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Residents of a tiny Australian island are calling for a return to self-rule to save their culture

On the lawns of Norfolk Island’s old government building, a solitary green tent stands in daily defiance of Australian rule. Signs around the tent embassy emphatically highlight the long-simmering frustrations among a sizable portion of the community here.

Painted in the island’s colors of green and white, one placard reads ‘Du We Give Up, We Gwen Win’ in the traditional Norfolk language. The translation: ‘If we don’t give up, we will win’. Another reads ‘Norfolk under Siege’ in English. In the town center on this eight-by-five-kilometer island, a field of green hands – each hand-painted and signed by a different community member – also serves as a symbolic demand for self-determination.

“If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say 90 percent of our identity is gone,” says Leah Honeywood, a seventh-generation Norfolk Islander. Her lineage traces back to the first permanent settlers in the former penal colony. With a population of 1,700 people, Norfolk Island has a rich, unique culture, language, and colorful history.

If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say 90 percent of our identity is gone.

– Leah Honeywood, Norfolk Islander

Australian island

In 1855, Queen Victoria granted Norfolk Island to the Pitcairn Islanders, descendants of the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty. A year later, 163 men, women, and children were settled there.

As tears well around her eyes, Leah claims the legacy of her ancestors has been devastated in recent years.

Leah Honeywood claims the legacy of her ancestors, Norfolk Island’s first settlers, has been eroded since the external territory lost its right to self-rule.

SBS News/Omar Dehen

“They worked so hard and for so long to become a people and a race, and someone has obliterated that in five years.” “What’s changed is the Australian government has come in here and imposed their governance and rules, and things like that just don’t apply to Norfolk.

Island History

Britain transferred Norfolk Island to Australia in 1914, just before World War One. The island quickly instilled its own democratically elected Legislative Assembly, funding its services, while Australia retained ultimate sovereignty and final approval of proposed laws. In 1979, it became Australia’s first non-mainland territory to be granted limited self-rule.

But the picturesque island, which is crucially reliant on tourism, fell into economic turmoil after the 2007 Global Financial Crisis. Its chief minister stunned locals two years later when he agreed to surrender the island’s self-governing status to Australia for a bailout.

The most controversial decision came in 2015 when Canberra ultimately abolished the Legislative Assembly and appointed its administrator. The New South Wales Government manages services, including health, education, and police, in return for federal government funding. Queensland is now in negotiations to take over when the NSW contract expires.

Since the transfer, Norfolk Island’s 1,000 registered voters have been added to the electorate of Bean in the ACT.

Norfolk Island sits 1,700 km northeast of Sydney.

SBS News/Omar Dehen

A former finance minister on Norfolk Island, Ron Ward, says the island was running at an annual deficit of approximately $3 million a year following the GFC. He accuses the Australian government of “unnecessary … economic warfare against the island”.

“We have no say in anything being decided for us.”

“Ex-pat workers and departmental staff in Canberra decide everything. It’s a most unsatisfactory way of running a place.”

We have no say in anything that is being decided for us.

– Ron Ward, Norfolk Islander

Before Australia stepped in, a non-binding referendum 2015 saw 68 percent of islanders vote to keep self-rule. A ‘Norfolk Island People for Democracy Movement’ has been growing ever since and, with the support of local elders, took its fight to the United Nations.

Since 2016 the movement has appealed to the UN and Human Rights Council to add Norfolk Island to its non-self-governing territories. A ruling is yet to be handed down.

Molly Aronson

I'm an award-winning blogger who enjoys all things creative but is especially passionate about lifestyle design. I blog over at mehlogy.com I love that I get to share my passion for healthy living, fashion, fitness, and travel with readers from all over the world.

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