KINGSTON — Norfolk Island has had a history of hunger. This island, out in the South Pacific, off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, had its first settlers arrive about 400 AD, in a Polynesian canoe. Then, in the late 1700s, convicts were sent to the island. Fewer than 100 years later, eight families arrived. Today, the residents are a blend of the British mutineers who sailed the HMS Bounty into the ocean and watched it burn, and the Polynesians who helped them.
In February 1814, the island was abandoned. Too many convicts, as well as a shipwreck, had increased the population. There was hunger on Norfolk Island. Prior to that, a miracle had happened. Petrels had arrived to nest on Mount Pitt. Thousands of these birds were slaughtered. The population was saved, however, the convicts’ living conditions deteriorated. Authorities decided the population should leave. For a very brief time, Norfolk Island returned to paradise.
The residents today would argue that it is still a paradise. But in May 2015, the island lost its independence. There is a strong feeling for this island nation among its residents. However, faced with declining tourism, it turned to Australia for help. Normally tax-free, residents will now have to pay income tax. In return, they will get healthcare and other services. While the island has done some remarkable things, former chief minister Lisle Snell wonders how Norfolk Island will adjust. According to the Guardian’s Melissa Davey, there is a feeling of “we take care of our own” on the island.
Snell returned to Norfolk Island, saying, “It’s just a shock, being in Canberra last week and to witness how members of parliament could stand up and [say what they did]on the situation of Norfolk Island and get away with it,” he says.
“They said there had been consultation and that there was a majority of islanders in favor of removing the legislative assembly. How dare they? They referred back to reports from 20 years ago that don’t refer to the situation today and the improvement to the island since then.”
Snell added if Australia had allowed Norfolk Island rights of gaining income from fishing, offshore banking and foreign aid, the island could have prospered and not given up self-governance. In the article, he goes on to say that he is worried about people not being able to pay property taxes and risk losing their homes. There is a deep connection to family and land, he says.
“They are introducing a land tax, but we don’t see property as a commodity,” he says. “We are caretakers of the land, we are nothing without our land. “I’ve been to many places like Tahiti and New Caledonia, places where Indigenous people have been displaced, and there is this resentment to it. They all say, ‘Whatever you do, don’t lose your land.’ Any land tax people can’t afford to pay here, and which leads to them losing their homes, will be the end of Norfolk Islanders.”
Davey says Norfolk Islanders having a saying, “if you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Snell worked three jobs before becoming chief minister. However, many have been hurt by dwindling tourism and the global financial crisis. If islanders are too sick or old to work, they are supported by “family or community members who see it as an obligation to care for those who can’t support themselves.” If there is hunger on Norfolk Island, it’s invisible.
Providing food on the island can be precarious. For example, Norfolk Island prohibits the import of fruits and vegetables. Matt Biggs, a full-time fruit and vegetable farmer, enjoys a unique status on the island. He doesn’t work three jobs, and he doesn’t work in tourism.
He had this to say about the changes in store. “I’m not opposed to change but I’m opposed to dictatorship. We live a simple life and we don’t want for much. But a lot of things will be imposed on us which could potentially change the things we do and the freedoms and way of life we have.”
Still, since most of the islanders eat produce Biggs grows, what happens if there is a crop failure? Then the hunger on Norfolk Island will be quite visible.
It’s an interesting situation for a nation of 1,300 to be in. There’s the sense of independence, the community spirit of helping people. Curiously, the islanders help each other out, but are fearful of becoming a welfare state. While paying income and property taxes could be a boost to providing better healthcare, the residents seem to accept it if someone is showing symptoms that could indicate eating too much, heart burn or a heart attack. Most residents don’t have healthcare insurance. Part of the hospital on the island was condemned.
As for poverty, as Davey wrote in her article, “it is hidden.”
– Gloria Diaz