A curious item of news last week was Queensland looking to take over the administration of Norfolk Island. Currently New South Wales manage health and education services on the island in return for federal government funding. However, the deal is set to expire this year and with NSW apparently reluctant to continue, Queensland is in talks to take over with the state government looking to add to Queensland’s tourism portfolio, an island that lies 1500km due east of Byron Bay.
If Queensland do get the nod, perhaps their first task will be sorting out Norfolk Island’s anomalous status as something that is simultaneously Australian and not-Australian. The island is served only by Air New Zealand from Brisbane and Sydney international airports and while officially you don’t need a passport, it helps to have one as you go through the intimidating Border Force checkpoints. And Department of Agriculture biosecurity officers will also be carefully watching what organic matter you want to take onto the island with a strictness you don’t find when crossing from Queensland to NSW.
There are other ways Norfolk Island is not considered part of Australia. It has its own flag, its own international dial code +672 and its own telecoms company Norfolk Telecom (currently rolling out 4G which went live last month). It has its own police force (not part of NSW) though it takes some officers from the Australian Federal Police. And its voters help elect the member for Bean in Canberra, not a NSW seat.
The issue of treating Norfolk Island like a foreign country is that like last week you may not be able to get to it (or off it) at all. Despite the fact that Brisbane, Sydney and Norfolk Island are community COVID-free you could not travel to and from there for a week. The only carrier Air New Zealand suspended its services after Australia stopped quarantine-free flights as New Zealand health authorities sought to trace new locally transmitted COVID-19 cases. There was a week before flights were able to resume. That has left tourists stranded on the island or residents struggling to get home. Qantas operated 10 repatriation flights over four days from Sunday but longer term the island is subject – unnecessarily – to the vagaries of international travel.
Of course there are plenty of people on the island that would be quite happy for the island to be seen as independent of Australia. Norfolk Island was a self-governing territory for 36 years but the federal government abolished its legislative assembly after it went broke in May 2015. It was replaced with a local government administration, similar to a regional council, and became part of NSW. The decision was opposed by most of the island’s 1700 residents at the time.
Islanders claim Norfolk gained a form of independence when Queen Victoria granted permission to Pitcairn Islanders to re-settle on the island in 1856. These views have been repeatedly rejected by the Australian parliament’s joint committee on territories, most recently in 2004, and were also rejected by the High Court of Australia in the income tax case Berwick Ltd v Gray. That case ruled Norfolk Island was a Territory placed by the Crown under the authority of the Commonwealth. In 1856 it was made a separate settlement administered by the Governor of New South Wales who was appointed Governor of Norfolk Island.
Then in 1897 an Order in Council directed that “in prospect of the future annexation of that island to the colony of New South Wales, or to any federal body of which that colony may hereafter form part, in the meantime the affairs of the island should be administered by the Governor of New South Wales”. The Order in Council empowered the Governor of New South Wales to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the island and, according to the High Court, “makes it abundantly clear that Norfolk Island forms part of the Commonwealth of Australia.”
But even if Norfolk Islanders are reluctant Australians they may prefer be reluctant Queenslanders. People north of the Tweed often make a big deal of being Queenslanders first and Australians second. It is a view Norfolk Islanders may have some empathy with.