ALEX SLOAN: Mr Paul Fletcher, good to talk to you.
PAUL FLETCHER: Thanks Alex.
ALEX SLOAN: If I can start with democracy, the evolution of self-government means that this year Norfolk Islanders, under Australian compulsory voting laws, will vote in the Lower House for the seat of Canberra and for the ACT in the Senate. So does this make sense in any way?
PAUL FLETCHER: Well it does makes sense, because the people of Norfolk Island are citizens of Australia and so they will now have voting arrangements that align with those of people around Australia. So for example, in our other external territories, residents of those territories are on the electoral roll in one of the mainland electorates. And of course, what we are also seeing as a result of these changes is that there will be a council on Norfolk Island – the Norfolk Island Regional Council – that will operate under broadly the same rules as apply to councils in New South Wales. It will have broadly the same range of powers. So the same democratic rights that are available to Australians elsewhere will be available to the citizens of- to Australians who live on Norfolk Island.
ALEX SLOAN: How will that – because the claims from Norfolk Islanders about that model of governance is that the New South Wales Local Government Act hasn’t been utilised for regional councils and they’re unsure of how this is going to work for them.
PAUL FLETCHER: Well look, they’re- obviously it’s a change from the current arrangements. Let’s just remind ourselves what happened there, and I had the chance to see this for myself when I visited Norfolk Island in January, met with a lot of people on the island. We had a community meeting with over 300 people there; it went for an hour and three quarters. We discussed a whole range of these issues. Now the issue is that Norfolk Island has had self-government since 1979, but it’s become clear over really quite a number of years that the level of services available to people on Norfolk Island are not the same as are available in the rest of Australia. So in a similarly isolated community on the mainland, people, for example, have access to Centrelink, they have access to the Age Pension, to Disability Support, to Newstart Allowance. They have access to Medicare. Now, on Norfolk, today for example, the healthcare system is Norfolk-specific. There’s an insurance scheme that’s specific to Norfolk Island. Most people now will no longer have to pay premiums under that scheme; they’ll have the benefit of Medicare. So that is just one of a number of ways in which people are going to be better off as a result of these changes, and that in turn is why there was bipartisan support for these changes when legislation went through the Australian Parliament last year.
ALEX SLOAN: Three quarters of Norfolk Islanders said they didn’t want self-government to be abolished in a vote there. Have we just been lazy? At a recent seminar at the University of Canberra, attended by a Norfolk Islander, including Chris Nobbs who spoke on my program, they pointed to New Zealand models of governments for external territories, particularly Niue and the Cook Islands, and these models allow the right of self-determination by the people living there. Why not explore these models, rather than just cancel out their rights to vote? Or their rights to self-govern, to self-determination.
PAUL FLETCHER: It’s a question of giving people living on Norfolk Island the same rights as are available elsewhere in Australia and using the same model as is used, for example, on Christmas Island and on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and other external territories.
ALEX SLOAN: There are complaints about that as well, but let’s just concentrate on Norfolk Island. Why not explore these other models of governance?
PAUL FLETCHER: Well because the model that we are introducing is consistent with the models used on other Australian external territories, and is the model best placed to deliver services to the 1500 people who live on Norfolk Island.
ALEX SLOAN: But isn’t it just colonisation?
PAUL FLETCHER: No. No, it’s not colonisation at all, because Norfolk Island is a territory of Australia, has been for many, many years. What it’s about is delivering to people on Norfolk Island the services that people expect from government: Medicare, Age Pension, Newstart. And the modelling makes it clear that people are going to be better off. The economic modelling that the Government’s done shows that there’s going to be a 14 per cent increase in what’s called gross territory product, in other words economic activity across the island. Yes, people will now be paying Australian tax, but the social security payments going onto the island of about $4.9 billion will more than offset the tax which is paid. So ultimately it’s about whether the people living on Norfolk Island get the same services that people elsewhere in Australia would expect.
ALEX SLOAN: But Minister Fletcher, why are you not sounding like a colonial master saying this is going to be good for you, trust me, don’t worry that you’re not involved in the consultation or the negotiation? This is coming from someone in Canberra.
PAUL FLETCHER: I think the premise that the people of Norfolk Island have not been involved in consultation is really… that is not what’s happened.
ALEX SLOAN: Because that’s the complaint. The complaint is this was imposed by us from politicians in Canberra. This is not what we want; we’re now very unhappy about it. Including freedom of speech: the people for Norfolk Island democracy have been banned from the radio station. Any notice that is run on that radio station has to be first vetted by a Commonwealth public servant. What’s going on there? That’s a real freedom of speech issue.
PAUL FLETCHER: The radio station is obviously an important forum for people to be able to speak about issues of concern on Norfolk Island. I had the chance to be interviewed myself when I was there in January. Certainly, there was plenty of probing scrutiny, as you would expect, as any politician would expect appearing on radio anywhere across the country.
ALEX SLOAN: But the people for Norfolk Island democracy are banned from that radio station.
PAUL FLETCHER: Look, the… important issue here is that the Government of Australia has responsibility for the welfare of the people of Norfolk Island, as it does for the welfare of people all around the rest of Australia, and so this reform process is being undertaken because the services that have been available to people on Norfolk Island have demonstrably fallen behind services in other parts of Australia.
PAUL FLETCHER: And yes, there are some people on Norfolk Island who prefer the way things have been, those people put their views to me very forcefully at the community meeting I attended in January. At the same time, it’s the assessment of the democratically elected government of Australia that this is the best thing to do for Norfolk Island …
ALEX SLOAN: But you’re invoking democracy there but then you’re denying democracy of the Norfolk Islanders who three quarters of them voted last year in a plebiscite to say we don’t want to have our right to self-government taken away but that was ignored.
PAUL FLETCHER: The changes that the Australian Government is introducing do reflect extensive consultation on Norfolk Island over many years, including, for example, extensive investigation by the Committee of the Australian Parliament which oversees Norfolk Island and many other government processes. So, ultimately the responsibility of the Australia Government is to deliver services and meet the needs of people of Australia wherever they happen to live, including Norfolk Island.
ALEX SLOAN: But was that consultation with Commonwealth bureaucrats?
PAUL FLETCHER: Not at all, not at all. There’s been very extensive consultation with the people of Norfolk Island, that’s why I went there in January this year, that’s why my predecessor minister Jamie Briggs went there last year, that’s why, for example, Senator for the ACT, Zed Seselja was there earlier this year, that’s why the Labor Member for Canberra who will become the Member representing the people of Norfolk Island and already informally represents a number of them has been many times. So there’s been extensive engagement with the people of Norfolk Island. There is an interim council now led by …
ALEX SLOAN: And the governance of that is still very unclear.
PAUL FLETCHER: And – well there are five people appointed to inform the Australian Government and the administration of Norfolk Island and within a few short weeks there will be an election of the Norfolk Island Regional Council so that we can have locally elected people on the council as we have throughout Australia governed under New South Wales law.
ALEX SLOAN: Minister Paul Fletcher is with me this afternoon. I believe one of the big issues today on Norfolk Island is the future of the hospital with fears that it could be downgraded to a health centre. Is there any argument or thoughts along the line of privatising healthcare on Norfolk Island and also privatising the pharmacy?
PAUL FLETCHER: Look, there’s a lot of work going on, on what is the best model to provide healthcare on Norfolk Island and the issues that arise there are the same as arise in isolated communities all around Australia, including our other external territories but also isolated. For example, Indigenous communities, communities all throughout Australia. Now, it’s important to understand that the operating theatre in the hospital has not been used for several years, in other words it’s not a hospital today that is able to provide operations.
The model that is proposed is what’s called a multipurpose service. So, there’ll be general practitioners available, there’ll be aged care services, allied health professionals and of course the capacity to medivac people who need acute care to mainland hospitals. So, this is a well-established care model which is used in isolated communities all around Australia. We’re working through right now who the provider is going to be and we’ll have more to say about this.
ALEX SLOAN: And what right will Norfolk Islanders have in saying how they want their health services delivered, what opportunity will there be for them?
PAUL FLETCHER: Obviously the views of Norfolk Islanders will be important and Norfolk Islanders will be consulted. But at the same time the Commonwealth Government has a responsibility to deliver services and of course …
ALEX SLOAN: So the decision will be made in Canberra.
PAUL FLETCHER: Well, the decision will be made by the democratically elected government as is the case for a whole range of services for people all around Australia. So, the people of Norfolk Island have the benefit of services provided by the Commonwealth Government, they’ll have their local council once its elected and then in terms of state services, because there is no state level of government, then it’s incumbent on the Commonwealth to make alternative arrangements, so for example, the New South Wales Education Department today provides education services at the school under a contract between the Commonwealth Government and the New South Wales Government and so in relation to education, in relation to health and other services, the Commonwealth is responsible for delivering those services, we’ll make arrangements as to how to do that obviously in consultation with community members.
ALEX SLOAN: And just finally, Paul Fletcher, it’s been put to me, at the heart of this is how we, as a great democracy, and we’re going through a great festival, perhaps a 2 July double dissolution election, certainly a fixed term election in the ACT, how we as a great democracy feel it’s okay to return Norfolk Island to a colonial status.
PAUL FLETCHER: Look, I vigorously reject that characterisation. This is about ensuring that Australians who live on Norfolk Island get the same services as people anywhere else in Australia. The evidence is clear that the self-government arrangements have led to people on Norfolk Island not having the same standard of services as Australians everywhere expect and as the years have gone on, that’s become a situation which is increasingly…
ALEX SLOAN: But could another model have been explored, has …
PAUL FLETCHER: … so this is a model which has been developed to give people of Norfolk Island the services that they are entitled to and rightly expect as Australians and as Australians anywhere else would rightly expect.
ALEX SLOAN: So you’re comfortable with …
PAUL FLETCHER: I am comfortable. I think this is an important reform, I don’t think it’s an accident that there is bipartisan support for it because as Commonwealth politicians, whichever side of the political spectrum we’re on, we can look at the level of service presently delivered in Norfolk Island and readily conclude that people on Norfolk Island are not getting today the same level of service as Australians elsewhere and that needs to be fixed and we’re fixing it.
ALEX SLOAN: Minister Paul Fletcher, I do appreciate your time today, thank you so much.
22 Mar 2016