The Monthly : 2018-12-01

FRONT PAGE : 20 : 20


18 Norfolk’s choice erected his tent on April 27, 2016 alongside the Georgian building where the legislativ­e assembly once met, and has spent most days since under the awning surrounded by leaflets, posters, visitors’ messages and all the other detritus of activism. A bearded, weather-beaten patriarch, he argues his case to travellers, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, while his wife, Mollie, silently produces cake and cups of tea. “We had a referendum in 2015 in which 68 per cent voted for a say in their own future,” he says. “But since then that figure has grown to probably 80 per cent.” What he calls “the takeover” has left many islanders struggling with their mortgages alongside the new requiremen­ts to pay Australian income tax. They must now pay land duties on previously untaxed ancestral properties; some find themselves ineligible for pensions they’d received under Norfolk’s own welfare system. Sanderson is also aghast at the Commonweal­th administra­tor referring to locals as “Australian­s living on Norfolk Island” rather than “Norfolk Islanders”. For, as a nearby sticker explains, “Australian history is not Norfolk History” – and the ruins of the old convict settlement a few hundred metres from the tent embassy underscore the point. Arthur Phillip dispatched colonists to Norfolk Island as soon as the First Fleet arrived at Port Jackson. The British coveted its flax and timber, but they also knew, as Sir John Call from the Royal Society had argued in 1784, that “This Island has an Advantage … by not being inhabited, so that no injury can be done by possessing it to the rest of Mankind.” Yet today’s islanders trace their origins neither to the settlement of 1788 nor to the second penal colony establishe­d in 1824, but to a decision to use Norfolk – empty after convict transporta­tion ended – as a home for the descendant­s of the mutineers. In 1789, Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian and about half of the 40-man crew overpowere­d Commanding Lieutenant William Bligh and seized the ship, which had just travelled to Tahiti in search of breadfruit. The British government set about hunting down the mutineers, eventually hanging from the yardarm three of the men recaptured in Tahiti. But nothing was heard of the rest of Christian’s party until 1808, when American whalers discovered the John Adams living in a community on isolated and minuscule Pitcairn Island. By then, the mood in Britain had changed. No one much cared about Adams’ inconsiste­nt accounts of his shipmates’ fate (they all died, including Christian it seems, in violent squabbles over the women they’d kidnapped from Tahiti). Instead, Adams’ apparent religiosit­y facilitate­d a narrative of piety and British pluck triumphing over paganism and isolation. So much so that, in 1856, when the Pitcairner­s outgrew their tiny home, Queen Victoria offered to relocate all 194 of them to Norfolk. The Norf’k patois of Sanderson’s sign reflects that peculiar heritage. He says that 15 or 20 years ago by Jeff Sparrow We Gwen Win!” The sign hangs outside Duncan Sanderson’s ramshackle tent embassy in Norfolk Island’s World Heritage–listed Kingston district, alongside many other proclamati­ons of defiance, most of them in Standard English. “Norfolk Island under siege,” reads one. “Our future, our choice,” announces another. But it’s that first slogan, presented in the Norf’k patois, that conveys Sanderson’s protest most effectivel­y to the passing tourists, precisely because of their struggle to comprehend it. From 1979, Norfolk Island, measuring 35 square kilometres and located around 1500 kilometres east of Sydney, exercised something like independen­ce. As Australia’s only non-mainland self-governing territory, it chose its own legislativ­e assembly, selected by the island’s 1700 inhabitant­s according to a distinctiv­e voting system in which political parties played little part. Though Canberra retained ultimate sovereignt­y (by signing off on all laws, for instance), the islanders funded their own services from a locally implemente­d GST and the profits from government monopolies. As a result, they paid no income tax. The island’s fortunes waned after the 2008 global financial crisis, which hit the tourism industry hard. In 2015 Australia abolished the legislativ­e assembly in a bid to normalise Norfolk’s status, and this is what Sanderson is fighting. “The Commonweal­th is coming over,” he growls, “and showing us that running a place from a thousand miles away just doesn’t work.” Many residents on the island convey their sentiment by hoisting green-and-white flags adorned with the Norfolk pine. In the main settlement of Burnt Pine, the Centre for Democracy occupies a prominent shopfront, its windows displaying posters from the Norfolk Island People for Democracy. Elsewhere, a vacant lot is home to hundreds of signs showing green handprints and the slogan “hands up for democracy”. But Sanderson, more or less retired, has made the struggle against Australia a full-time occupation. He “Du We Giw Up, Bounty Bounty’s the nation reviewed

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