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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 May 2006, 13:45 GMT 14:45 UK
Battle for Norfolk Island
Norfolk Island, a tiny South Pacific island administered by Australia, is fuming over attempts by Canberra to scrap its unique system of self-government. Nick Squires, who is based in Sydney, has made the 900-mile journey north east to meet the inhabitants who say their way of life is being threatened.

Norfolk Island's flag
The inhabitants of Norfolk Island are flying the flag of independence
You only have to flick through Norfolk Island's telephone directory to realise what an unusual place it is.

Its phone book lists people by their nicknames. So many islanders share the same surname that it is easier to find them by the sometimes bizarre tags their friends and family have given them.

So alongside all the Christians and Quintals, there is Cane Toad, Carrots, Kik Kik, Lettuce Leaf, Pumpkin and Wiggy. Moose, Moochie and Mutty are followed by Onion, Oot, Pinky and Paw Paw. Then there is Duck, Diesel, Tarzan and Snoop and - my favourite - Dar Bizziebee.

As the directory explains in the local creole, a mixture of old English and Tahitian words, the list helps you "faasfain salan bai dems nikniem," find people quickly by their nickname.

They fear that their unique identity will be endangered if they lose their autonomy
Norfolk Island's peculiarities go some way towards explaining why locals are so unhappy with the Australian federal government. Canberra says that the island's system of self-government, which was granted in 1979, is a dismal failure.

There is no income tax on Norfolk, so the island's tiny legislative assembly instead raises money through a duty on imports.

Financial costs

Canberra says that is not enough to meet rising costs, and claims that the island is heading towards bankruptcy.

"If we don't move in and assist them they'll become insolvent," said Jim Lloyd, the minister in charge of Australia's territories.

Under the most radical of two models he has put forward, the legislative assembly would be reduced to the status of a local council.

Map of Norfolk Island
That has infuriated many islanders, who have always been a fiercely independent bunch. They fear that their unique identity will be endangered if they lose their autonomy.

At the moment they have their own customs service, stamps, international phone code and even national anthem, God Save the Queen, rather than Advance Australia Fair.

Australia is regarded by many islanders as a foreign country and Australians have to bring their passports when they visit Norfolk.

"We don't want to be governed from afar," said Chris Magri, a 38-year-old businessman who I met one night in the island's only pub.

"We feel as if our island is being taken from us. It's breaking the hearts of the old people."


Norfolk Island owes its existence to a tangled series of events reaching back to the 18th Century.

Norfolk Island
Norfolk Island has a community of around 1,800 people
In 1789 some of the crew of the Royal Navy ship Bounty, led by first mate Fletcher Christian, mutinied against Captain William Bligh.

Bligh and the men loyal to him were cast adrift in an open boat and by an extraordinary act of seamanship eventually made it to the Dutch East Indies.

The mutineers, meanwhile, scoured the South Pacific for a suitable hiding place and eventually came across Pitcairn Island, one of the world's most remote territories. They burned the Bounty and settled down with their Tahitian girlfriends.

Within a few decades Pitcairn became overcrowded so in 1856 the islanders moved to Norfolk, which up until then had been a brutal British convict colony.

Today around half of Norfolk Islanders can trace their roots back to Pitcairn.

One of them is Ric Robinson, who is the president of the Society of Pitcairn Descendants. He accuses Australia of acting like a bully, trying to impose its will without proper consultation.

He would like to see Norfolk become fully independent.

"I reckon we could do it," he told me when we met one evening among the palm trees at his picturesque cliff-top home.

That may be a little optimistic. Norfolk is after all only five miles wide. Its steep cliffs and treacherous reefs mean it has no port. Its nearest neighbour is the French colony of New Caledonia, 500 miles away.

There is no industry and cows have right of way on all the roads, which are little more than country lanes.


Its convict heritage is evident in the magnificent Georgian buildings scattered behind an idyllic sandy beach in the former penal settlement of Kingston.

Geoff Gardner, Norfolk Island's chief minister
Mr Gardner believes the island is capable of managing its own affairs
In one of them is the office of Geoff Gardner, the island's chief minister. His desk is flanked by Norfolk's distinctive flag - a pine tree against a green and white backdrop. Behind the flag is a portrait of the Queen.

"Australia's approach has been heavy-handed and completely unnecessary," he told me over lunch.

Norfolk is quite capable of looking after its own finances, he insisted. Perhaps the reason Australia wants to assert control is because of rumoured oil and gas deposits in the island's exclusive economic zone, he suggested.

So the stage is set for a confrontation. Canberra says Norfolk must move with the times and fall into step with the rest of Australia.

The islanders, Boonie, Moonie, Loppy, Beef, Dar Bizziebee and everyone else say they are different, and should be allowed to live by different rules.

They are convinced they must win this David-versus-Goliath conflict to retain their special identity.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 18 May, 2006 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Bloody history of empire's last outpost
29 Sep 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Australia
24 Mar 06 |  Country profiles

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