A former chief minister of Norfolk Island is calling on the territory to consider becoming part of New Zealand rather than Australia if it is successful in its United Nations bid for self-determination. Andre Nobbs, a former chief minister of the now disbanded Norfolk Island government, said New Zealand had fair and productive relationships with its overseas territories, which include Niue and the Cook Islands in the South Pacific.
The Cook Islands and Niue have free-association agreements with Wellington, meaning they govern their own territories but are entitled to New Zealand citizenship, are expected to share common values and receive ongoing economic aid from New Zealand.
Norfolk Island controversially ceased being an autonomous territory on 1 July 2016 following a takeover of the island by the Australian government. The island’s population is now governed by New South Wales, but has no say in the state’s government. Its residents can only vote in federal elections in Canberra.
Nobbs said Norfolk Islanders have had more than 12 months to assess Australian rule and it was turning the island into a “welfare state”. A closer relationship with New Zealand rather than Australia may be a better fit, Nobbs said. “Everyone has 12 months to evaluate the performance and integrity of the Australian government in the imposed changes and I think the Australian government has acted very poorly in very destructive ways to the heritage, the people and the culture,” said Nobbs.
New Zealand is regarded with great affection. The relationship between New Zealand and Norfolk Island has always been far, stronger than the relationship with Australia. I would have no issue with a free association with New Zealand if that was what our people wanted.”
Geographically Norfolk is 600km closer to Auckland than Sydney, and recent research has discovered that New Zealand and Norfolk Island were once part of the same continent – Zelandia – which is believed to have broken away from Gondwana, the immense landmass that once encompassed Australia. According to the last Australian census of the island’s 1,748 people, 685 were born in Australia and more than 300 in New Zealand.
However Jon Fraenkel, a professor in comparative politics at Victoria University, said it was “pie in the sky” talk to consider New Zealand taking on Norfolk Island, not least because it would be unwilling to upset relations with Canberra.
“I think it is inconceivable that Norfolk Island could divorce itself completely from Australia and link itself up to New Zealand. I can’t imagine that happening. But the reason to discuss it is because New Zealand has these very interesting free-association agreements, particularly with Cook Islands and Niue.”
Frankael said the general consensus was “broadly positive” regarding New Zealand’s free-association agreements, though there had been some government concern the territories had not become economically self-reliant sooner.
However the process was certainly under way in the Cook Islands, Frankael reported, saying the territory was becoming less dependent on New Zealand aid as it earned more money through tourism and granting fishing licence fees.
“I don’t think New Zealand would disturb its relations with Canberra by the idea of Norfolk Island becoming a free-associated territory, but I do think their UN bid is not inconceivable. French Polynesia did that just a few years ago, France didn’t like it but they managed to do it.”
A spokesperson for the New Zealand ministry of foreign affairs and trade said the question of which country Norfolk Island should align itself with was not a concern for New Zealand. “This is a matter for the Australian government and Norfolk Island residents. It is not appropriate for New Zealand to comment on Australia’s domestic policy. This issue has not been raised with us by anyone from Norfolk Island nor from the Australian government,” the spokesperson said.