x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Norfolk enchants, but for how much longer, remote islanders ask

On Norfolk Island, a picturesque but now nearly bankrupt speck of land in the South Pacific where half of the inhabitants are descended from the Bounty mutineers, there is anger that Australia is bailing them out at the cost of their autonomy.

Cows have the right of way on remote Norfolk Island, where motorists also take the time to wave to each driver they pass.
Cows have the right of way on remote Norfolk Island, where motorists also take the time to wave to each driver they pass.

SYDNEY // They do things differently on Norfolk Island, a picturesque speck of land in the South Pacific where half of the inhabitants are descended from the Bounty mutineers.

The Jersey cows have right of way on the roads, and to avoid confusion, since many of the 2,100 residents share a few surnames, the telephone directory also lists nicknames. Locals speak Norfolk, a blend of 18th-century English and Tahitian that is a legacy of the British sailors and their Polynesian wives.

For the past 30 years, the island, an external territory of Australia, has also, to a large degree, governed itself. But that is about to change. With tourism numbers steeply down, Norfolk is almost broke and the government in Canberra has agreed to step in only if Norfolk surrenders much of its autonomy, as well as its tax-free status.

The chief minister, David Buffett, who presides over a nine-member legislative assembly, recently bowed to pressure, supporting reforms that will give Canberra sweeping powers to intervene in Norfolk's affairs and dictate how it spends its revenue.

The first tranche of aid money, A$3.9 million (Dh14.6m), has already come through.

But many on the island are unhappy about Mr Buffett's capitulation. They fear closer integration with Australia will threaten their unique culture and identity and even their existence.

Situated 1,450 kilometres east of Brisbane, Norfolk, the site of a brutal 19th-century British penal colony, was once known as "Hell in the Pacific". After the colony was moved to Van Diemen's Land, or Tasmania, Queen Victoria offered the island to the mutineers' heirs, who had outgrown their original home on neighbouring Pitcairn Island.

The sailors had fled to Pitcairn with a group of Tahitian women in 1790, after Fletcher Christian led an uprising against the Bounty's captain, William Bligh. Their descendants moved to Norfolk in 1856, although some later returned to Pitcairn. Australians and New Zealanders settled on Norfolk in the 1950s, developing a tourism industry that underpinned the economy until the global financial crisis struck.

In recent years, the number of tourists has dropped by 40 per cent. More than a dozen businesses have closed, and the government is subsidising the local airline, Norfolk Air, to the tune of up to A$350,000 a month. It is struggling to fund essential services.

Now Australia is promising to bail Norfolk out, and place it on a sounder long-term economic footing. In exchange, inhabitants of the 35-kilometre-square island, who have determined their own health, education and immigration policies since 1979, must not only defer to Canberra politically, but also pay Australian taxes.

That is anathema to many islanders, who also worry that if the Australian welfare system is introduced, Norfolk will be "overrun by dole bludgers, just coming over here for our lovely weather and living off Australian pensions", as Tom Lloyd, the long-time editor of the local newspaper, the Norfolk Islander, puts it.

Lloyd, who believes the island has governed itself relatively well, regards the reforms as a backwards step. Ron Nobbs, a former chief minister, agrees. "I see this as a betrayal of our history," he said. "We've rolled over and put up the white flag, and I'm really sad about it."

Change is not readily accepted on Norfolk, a place of rolling hills and farmland, sprinkled with the statuesque pines that give the island its name. Television and telephones only arrived in the 1980s. Locals fear that once Norfolk becomes just another Australian outpost, their relaxed way of life will vanish and cherished liberties, such as not having to wear seat belts, will be eroded.

Some suspect Australia of a hidden agenda. "They want to get their hands on our oil," said Ric Robinson, referring to unmined gas hydrates within Norfolk's marine territorial limits. Mr Robinson, the president of the Society of Pitcairn Descendants, said: "Australia's been wanting to take us over for years. It seems to me that countries that were once colonies like to have someone they can kick around themselves. Now we'll have our future decided by bureaucrats in Canberra who've never even been here."

Residents point to the cost of living in such an isolated spot. Norfolk does not even have a harbour, and supplies, which arrive by ship every few weeks, are transferred to whaleboats to be ferried ashore.

One widely voiced concern is that, along with income and business taxes, land rates will be imposed, and the islanders, many of whom still own the 50-acre blocks allotted to their 19th-century ancestors, will be obliged to sell. "People will leave the island because they won't be able to afford the rates," Mr Robinson said. "It will be a case of last one out, turn out the lights."

Pitcairn descendants, many of whom have mutineers' surnames, including Christian, Adams, Quintal and McCoy, are particularly opposed to Australia's plans. Although they have intermarried with outsiders, they remain fiercely proud of their roots. Some, including Mr Robinson, believe Norfolk would be better off going it alone.

Other locals, such as Mike King, originally from Australia and a member of the legislative assembly, disagree. He sees closer ties with Canberra as the only way to safeguard Norfolk's future, arguing that greater economic stability will entice more locals to stay or come home.

Mr King also believes the island does not have the capacity to govern itself, saying: "We should retain only those powers and functions which we've properly carried out."

Asked what those consist of, he replies: "Roads, maybe, and footpaths. Very little else."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae