Bankrupt former penal colony Norfolk Island battles to keep its autonomy

Norfolk Island, a small volcanic outcrop in the Pacific Ocean, has always jealously guarded its way of life. There are no traffic lights on the island, cows have right of way and the local phone book lists the 2,000 or so residents by their nicknames.

But the former British penal colony, now an external territory of Australia, is facing a threat to its cherished independence. Canberra wants a bigger role in the affairs of the largely self-governing island, and the island's population – many of them descendants of the Bounty mutineers – are battling to resist the changes. To add to their woes, the territory is also going broke.

For the past 30 years Norfolk, a speck of land 900 miles east of Brisbane, has enjoyed substantial autonomy. A chief minister heads a nine-member legislative assembly, with four ministers determining policy on almost everything bar defence and foreign affairs.

Recently though, the Australian government has signalled its determination to overhaul the island's system of governance. A bill now before federal parliament would give Canberra powers to appoint and dismiss ministers and introduce its own legislation into the assembly.

Locals – who speak their own language, a blend of 18th-century English and Tahitian – have accused the government of trying to reimpose colonial-style controls.

But according to the island's opposition leader, Mike King, Norfolk is fast running out of money. As of last June, its reserves were down to A$220,000 (£136,261).

In a letter to Canberra, Mr King wrote: "The conclusion is inescapable: there is now no liquidity remaining whatsoever and government is surviving on a day-to-day basis, by deferring creditors and utilising forward-travel booking funds."

Eleven shops have closed in Burnt Pine, the island's compact commercial centre, while other businesses have laid off staff.

"There is widespread financial hardship accelerating out of control," wrote Mr King, whose letter was quoted yesterday in The Australian newspaper.

Popular with Australians and New Zealanders, who are drawn by the scenic cliffs and beaches and the imposing convict-era stone buildings, Norfolk is heavily reliant on tourism. But visitor numbers have slumped in recent times and other key sources of income, such as Norfolk Air, the the island's airline, are losing millions of dollars a year.

A bailout is unlikely to happen unless the island agrees to Canberra's reforms. And that is anathema to many residents, who fear Norfolk's status will be reduced to that of a shire council.

Patricia Magri, the school librarian, recalls a time when schoolchildren who spoke the Norfolk patois – a mixture of 18th-century English, Tahitian and Low German – were "told off for speaking gibberish" by their Australian teachers. The Chief Minister, David Buffett, says of the parliamentary bill: "It is almost back to the colonial system."

In the early 19th century, Norfolk – a brutal site of incarceration for the very worst convicts – was known as "hell in the Pacific". The governor of New South Wales at the time, Sir Thomas Brisbane, said: "The felon who is sent there is forever excluded from all hope of return."

In 1856, Norfolk was settled by descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives, who had outgrown their original haven, Pitcairn Island. Nowadays the Pitcairners make up about half of the population; mutineers' surnames such as Christian and Adams remain common.

A place of softly rolling hills and farmland, sprinkled with the statuesque pines that give the island its name, Norfolk has many quirks.

Seatbelts are optional, the speed limit is 30mph and there are no numbered houses. Television arrived only in 1987, and mobile phones in 2006.

As recently as the 1970s, the island had only dirt roads and the electricity supply was erratic.

The image of a tranquil Pacific paradise was shattered in 2002, when the body of Janelle Paton, a young Australian woman, was found dumped at a picnic spot – police recorded more than 60 different injuries on her body.

It was the first murder on Norfolk Island since convict times, 150 years earlier. A New Zealander, Glenn McNeill, was convicted of her murder in 2007 and sentenced to 24 years in prison. He is serving his sentence in a Sydney jail.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing boutique prac...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?