The island – roughly halfway between Australia and New Zealand – had been governed by its legislative assembly since 1979, until the Australian government’s decision in 2015 to revoke its autonomy. Australian federal and state laws are now enforced and islanders are now entitled to Medicare and other government services. Travelling between the island and Australia no longer requires a passport.
The legal challenge lodged with the UN’s office of the high commissioner for human rights includes a report from an Australian linguistics expert, Prof Peter Mühlhäusler, who found Norfolk Islander’s have a distinct ethnicity, culture and language.
“Intermarriages with mainland Australians and Australian assimilation policies have not significantly weakened the distinctiveness of the Norfolk Islanders of Pitcairn descent,” the report found.
“The literature surveyed as well as field notes, taken over 21 years, confirm the Norfolk Islanders of Pitcairn ancestry remain a genetic isolate. The Norfolk Islanders are distinct from mainland Australians with regard to all parameters that define ethnicity: homeland, shared ancestry, cultural narrative and cultural core values.”
Robertson is representing Albert Fletcher Buffett, an Indigenous inhabitant of Norfolk Island. The complaint states that because of Norfolk Island’s previous anomalous position – neither a part of Australia nor a state in the federal system – there are no remedies for its roughly 1,700 people in constitutional or public law.
“The government has commandeered the radio station and closed the maternity wing of the hospital – an insidious step to deter births on the island and force women to give birth in Australia,” the complaint states. “Already, war memorial commemorative events have been instructed to play the doggerel Australian anthem, Advance Australia Fair, in preference to God Save the Queen or the Indigenous anthem.
“A particularly cruel result of the recolonisation has been to take away from Norfolk Islanders the long-standing enjoyment of their identity at international and regional political and cultural organisations, and potentially at sporting events.”
The minister for territories and local government, John McVeigh, said the Australian government was aware of the complaint but had not seen it and “therefore the Australian Government is not in a position to comment specifically about that matter”.
“Norfolk Island has been an integral part of Australia since 1914 and the Coalition government is keen to continue working with the community to deliver services and infrastructure,” he said.
“Since June 2015, the government has taken steps to improve services to the Norfolk Island community, strengthen governance arrangements and invest in the local economy. In the year following the introduction of Medicare on Norfolk Island, local GP visits increased by 60%, demonstrating a huge unmet need for GP services. This increased demand is a good sign that people are accessing the services they need.”