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The World’s Littlest Freedom Fighters: Norfolk Island Is Battling Australian Colonization

Norfolk Island will be colonized by Australia in July. Renowned lawyer Geoffrey Robertson explains why he is representing the island's 1700 people who are desperate to remain free.

Roger Askew/REX/Shutterstock

Where in the world is “God Save the Queen” a revolutionary call to arms? In Norfolk Island, whose 1700 citizens—half of them descended from Fletcher Christian’s HMS Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian partners—are resisting the forcible re-colonization of their homeland by Australia. Their self-government has been abolished, their parliament locked up, their freedom of speech curtailed and their membership of international sporting and political bodies cancelled. Their autonomy and their identity is being destroyed—they have even been told to stop singing the English anthem “God Save the Queen” and learn the words of Australia’s doggerel national anthem.

Norfolk deserves several footnotes in history. Discovered by Captain Cook, in 1788 it became the place for convicts from Sydney to receive especially harsh punishment—those who rebelled or committed sodomy (with a ratio of 7 men to 1 woman, the latter was a common offence). Norfolk became the most brutal prison in the British Empire, and the convict buildings and graves still stand, as part of a world heritage site.

After the convicts left, the empty island was used by Queen Victoria’s government in 1856 to settle the ‘Bounty’ mutineer progeny—part British, part Tahitian—whose existence on Pitcairn had become precarious. All of them (194 men, women and children) were shipped to Norfolk, given land and allowed to settle down with their own laws and customs. Their descendants now comprise 47% of the island’s population. Over the years a few families returned to Pitcairn, and it was their descendants who were involved in the incest scandal of 2004. This did not touch the Norfolk Islanders, who are so law-abiding they do not have, or need, a prison (the only person convicted of murder within living memory serves his time in New Zealand).

The 1856 imperial order declared that Norfolk should be kept “separate and distinct” from mainland Australian states, which federated in 1901 without including Norfolk. In 1913 the U.K. handed Norfolk over to Australia to administer as an external territory, and in 1979 it was granted a large measure of self-government, with an elected parliament responsible for health, education, customs, immigration, tourism, culture and most matters of democratic concern, excluding defence, aviation and other international matters of which Australia takes care. It is a tourist idyll; with its trademark Norfolk pine trees, framing two of the Pacific’s most beautiful beaches. It has a local language, unique flora and fauna, an indigenous culture, and is pleasantly free of Australia’s person-eating crocodiles, lethal spiders, snakes, and jellyfish. It has, for the last 36 years, been effectively an autonomous territory, receiving some (but not much) help from Australia and otherwise governing itself.

Such idiosyncratic arrangements, however much they satisfy local aspirations, were not welcomed by a committee of back-bench Australian MP’s, who decided that the island should be assimilated to free-market Australia, and its ethos of self-help and community service should be ended by direct rule from Canberra, 1,800 kilometres away. They issued a 120-page report recommending the re-colonisation of Norfolk, making no mention of the advantages of democracy or the principles of self-determination. The government acted quickly to abolish the parliament and the elected executive, and to replace it by administrators from Canberra. The law that will end Norfolk Island as an autonomous territory takes full effect on July 1, 2016.

From then on, the island will have no special identity. Its people will not be allowed to compete in the Commonwealth or Oceanic games, where they have won medals, unless they do so in an Australian team. They will lose their seat at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Union, and in some UN committees. Already the heavy hand of the Australian public service has censored the local radio station, banning any mention of opposition to the takeover and removing a popular satirical programme. Satire is what the Islanders need: Their precious historical artefacts and records, of the Bounty and of their progress to self-government, have been seized from their parliament and locked away.

There is little the islanders can do against Australian annexation. The new Secretary General of the Commonwealth has shown no interest in their plight. They cannot appeal to international courts (they are not a state). They have, however, decided to petition the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, which urges UN members to bring their non-self-governing territories towards democracy. In this case, it would be a matter of exhorting Australia to return to the Islanders the powers that they are presently taking away.

Re-colonisation means Norfolk’s assimilation with New South Wales—the state whose laws will now govern the island, although its citizens will have no say in them. They can only vote in Federal Elections in Canberra, a large landlocked electorate 1,200 miles away where their concerns about fishing rights will not be an issue. They will of course be taxed, for the first time. The islanders have hitherto raised revenue by community levies, customs duties, and tourist licences, and have refused to introduce any system of taxation. (They have not become a significant tax haven, because immigration has been strictly controlled and residents remain liable to tax in other countries where those earnings arise.) So the consequence of the new arrangement will be taxation without representation.

Abolishing Norfolk Island as an autonomous territory may not seem to matter much in the grand scheme of things, but for an international order that cherishes self-government and proclaims the right of self-determination of people, it is a regressive and unimaginative action, an example of the inability to tolerate democracy and difference. For the descendants of Fletcher Christian and his rebellion against the martinet Commander Bligh, it will be little consolation that their identity will be extinguished by a government commanded by one Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, named in honour of the controversial captain.

Geoffrey Robertson QC presented the petition of the Norfolk Islanders at the UN this week.