealth is willing that Norfolk Island should be placed under the authority of, and accepted as a Territory by, the Commonwealth:

 And whereas by the Constitution it is provided that the Parliament, may make laws for the Government of any Territory placed by the King under the authority of and accepted by the Commonwealth: Constitution s. 122.

On 1 July 1914 Norfolk Island became an external territory of the Commonwealth of Australia under section 122 of the Constitution.

Did the residents of Norfolk Island get any say in this decision?

Many of the inhabitants of Norfolk Island are of the view that they never joined the Commonwealth of Australia. However, the Australian High Court and Federal Government have taken the view that Norfolk Island is an external territory of Australia.

The only decision the Pitcairners ever made was to leave the Pitcairn Islands and move to Norfolk Island. Since this time the Government arrangements have been made by the Monarch acting on the advice of the British Government, the NSW Government and the Australian Federal Government.

After becoming an external territory

In the decades after becoming an external territory of Australia, Norfolk Island moved closer towards self-governance and in 1979 gain full self-governance with the passing of the Norfolk Island Act 1979. Any laws made by the federal government do not apply on Norfolk Island, unless the passing Act specifically states this.

One of Norfolk Island’s primary industries is tourism and since the global financial crisis the economy has struggled with the number of tourists halving. The Islanders pay no income tax and the Norfolk Island government raises funds with a GST of 12%.

In 2010 the Chief Minister of Norfolk Island announced that the island would voluntarily surrender self-government in return for a bailout of its debts. Much of the infrastructure on the island has not been upgraded since 1979 and the federal government has indicated that by surrendering self-governance they will receive these needed upgrades.

The Norfolk Islanders will be required to pay business and income tax in and they will be able to receive welfare and medicare benefits. To make these changes the Norfolk Island Act 1979 will be updated and the territory of Norfolk Island will become a regional council.

As expected, not all of the Islanders agree with the proposal to end self-government are calling for a referendum to be put to the people. Some 700 residents (out of a total of 1800) have signed a petition to the federal government demanding locals be given more input in the process.

Nevertheless, the new arrangements will come into effect on 1 July 2016.

Some interesting facts about Norfolk Island

  • 38% of Norfolk Islanders are descendants of the Pitcairn Islanders who settled in 1856.
  • Norfolk Islanders do not have a dedicated electorate on the Island. They are able to vote in Federal elections (although it is not compulsory) by choosing an electorate in Australia that they have some connection to, or if they have no connection they can choose the Division of Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory, or the Division of Solomon in the Northern Territory.
  • Norfolk Island has competed in each of the Commonwealth games since 1986 and has won one bronze medal for bowling in 1994
  • Norfolk Island have their own postal system and stamps. Stamps bought on Norfolk Island cannot be used in Australia and vice-versa.
  • There was a royal commission into matters relating to Norfolk Island in 1976 which examined their constitutional status

Photo attributed to Thomas Huxley


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