Wednesday, 14 February 2018
Statements by Senators
Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia
I want to briefly mention two hidden gems of Australia, and they are the Indian Ocean territories of Christmas and Cocos islands. But before I do that, I want to mention another island, which is dear to the hearts of many Australians, and that is the island of Tonga in the Pacific. Mr Acting Deputy President, you would be aware that there has been quite a severe cyclone through Tonga, Cyclone Gita, category 4, which has caused widespread destruction of Tonga, including the destruction of their parliament house—where I had the privilege to lead an Australian parliamentary delegation late last year. Whilst so far there are no reported deaths, there have been reports of three people being injured and up to 40 per cent of homes damaged.
As one who has lived through a few cyclones myself, I know the horror of being in the path of the eye of the cyclone, which the people of Tonga have experienced. I know the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is on standby to provide help, including military assistance and humanitarian supplies. I want to extend my best wishes to all of the people of Tonga, particularly the parliamentarians, and I met with a lot of them, including the Prime Minister. I certainly hope that the recovery is speedy for the people of that nation.
On almost the other side of the earth are the islands of Christmas and Cocos. Both were originally British protectorates of some form, but since the 1970s, following their own decision, they became part of Australia and part of the Indian Ocean territories of Australia. Recently, I was privileged again to attend on Christmas and Cocos islands—after an absence of 18 years—with the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, which is conducting an inquiry into tourism matters in the north of Australia. That committee will no doubt, in due course, report on its findings in relation to its specific brief of tourism potential and opportunities on Christmas and Cocos islands.
I will say in passing—I don't want to pre-empt anything that the committee will report on to parliament later on—that they are both unique islands. They are a bit expensive to get to, and a bit difficult to get to, but for Australians who have been everywhere, they certainly should put Christmas and Cocos islands on their bucket list because they are both magnificent islands. They are both quite different, but in their own way are wonderful places within Australia. I say to those who are looking for something different, you should make plans to visit Cocos and Christmas islands.
I won't go into the issues of transport, cargo and those sorts of things, which the committee will report on in due course, but I do want to mention some other things which still need some attention from the Australian government. A long time ago, I used to be the minister for territories and used to spend a lot of time on both islands. I have to say, 18 or so years later, the issues really haven't changed much, and the difficulties that people who live on those islands experienced are still there.
Christmas Island is made up of a population of about 2,000 people, I think. About 60 per cent are of Chinese descent, about 20 per cent are of Malay descent and the rest are Australians or others. On Cocos Island, most of the population are Cocos Malays, who were brought out by the Clunies-Ross family almost a century ago, to what were then uninhabited islands, to conduct copra operations on the island. They are great examples of multiculturalism and how people from all faiths and backgrounds live together peacefully. In fact, the way of life on those islands is an attraction to many of the tourists we came across there. Many people from Muslim countries go to those islands because they feel safe there. There's great cooperation and friendship and welcoming from all of the people of both islands to any visitors.
Christmas Island has its issues. The phosphate mine that's been going there for a long time is about to run out—the lease of the mines is coming to an end. The company is trying to extend that for five years. There is, of course, opposition from those who believe that the natural environment will be impacted upon. But it's something that I think probably should be given a final five years to provide employment for the people on Christmas Island. Until such time as another source of employment can be found, that is one of the few things that gainfully employs people on the island. On that basis, there's the old Christmas Island casino, which many will remember operated in the late 1980s, as I recall. When I was a minister in the late 1990s, the casino had shut down because of some action taken by the then Indonesian government. The licence was taken away. But there is a renewed attempt to get that casino going again. The promoters believe that they could attract a huge clientele from Indonesia and South-East Asia. As long as it doesn't cost the Australian government anything, I would be a great supporter of it, as I was years ago when I was the minister. I would hope that the Australian government will look seriously at renewing the casino licence as it will provide much-needed accommodation and even more-needed employment for many of the residents of Christmas Island. Land release is a real issue on Christmas Island in particular. During our visit I was pleased to catch up with the relatively new administrator, Natasha Griggs, who is doing a wonderful job there—very professional. It was good to catch up with her and see the respect with which she's held by the local people.
Moving on to Cocos Island, there are a number of issues. It is a wonderful island—a coral atoll—a really magical place. The airstrip there was important back in the old days of the kangaroo route, when the planes landed on Cocos as they hopped across from Australia to London. And, of course, during the war it was a very significant military base. It was often said to be Australia's only aircraft carrier, in that you could land aircraft in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It needs upgrading. Fortunately, the government's white paper indicated that funding would be set aside for the upgrading of that airstrip. Upgrading it will not only help our defence and military personnel but it will allow Virgin to fly in bigger and different planes, which will help travel to there. Accommodation on Cocos has improved much in the last 20 years, but it is still only relatively tiny. The availability of land is an issue. But a lot of people are looking at new resorts and new investment there.
There's also a very interesting story about the Clunies-Ross family. I caught up again with John Clunies-Ross, who I have known for many years. He's an interesting fellow and it was good to see him again and relive some of the history of Cocos. One bit of history I wasn't aware of concerned the survivors from the German ship Emden, which was sunk by HMAS Sydney in the First World War. They came to Direction Island in the Cocos group and then stole a boat of the Clunies-Rosses', took it back to Germany and came back there as heroes. But some artefacts have recently been found in the Western Australian Museum, and there's now a little bit of a contest about who actually owns the artefacts, which are the spoils of war. They are two islands that I recommend many Australians should try to get to during their lifetimes.