House debates

Monday, 15 November 2010

Territories Law Reform Bill 2010

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 29 September, on motion by Mr Crean:

That this bill be now read a second time.

7:05 pm

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Justice, Customs and Border Protection) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to talk on the Territories Law Reform Bill 2010. This bill in the main relates to Norfolk Island, which is a unique and integral part of Australia. In addition to being one of Australia’s most geographically isolated communities—indeed, probably one of the world’s most isolated communities—it is also one of Australia’s oldest territories, having been settled in conjunction with Australia’s founding settlement at Sydney in New South Wales. The island has a unique history which is separate from Australia, although obviously clearly linked to Australia. At various times in its history, the island formed part of the colonies of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, and New South Wales. Norfolk Island’s convict history and the heritage and traditions of its residents, particularly those of Pitcairn descent, remain an important part of Australia’s natural heritage and culture.

Mr Christian-Bailey, a former member of the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly, described the island culture in an article published in 2006, when he said:

The Norfolk Island Community has an incredibly proud history. We were arguably the first people in the Commonwealth to have a free and compulsory vote for everyone over 18, including women. This was enshrined in our own laws as early as 1838. We have always been proud of our self-reliance, our resourcefulness and of our strong community spirit. We have our own language, which we still love to use with one another, and our cultural traditions are strong and distinct from those of Australia.

I think that is an important point. The people of Norfolk Island see themselves obviously as Australians but as people with a separate culture from Australia and it is one that we should do our best to respect.

Going back further to 1879, Joseph Campbell wrote an account about Norfolk Island and its inhabitants. Campbell describes the small and exceptionally beautiful place inhabited by some 400 people—about 250 who reside in the town, the rest in small farms in various parts of the island. There were excellent roads built by convicts, first-rate soils, thousands of lemon and guava trees, native flowers and the Norfolk Island pines. In those days a chief magistrate and jury ran the island. Islanders had no taxes to pay but gave one week’s labour out of every seven months to any public work that needed to be done. Before a person could settle on Norfolk they needed to obtain the votes of two-thirds of everybody over 20 who could read and write. The inhabitants were described as very jealous of admitting people as members of their community.

Times have changed somewhat and now you need a six-month residency before you can apply to stay on Norfolk Island permanently, although the island comes under the Australian Citizenship Act more broadly. Visitors to Norfolk and the islanders themselves often describe the island as one of the most beautiful and unspoilt places on earth. Sadly, I have not had the opportunity to travel to Norfolk Island in my capacity as the shadow minister responsible for external territories, although I have had discussions with many members of the coalition and outside of the coalition who have been to the island. They have reinforced to me that the island has its own culture, traditions and values. I am keen to go and see this for myself at some stage in the future. But I have had a chance to meet with the Norfolk Islander legislators when they have been in Canberra and I have consulted with them over the telephone. I acknowledge the efforts that they have made in contacting me to let me know their thoughts about this bill which, of course, will radically change the way Norfolk Island is governed.

Successive Australian governments have acknowledged the importance of Norfolk Island to Australia’s national heritage and the value of the traditions and culture of the Pitcairn descendants as part of a wider multicultural Australia. However, while the Norfolk Island community is unique in many ways, many of the issues that confront the people on Norfolk Island are similar to those that occur in regional towns of a similar size. Norfolk is relatively small, being inhabited by some 1,500 residents. The community is physically removed from the centre of power in Australia, geographically and also emotionally. The people of Norfolk are very far removed from Canberra. I feel some sympathy toward the people in relation to this. However, I understand that there are many on Norfolk Island who also yearn to have the same privileges and rights that all other Australians have. As the former Western Australian senator, the Hon. Ian Campbell, said when he was Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads in 2004:

… it is very important that people in a place like Norfolk Island who do not necessarily agree with that sort of received wisdom feel that they have got the right to pursue a different way of doing things.

In considering the need for electoral reform, it is important to bear in mind that the Australian parliament has the overarching responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens wherever they may live in the Federation—and, of course, that includes in our external territories. Indeed, this parliament has an obligation to ensure that all laws in Australian jurisdictions are consistent with the national obligations under international law. As has been previously noted about Norfolk Island, the constitutional status of the island is complex and unusual.

After the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, Norfolk Island was placed under the authority of the new Commonwealth government to be administered as an external territory. During World War II the island became a key air base in refuelling depots between Australia and New Zealand and between New Zealand and the Solomon Islands. Since Norfolk Island fell within New Zealand’s area of responsibility, it was garrisoned by a New Zealand army unit known as N Force at a large army camp that had the capacity to house 1,500 people. N Force relieved a company of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force which allowed them to go and campaign elsewhere. But the island proved to be too remote to come under attack during the war and N Force, the New Zealand garrison, left the island in February 1944.

In 1979 Norfolk Island was granted limited self-government by Australia under what they consider to be a proxy constitution where the island elects a government that runs most of the island’s affairs. As such, residents of Norfolk Island are not represented in the Commonwealth parliament, making them the only group of residents in an Australian state or territory not represented here. This bill makes radical changes to what had been put in place in 1979. The Territories Law Reform Bill 2010 will change radically the governance, electoral and financial administration of Norfolk Island. The changes are substantial and the way the island is governed will not be the same again if this bill is passed in its present form.

The bill in schedules 2 and 3 also revises a vesting section of the Christmas Island Act 1958 and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Act 1955. The bill makes significant changes to the governance, electoral and financial mechanisms for Norfolk Island. More specifically, these changes would allow the Governor-General and the responsible Commonwealth minister to take a more active role in the introduction and passage of Norfolk Island legislation, including provision for the Commonwealth minister to give directions in schedule 2 matters and to reserve schedule 2 matters for the Governor-General’s consideration. It also provides for the selection and prescribes the roles of the Chief Minister and other ministers, including by limiting the number of ministers that might be appointed, by allowing the removal of the Chief Minister by the Administrator in exceptional circumstances and by limiting the power to allocate ministerial portfolios to the Chief Minister.

The bill allows regulations to be made for a code of conduct for members of the Norfolk Island Public Service. Clearly, with a population of 1,500, the Norfolk Island Public Service is not an extensive organisation, and I will get to that a little later on. This bill also provides that regulations can be made for changes to the process for the election of the Legislative Assembly, provides for minimum and maximum fixed terms of the Legislative Assembly, and implements a contemporary financial management framework, including provision for contemporary guidelines for financial reporting, budgeting and auditing of the administration’s financial statements by the Commonwealth Auditor-General. It also allows for the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to operate on Norfolk Island and provide for merits review of decisions made by the Norfolk Island administration. Finally, it applies the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 and the Privacy Act 1988 to information held by the Norfolk Island government and its administration.

Schedules 2 and 3 amend the Christmas Island Act 1958 and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Act 1955. These amendments provide a vesting mechanism for powers and functions under Western Australian laws applied to those territories—powers and functions under Western Australian officers and authorities where an agreement with the Australian government exists for those officers and authorities to act in the territories.

Although the coalition supports this bill in principle, we do have some reservations, and of course the Norfolk Island government has previously expressed significant reservations about this bill. We in the opposition are specifically concerned about the increased bureaucratic processes that this bill entails, and we believe they will place in some circumstances an undue burden on Norfolk Island’s limited public service. I will detail these amendments shortly.

I want to go to the concerns that the Norfolk Island government have in the past expressed in relation to this bill. I do acknowledge—and I am sure the government will point this out when the minister makes his contribution—that the Norfolk Island government’s position has changed significantly since this bill was introduced. They did come and see us in Canberra and they expressed significant concerns about the bill taking away what they believed was their right to self-government. That situation has changed, but it has changed in conjunction with the fact that Norfolk Island has some significant financial difficulties and as a result the Commonwealth has them somewhat—to use the phrase—over a barrel, and they do now support the bill. This has been reiterated to me by the Norfolk Island government. They do now support this bill in its current form.

Notwithstanding that, the opposition still believe that it makes very little sense for us to inflict the full horror of Australian bureaucracy on an island of 1,500 people and we will seek to move what we believe are sensible amendments to at least allow the Norfolk Island administration to attempt to do some of the things in a way that might be more appropriate for an island of their size; specifically we would like to do that in relation to privacy provisions and the freedom of information regime.

Before going specifically to that I do want to acknowledge that, regardless of the fact that the Norfolk Island government have now changed their position, they did have some concerns with this bill in the past. Those concerns have been expressed very stridently to the joint standing committee which had a look into this legislation. Their concerns can be detailed in six different parts. The concerns were legitimate. We in the opposition did not support them all but it is important as a parliament that we acknowledge and give due respect to the Norfolk Island government by detailing the concerns that they have expressed in the past about this legislation.

Firstly, they believed that the legislation was going to lead to the erosion of their ability to self-govern. That is a right that they guard very jealously. The Norfolk Island government argued that their ability to manage schedule 2 matters was a fundamental part of their ability to self-govern. According to the Norfolk Island government, schedule 2 matters affect the internal machinery of their own government. Matters under schedule 2 include but are not limited to roads, street lighting, electricity supply, quarrying, tourism, firearms, housing, community and cultural affairs as well as matters incidental to or consequent on the examination of executive authority. In a previous letter the Chief Minister of Norfolk Island, Mr Buffett, noted that the addition of a veto power for matters pertaining to schedule 2 undermines the very principle that underlies the democratic rights of Norfolk Islander voters to govern themselves in relation to matters that are specific to Norfolk Island. The second concern that the Norfolk Island government had expressed was the ability for the Commonwealth to remove the Legislative Assembly. The Norfolk Island government argued that, to provide fair and equitable government, the ability to dissolve the assembly should only be available to the Governor-General, who would be able to, on advice from the administrator, appoint a caretaker government, as is the convention here in Australia.

The third issue they had raised as a concern was the issue of elections. The Norfolk Island government had previously agreed with the recommendation of the joint standing committee that this part of the bill be removed and further discussion and consultation be entered into. The fourth concern of the Norfolk Island administration in relation to this bill was that they largely did not agree with the financial proposals that are contained within it. They have expressed the view that these proposals would result in direct interference with the operation of the Norfolk Island government and they were particularly concerned with the obligations on employees of the Norfolk Island government to provide information not necessarily agreed to or vetted by the Norfolk Island government. They have expressed this in the past and they believed that this allowed the Commonwealth government to bypass the elected representatives of Norfolk Island and treats employees of the Norfolk Island government as if they were employees of the Commonwealth government.

The fifth issue that was raised relates to accountability processes. The island government had reservations about the method of implementation proposed by the bill for the Administrative Appeals Tribunals for privacy conditions and for the freedom of information provisions. As I mentioned previously, the coalition also believes that transposing the full bureaucratic Australian model, designed to cover our 22 million people, onto the people of Norfolk Island, which has a population of 1,500 people, really is taking the desire to standardise our laws to a ludicrous extreme. The Norfolk Island government had expressed their desire to implement a different model—and this is what the opposition continues to support—in relation to how they dealt with the Commonwealth Ombudsman being allowed to have an involvement in Norfolk Island matters, and that is that they would work with the Commonwealth on providing a model that was more appropriate for Norfolk Island—and in the past they had hoped that the Commonwealth would do that.

I had some discussions with the Australian government prior to the election. The Labor government did not seem to have any particular objections to this and, indeed, I did hope that we might be able to work with them on making these amendments. Clearly since the election they have changed their view and now they do not want to enter into those discussions and they insist that this bill be passed in its wholesale form, which I think is a shame because we might have been able to come to a different arrangement and so make these amendments redundant. But the government are not interested in doing that.

Finally, the sixth area of concern to the Norfolk Island government relates to the treatment of Norfolk Island deputies. The Norfolk Island government had concerns over the ability under the proposed bill for the responsible minister to appoint numerous deputies to the Administrator, and the Chief Minister had expressed the view directly that it had been identified that these deputies would be utilised in times of emergency, when the Administrator and the Official Secretary, who normally holds a dormant deputy commission, were not available. If this in fact was the case, the Norfolk Island government wanted this to be reflected in the bill to provide clarification of the deputies’ role.

Whilst acknowledging Norfolk Island’s traditions and culture as well as the concern felt by some islanders that these reforms did threaten the current government situation on Norfolk Island, both the Norfolk Island government and the islanders recognise, at least in principle, the need for reform. Of course now they support this bill in a different way, but that really relates specifically to the changed financial circumstances on the island whereby they are requiring Commonwealth assistance and, of course, the Commonwealth has said, ‘We’re happy to assist but only if this bill is supported’ and so that is now the position of the Norfolk Island government. But I do not think that we should have ever doubted that they had good intentions as to reforming the way that they govern Norfolk Island and that they were keen to work with the Commonwealth to find arrangements that they believed might have been more suitable for the way that Norfolk Island is governed.

We still believe that there is a chance for this parliament to ease some of the bureaucratic weight that this legislation entails and we will be moving amendments, as I foreshadowed, to the way that freedom of information applies to Norfolk Island and the way that the Norfolk Island public sector agencies will be required to adhere to information privacy principles. We will be doing this because freedom of information as it relates to the Commonwealth of Australia and privacy as it relates to the Commonwealth of Australia involves incredibly extensive legislation. It would place very significant burdens on the very limited administration of Norfolk Island and we do not believe that there is necessarily a case for such a small administration to be exposed to the full weight of this enormous bureaucratic undertaking, which I think would be the best way of putting it.

This bill does not need to extend the full gamut of Commonwealth FOI and privacy laws to Norfolk Island. No rationale has been supplied to this parliament as to why we should do that. There are the concerns of the Norfolk Island administration who, after all, are probably best placed to say what they believe is in Norfolk Island’s interests and they should not be brushed aside or ignored. We believe that the concerns that they have had in the past in relation to the ability of the island’s administration to be able to deal with such an enormous bureaucratic undertaking still stand and the opposition is going to move amendments that will allow the islanders to maintain flexibility in determining what they believe is an appropriate level of added bureaucracy for their island.

The amendments would allow the Norfolk Island government to legislate their own freedom of information and privacy principles and would give them the freedom of scope to decide what model best suits their needs. This is the approach that the Norfolk Island government have taken in their dealings with the Commonwealth in the past and it has been successful. Surely that is a better way rather than having the Commonwealth coming in and overriding the wishes of the Norfolk Island government, who were elected by the people of Norfolk Island to speak on their behalf. Surely it is better for the Commonwealth to sit down and try to work out a regime that best suits the island’s needs rather than for the Commonwealth to come out with this ‘one size fits all’ approach that says, ‘We’re going to override the wishes of the local community and we’re going to impose this enormous bureaucracy on Norfolk Island regardless of the wishes of its local community.’

We would prefer to see a much more pragmatic approach from this parliament. We believe that approach would be in the best interests of Norfolk Islanders themselves. So we do support the thrust of this bill, as has the government of Norfolk Island, but we do not believe that we should necessarily be imposing the full gamut of freedom of information legislation and privacy legislation. So we would urge this parliament to explore a way with the government of Norfolk Island by which we can find mechanisms that are more suitable for a territory of their size and population with obviously a limited administrative capacity for an administration that governs only 1,500 people. We think that is a sensible approach and I would commend that to the House.

7:29 pm

Photo of Gai BrodtmannGai Brodtmann (Canberra, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It has been most interesting listening to the member for Stirling on this issue and it is a great pleasure to speak today in support of the Territories Law Reform Bill 2010. It is also a great pleasure to speak about reform to the most remote part of my electorate, which is Norfolk Island. While this bill also addresses the way Western Australian laws apply to the Indian Ocean Territories, its main feature is Norfolk Island. As I said in my first speech, most people are aware of Norfolk Island’s rich history and language. They are also aware that Colleen McCullough lives there, that interesting pine trees grow there, that you need a passport to get there—which is quite amusing and I think Kate Lundy and I are probably the only people who actually need a passport to go to part of our electorate—and that it is also a great place for a holiday.

For most Australians, their knowledge of Norfolk Island would pretty much begin and end there. So they would not be aware that the island is in need of reform, and that is what this bill does. And they would not be aware that, even though Norfolk Island is part of the Commonwealth, part of Australia, its people do not enjoy the same privileges that most Australians now take for granted. This bill, which has been a long time in the making and long overdue, provides that. Norfolk Island has been the subject of many reviews over many years and this bill is the culmination of all that work. The bill amends the Norfolk Island Act 1979 to strengthen the island’s electoral, financial, governance and administration framework to ensure a more transparent, equitable and economically stable future for Norfolk Island. This is particularly important. Despite what was said before, the changes are not radical and they are supported by the Norfolk Island government, as the member of Stirling has pointed out to us just now. They also do not erode the Norfolk Island government’s ability to self-govern. Those powers are still there. What it does is strengthen a range of economic, financial and governance elements to ensure the future of Norfolk Island.

The bill provides a clearer approach for Norfolk Island’s administration. The bill provides a clearer understanding of Norfolk Island’s financial position. The bill articulates conventions and clarifies roles and responsibilities. The bill allows for greater Commonwealth oversight of Norfolk Island legislation to ensure compliance with our international obligations and other areas of national interest. The bill modernises Norfolk Island’s governance and harmonises it with the rest of Australia. The global financial crisis underscored the need for greater transparency in matters financial and regulatory and this bill brings a modern framework to the island—a modern framework that has been operating on mainland Australia for years, if not decades.

I have only been to Norfolk Island once and my visit was brief. It was earlier this year. But in that short time and since my election I have managed to get a very broad overview of the issues that are confronting the island and understand the need for reform. There needs to be reform in a number of areas. I am looking forward to going back there in December to attend a women’s forum with my colleague Senator Kate Lundy. The women on the island have a strong tradition of being opinionated and strong and I am really looking forward to getting the opportunity to meet with a number of them and talking to them about a range of social policy issues. I am sure the reform issue will also be discussed in those meetings. While Norfolk Island has had self-government for decades, these reforms will close the gap between the conditions we enjoy on mainland Australia—that we take for granted—and those experienced on the island.

For the benefit of the House I would like to take a moment to outline the complex and fascinating governance road that has led us to this point. Norfolk Island was not occupied when it was mapped by Captain Cook in 1774, although there was evidence of early Polynesian settlement. Between 1788 and 1814, and again between 1824 and 1855, the British used the island as a penal colony. In 1856, the descendants of the Bounty mutineers—the history is just fascinating—who had married Polynesian islanders agreed with the British government to move from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island, and the descendants of those seven families are still there today. Meeting them you really do feel as if you are touching the past—it is quite extraordinary. Going to the graveyards down on the beach where the penal colony used to be is also quite extraordinary, reaching back into history and having descendants of those people actually telling you about the history of their families.

Between 1856 and 1897, Norfolk Island was a separate British colony with its own governor, who also happened to be the Governor of New South Wales. In 1897, the Crown transferred administrative responsibility of the island to the colony of New South Wales and on 1 July 1914 the island became Australia’s second external territory under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia. But it was not until the mid-1970s, and following a royal commission into the future status of the island, that the Fraser government passed the quasi-constitutional Norfolk Island Act in 1979 and committed to self-government. The act enabled the territory to be self-governed and administered by an administrator with three essential functions. These are to represent the Crown, similar to a state Governor-General’s role; to represent the Commonwealth on the island and communicate between the federal government and the government of Norfolk Island; and to act in any specified statutory capacity as conferred by either the Norfolk Island government or the Commonwealth.

The act also establishes the Legislative Assembly of Norfolk Island and grants them powers to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the island, including laws to raise taxes and impose charges. It is an old hangover, but one of the reasons you need a passport is the old Customs Act. What we are suggesting here with the reforms is not in any way imposing on these powers; it is just reform and good governance. This means the assembly has the capacity to legislate for all things except coinage, the raising of a defence force, the acquisition of property on other than just terms and euthanasia.

Once the assembly enacts a law, the Norfolk Island government is equipped with broad executive powers and responsibilities to administer and enforce that law. That said, there have been several reviews and reports into the governance of Norfolk Island over recent years, arising from concerns that the island was falling behind the modern frameworks that apply on the mainland; hence this bill. Probably the most significant was the 2003 report of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories. As I said, this reform is long overdue and has been a long time in the making. It was seven years ago and we are just finally talking about this and hopefully getting it through now seven years later. The recommendations of this report were delayed by the Howard Government, and I welcome the Gillard Government’s commitment to progressing reform. Labor has a strong tradition of reform and this is just another one. What the report suggested was not a dramatic, radical, revolutionary change, as has been suggested, to the way things are done in Norfolk Island. Instead, the review advocated greater financial transparency. What is so radical about that— reform to the electoral system, improved auditing and reporting, and an extension of basic administrative rights, fundamental and tested aspects of good governance?

The bill largely relies on the joint committee’s recommendations and it will reform four key areas. The first is in the electoral sphere. The bill will create greater electoral stability, aid in the implementation of legislation and bring the Norfolk Island system more into line with the Westminster system. The bill introduces changes that will give greater certainty about when elections are held, with set minimum and maximum fixed terms; more clearly outline the roles, titles and responsibilities of elected representatives—for instance, executive members will now be called ministers; prescribe a process for selecting and dismissing a Chief Minister and ministers; entrench the separation of executive and non-executive positions by providing for a maximum number of ministers to ensure effective backbench scrutiny; and codify current practices. Just read this. This is really radical! The bill will also establish a no-confidence motion process for the Chief Minister and enable the making of regulations for changes to the electoral system.

The second key reform is in the area of financial management. The bill establishes a tailored financial framework to ensure responsible management of public money and property, preparation of budgets, financial reporting, annual reports and procurement. It appoints a Commonwealth Financial Officer for Norfolk Island to manage this framework. It clarifies the definitions of public money and public property of the territory—modelled on the FMA Act that applies here—and establishes a territory authority to provide a complete picture of the island’s financial position. It ensures the Norfolk Island finance minister prepares annual financial statements—a significant plank in any efficient and effective financial management—and it ensures the Commonwealth Auditor-General now conducts audits of Norfolk Island’s financial statements, which must be tabled in the Norfolk Island assembly.

The third key reform is in the area of governance. The bill allows the Norfolk Island Administrator to access a greater range of advice when presented with bills for assent to ensure consistency of compliance and it allows the Governor-General and the federal minister responsible for territories to take a more active role in the introduction and passage of Norfolk Island legislation.

The final reform is in the critical area of administration. The bill applies the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act to Norfolk Island to ensure a high-quality, independent merit review process. It applies the Freedom of Information Act to Norfolk Island, so now the people of Norfolk Island can enjoy the same right to access information that has applied here for decades. It ensures the Commonwealth Ombudsman assumes the function of the Norfolk Island Ombudsman under Norfolk Island legislation. It requires Norfolk Island public sector agencies to adhere to the information privacy principles in the same way as Australian government public sector agencies. It ensures Norfolk Island public servants adhere to a set of values. It has been suggested that a community of 1,500 will find this onerous to manage. There are government agencies that have only 1,500—small government agencies that are applying not just the FMA Act but a whole raft of Commonwealth legislation. They have not crumbled under the weight of that, so I find that whole notion hard to understand.

I welcome the Gillard government’s reforms to the governance, financial and electoral management and administration of Norfolk Island outlined in this bill, and I would like to thank the various members of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories that have reviewed Norfolk Island issues over the years—particularly for their patience in waiting all this time. These reforms continue the agenda that Labor has been rolling out in infrastructure, health, education, the economy and climate change. I would particularly like to thank the committee for consulting with the Norfolk Island community to inform their recommendations in a rigorous yet inclusive way. I know that some think the reforms go too far and others think they do not go far enough. Whatever the view, I am pleased the community has had a chance to have its say. I would also like to acknowledge my fellow Canberran Senator Kate Lundy for the great work she has done as a former chair of the committee. She did great work on this issue for a long time.

The Commonwealth has an ongoing responsibility to the Australian citizens of Norfolk Island. This bill is an important step in strengthening transparency and accountability to ensure the future good governance of Norfolk Island and continues the tradition of reform of Labor governments. I am particularly pleased that the Norfolk Island government recently came out in support of the passage of the bill. I congratulate Chief Minister David Buffett and the Norfolk Island government for recognising the need for reform. The government came out recently and supported the bill in toto. There were no particular elements that they said would be all too hard. This is an important step in ensuring Norfolk Island is a sustainable, just and equal part of Australia into the 21st century and I support this bill.

7:42 pm

Photo of Luke SimpkinsLuke Simpkins (Cowan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I certainly welcome this opportunity to make comments on this bill, the Territories Law Reform Bill 2010. It was a long time ago, back in 1979, that I travelled to and visited Norfolk Island. I think it was for around about 10 days. This is without doubt one of the most spectacular and beautiful places in Australia. It has at times rugged countryside but there is also the greenery and the norfolk pines. It is a spectacular place—a real oasis, in many ways, not too far from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is a long way from Australia. The beauty that is Norfolk Island belies the past and the white history of places like Kingston, where the penal colony was established. Although there is nothing more than cattle grazing there now, it is certainly the case that these places saw some of the great excesses of convict habitation and convict work. Back in 1979 on a school excursion we stayed not very far from Burnt Pine. One of the great joys of visiting Norfolk Island was just how friendly people were. As part of this school excursion we hired pushbikes for the whole time we were there and every time you went anywhere, if you were at the bottom of a hill, someone would stop and ask you whether you wanted to throw your bike in the back of the ute and carry on with a lift up the hill. It is a very nice place, a beautiful place with very nice and accommodating people. As I said, it is a real oasis.

It is also interesting to reflect a little on the history of Norfolk Island. Apart from the convict colony, they also had a terrible experience with the introduction of rabbits. Someone came up with the good idea, over 150 years ago, that if you introduced rabbits to a place called Phillip Island not far off the coast of Norfolk Island then that would be a great place to go hunting. Unfortunately, rabbits being rabbits they overtook the place. So now if you look out across the water across Kingston you can see a very brown and barren island. That was certainly my recollection of Phillip Island from those days.

But I do welcome this opportunity to talk on the Territories Law Reform Bill 2010 which, in the main, amends the Norfolk Island Act 1979 in order to implement significant reforms aimed at improving governance structures and strengthening the accountability mechanisms for Norfolk Island. And I welcome this opportunity as I have recently become the deputy chair of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories. Given that the vast majority of this bill concerns the external territory of Norfolk Island, I will contain my comments to the changes that this act will effect to that territory rather than comment on the more routine changes that the bill will enact with regard to Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

I sought a position on the joint committee because I have a longstanding interest in the territories, having lived in Canberra for around six years of my life when I was in the Army and before that with the Australian Federal Police. As I said, in 1979 I was part of a high school excursion that visited Norfolk Island, and I certainly look forward to returning to Norfolk and visiting the other external territories if the business of the committee should require it in this the 43rd Parliament. In the short term, however, after beginning to read into the work of the committee of the 42nd Parliament and being aware of issues in the past regarding governance of Norfolk Island, I appreciate the need for amending the Norfolk Island Act—although, as has been foreshadowed by the shadow minister, there is the need for minor amendments, which I wholeheartedly support.

Before speaking briefly on the bill itself, I would say, in support of the coalition’s amendments, that if we speak of governance and accountability, such a debate must include the extension of Freedom of Information Act application to Norfolk Island. That being said, a model that reflects the scale of the administration is more appropriately required. In the same way that the role of Commonwealth Ombudsman was embraced in their own legislation, Norfolk Island should seek and legislate for a model of freedom of information and privacy that does reflect the size of the island and the administration so that the bureaucracy is not vastly increased, and this is the point made in paragraph 1.3 of the committee’s recent report into the proposed legislation.

In terms of this bill itself I would like to address the proposed amendments that the bill foreshadows. In reading the 2010 committee report it is clear that there were significant concerns raised by observers and local people about the way in which the island was being governed, as well as concern about the power and influence being exerted at the time submissions were being received and evidence was being taken. Indeed, at footnote 17 in chapter 2 there is mention of fear and apprehension holding back residents who wanted to make submissions. The committee found:

It has become increasingly clear that beneath the surface, informal mechanisms are being allowed to operate with impunity. The Committee is aware of growing community concern over the activities of these elements.

The committee also expressed concern about such a negative culture—one that has been referred to as ‘the Norfolk way’—which is equated as similar to ‘the Pacific way’. We need to be very careful that a particular way by which things are done locally should not constitute an excuse for corrupt practices, favouritism and nepotism.

It is good to see this bill come before the House. Clearly the joint standing committee in its report also saw the need for significant governance, financial and administrative reforms, and this bill now brings those amendments to this parliament.

I will now take the opportunity to speak of the amendments that relate to schedule 1 of the bill. Firstly, under clause 14 of the bill, the matter of termination of the position of Chief Minister and other ministers is covered. In particular, clause 14A states that the Administrator can dismiss the Chief Minister if, in the Administrator’s opinion, there are exceptional circumstances that justify that action. That power is pretty similar to the existing powers of the Governor-General for the national government. I have read the submission by the Norfolk Island government where they object to that change, yet it is really working to the same principles that the rest of Australia adheres to. But I also note that the bill provides for the ability of the responsible Commonwealth minister to appoint deputy administrators for Norfolk Island. Again, this is a change that I support, and it will provide the federal government, and specifically the responsible minister, with the ability to react to the needs of the population of this territory of Australia.

In reading through the bill I would particularly like to note the additions to the Norfolk Island Act that relate to division 2, regarding financial management and accountability. Clause 48A will require the appropriation of annual budgets by the island’s finance minister and they will need to be in accordance with the Commonwealth’s orders and regulations and provided to the responsible Commonwealth minister. Again, I fully support the amendment contained in the bill, even while I understand that the Norfolk Island government is not particularly happy about it.

Similarly, the other amendments include, under clause 48B, the need for financial statements; under clause 48C, the auditing of those statements; and other subclauses of clause 48 that will improve the accountability and the performance of the Norfolk Island government and administration. Indeed, even the section 51 amendments contained in this bill require the Commonwealth be kept informed and, from what I have read, these changes appear to be appropriate at this time. This clearly represents the establishment of a customised and proportionate financial framework which provides for the responsible management of public money and public property and for the preparation of budgets, financial reporting, annual reports and procurement. I should also mention that this includes the appointment by the Commonwealth of a Commonwealth financial officer for Norfolk Island should the position be required.

This bill will also allow the Norfolk Island Administrator to access a greater range of advice when presented with bills for assent under schedule 2 of the Norfolk Island Act. It will allow the Governor-General and the minister responsible for territories to take a more active role in the introduction and passage of Norfolk Island legislation. It will reform the voting system for the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly and provide more certainty about when elections are to be held. It will also allow access, under certain situations, to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act, which will confer on the AAT merit review jurisdiction for specified decisions under Norfolk Island legislation.

Before concluding I would like to speak about the freedom of information and privacy amendments to the bill proposed by the shadow minister, the member for Stirling. I support these amendments and note what the Norfolk Island government said in their first supplementary submission, submission 6.1, to the committee. The submission raises the issues of when and how the Norfolk Island public sector could cope with implementing an FOI system. What is therefore required is the ability to access documents and information that are in the public interest. The coalition’s amendments would enable the Norfolk Island government to determine in their own legislation the model which best suits their needs. Clearly, the Commonwealth must look at this in the future to ascertain that the system fits the needs of the population.

From what I have read of Norfolk Island’s governance, financial and overall administrative arrangements, there is a need for reform. It is clearly a widely held but not unanimous view that the existing arrangements are not serving the best interests of all residents of the island. It would appear that there are some people on the island who seek to preserve existing arrangements that favour a select few groups, rather than seeking to ensure that self-government arrangements are completely open, accountable and work for the whole population. Critics of the legislation suggest that it is an attack on self-government. I do not see that in the analysis. This legislation is about good and effective government which is in the interests of everyone on Norfolk Island. I support this bill with the amendments as stated by the member for Stirling. I also look forward to having an opportunity as part of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories to assess the implementation of these legislative changes, which, I am sure, will lead to much more effective government for Norfolk Island.

All laws are capable of being amended, and in the future Norfolk Island can expect visits by representatives of this government and this parliament, by ministers and, most certainly, by the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories. Fundamentally, the Commonwealth will want to be assured that Norfolk Island shares the same governance, financial, administrative and electoral standards as the rest of Australia. If that is the case, then the laws may not need to be amended in the future, but if it is not the case then maybe they will need to be amended.

In conclusion, from my limited visit to Norfolk Island of about 10 days back in 1979 and from what I have read, I see that there is a lot for the people of Norfolk Island to be very proud of. It is a beautiful island and a beautiful environment, but we, the Commonwealth parliament, need to be certain that the interests of all members of the Norfolk Island community are properly looked after and that there are accountability and governance that are working for the whole population and not for any special interest groups. In the future, we will have an opportunity to continue to look at Norfolk Island to make sure that what this legislation intends is achieved. I look forward to participating as the deputy chair of the committee and to working with my colleagues on both sides of parliament to make sure that Norfolk Island is as good as it can be.

7:57 pm

Photo of Teresa GambaroTeresa Gambaro (Brisbane, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Citizenship and Settlement) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to speak on the Territories Law Reform Bill 2010. Norfolk Island would have to be one of the most beautiful parts of the world. It is one of Australia’s most geographically isolated communities as well as being one of its oldest territories. It has an incredible history. We have heard various contributions today about the early days and the colonies of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, and New South Wales, and also of the very proud history of Norfolk Island, particularly that of the Pitcairn descendants. They form a very strong part of Australia’s heritage and culture.

Norfolk Island has had a very long history. It is very progressive: in 1838 it gave women over the age of 18 the vote. It has very strong cultural ties which are very distinct from Australia and has its own language. There has been a great deal of history, particularly its convict past. Many of the roads were built by convicts. There are thousands of native trees, as well as lemon and guava trees. In the old days there were a chief magistrate and jury running the island.

Islanders have also had a rather lackadaisical taxation system, one which would probably be the envy of most countries. They have to give one week’s labour out of seven months to any public works that need to be done. They also have a unique system of accepting anyone who becomes a permanent resident. They have to be pretty much prescribed by two-thirds of anyone over 20 who can read and write and have to be accepted by the whole community.

I have not had the opportunity to visit Norfolk Island, but from those whom I have spoken to about Norfolk Island there is one thing that is universally agreed upon: its beauty and its unspoilt nature. It is one of the most beautiful islands. I hope to some day get the opportunity to travel to Norfolk Island and meet with some of the locals but also to learn a little bit about this proud and wonderful history. I know that the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories has done so.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 34. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for a later hour.