Norfolk Island, a small speck in the Pacific Ocean 1,500km east of Brisbane, an external territory under the authority of Australia, rarely shows on the radar of media interest in Australia. However, on one particular matter it may be that Norfolk Island’s recent experience proves a rule for Australia as a whole.
For more than three decades the island enjoyed a limited form self-government. In 2016 this was taken away by the Australian government against the wishes of the majority of island residents. The action was criticised by international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC and by the late celebrated author and Norfolk Island resident Colleen McCullough, and has caused much angst within the island community ever since.
At the core have been complaints of steamrolling behaviour, imperviousness to criticism, and a failure to give due regard to island aspirations. The course of the commonwealth’s actions, from an island perspective, has been well documented in the local media and in a series of books. In our isolation, we Norfolk Island residents often think that our experience must surely be unique. However, that is not the case.
With the shifts on the geo-political stage, Australia has in recent years rediscovered a close interest in the Pacific region. The commonwealth’s 2016 Defence White Paper and 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper both emphasise the region as one of Australia’s highest foreign policy priorities. In a media release of 8 November 2018, Prime Minister Morrison stated: “Australia will step up in the Pacific and take our engagement with the region to a new level. A new package of security, economic, diplomatic and people to people initiatives will build on our strong partnerships in the Pacific.” This enhanced policy emphasis, now widely referred to as the “Pacific Step-up”, has great potential for economic and social improvement in the region.
But what does the Step-up look like from the point of view of the Pacific Islanders themselves? During 2019, a research team from the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney carried out a qualitative research project in Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – all countries having a long-standing structural relationship with Australia – with the aim of clarifying how these countries and Australia could collaborate to realise a mutually beneficial, shared future.
The report from the project made a number of recommendations on the basis of specific ‘areas’, which included the following (as quoted from the report):
1. The research participants see Australian engagement with the region, including the Pacific Step-up, predominantly as unilateral initiatives of Australia. They comprise things that are done for or to the Pacific, not with it. [emphases in original]
In elaborating on this point the report emphasises that: Australian relationships with the Pacific need to be built on foundations of mutual respect, reciprocity, and trust…. Australia needs to listen more and listen better.
2. Pacific Islanders know more about Australia than we [Australians] know about them. We are in effect stepping up without knowing where we are going….
3. Pacific Islanders look past Australia’s coastline… and they see several things that make them uneasy. Among the most prominent of these are the status of Indigenous Australians, climate policy and inequality of trade opportunities.
Norfolk Island residents recognise the syndrome. The problems uncovered in the UWS work are the same as those that Norfolk Island has been drawing attention to over recent years – dogmatic decision-making in Canberra without capacity to listen to island needs; an ignorance of small island capacities, mores and limitations; and the imposition of mainland policies with little acknowledgement or awareness of their impact. Having their own distinctive Indigenous language, culture and Tahitian origins, Norfolk Islanders can identify with the circumstances of both Pacific Islanders and Indigenous Australians. Let us examine the situation of Indigenous Australians more precisely.
Many will recall the Honourable Fred Chaney as a lawyer and former Australian politician, a senator for Western Australia (1974-1990), and sometime deputy leader of the Liberal Party, who served as a minister in the Fraser government. Chaney has had a lifelong concern for Indigenous affairs, was instrumental in the setting up of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia, was deputy president of the National Native Title Tribunal from 2000 to 2007, and co-chair of Reconciliation Australia (2000-2005). Currently he is a member of the National Co-design Group of the Indigenous voice to government.
In 2018, Chaney delivered the Governor’s Oration at the Cranlana Centre at Monash University on the subject of “First Australians and dysfunctional government“. The following are excerpts from this speech:
“Government rhetoric is replete with references to empowerment, regional and place-based approaches, direct negotiation with Indigenous communities, partnerships and a host of emerging techniques that recognise the importance of the community as the primary driver of change. What we actually have, however, is ever increasing centralisation of top down command and control type decision making ….
“It may not be a policy the Government would admit to, but it is what the Government does. The evidence of the centralist approach directed by a Minister is seen in the repetitive disruptive interventions designed and imposed by central governments, be they Commonwealth, State, or Territory… These changes remove Aboriginal agency, the right and capacity to make their own decisions on matters affecting their lives. They diminish both Aboriginal authority and engagement. They deny the right to be different…. they do not permit Aboriginal people to breathe …
“It is my view that the dysfunction in Aboriginal communities is very much the product of incompetent government interventions made sometimes in good faith to address an issue or problem but without any attempt to understand the real needs of the communities.”
Once again, we have the identification of dogmatic impositions by the Australian government, it’s acting by doing to rather than doing with, and its failure to listen and consult or acknowledge rights.
From Indigenous Australia, from the Pacific region, and from Norfolk Island, what we see is the Australian government’s systemic incapacity to respond adequately – practically or ethically – to minorities and to the unfamiliar. It is at all levels a sobering circumstance. It is one that has long failed Indigenous Australians, is failing Norfolk Islanders, and has the capacity to undermine Australia’s policies and diplomacy in the Pacific region. It may be one of the Australian government’s deepest failing. It is certainly a tragedy for all of the parties involved.