Not the only small island territory with aspirations for self-government!

Roger Wettenhall

Professor emeritus at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis

A Canberra Times article on Norfolk Island by journalist Philip Grundy (15 February 1977) was headed "The Mouse that Roared: A Request to the UN". The UN did not respond then. Now Norfolk Island is again trying to get the UN involved in its dispute with the Australian Commonwealth Government. Is it more likely to succeed now?


One UN involvement

Worth noting that one Australian Territory has been through the UN process: the Cocos Islands. Was supervised by the UN Decolonisation Committee (the Committee of 24) which paid two visits, and supervised a referendum (1984) which gave Cocos Islanders three options:


  1. Independence
  2. Free association with Australia
  3. Integration with an independent state.


Described as "the smallest act of self-determination ever conducted"*. The 261 islanders voted overwhelmingly for the third option. How was this done? Effectively by including Cocos for electoral and other purposes in the federal electoral Division of the Northern Territory, and by extending Western Australia's statutes (local government; education; health; infrastructure) and their implementation to cover Cocos as if they are Commonwealth statutes.


New Zealand's "associate states"

What we hear about mostly these days is the arrangement that New Zealand has made for its old dependencies: Niue, and the Cook Islands. These are states: "associate states" to be sure, but states nonetheless, with constitutions established by the New Zealand parliament. Basic Westminster government principles apply, with NZ retaining primary responsibility for defence and external affairs. Cook Islands has a population of about 15,000 resident islanders, but many more living in NZ.**


As size is an important issue in these discussions, however, note that Niue's resident population is recorded as 1,903 - not much different from Christmas, Cocos, and Norfolk. And it has the attributes of statehood! There was a referendum in 1974 when Niuean voters were given the options of independence, self-government, or continuation as a New Zealand territory. They chose self-government, and this is how it worked out!



There are many other small islands and groups of islands, mostly remnants of the French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Danish empires left over as the world's decolonizing program gathered pace through the 1970s and 80s.*** The US has some too - witness Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas. Greenland, large in area but small in population, gets special attention as a 'country' within the Kingdom of Denmark, with 'home rule' except for defence, foreign affairs, and monetary policy. The Faroe Islands have similar status. They compete in various sports as independent countries.


Madeira and the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean are described as "autonomous regions integrated within the framework of the Portuguese Republic". The Canary Islands are simply a regular province of Spain, seemingly with the same government structure as all other provinces. The Netherlands Antilles (Curacao and the others) is a "constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands".



In some of these territories, there are serious tensions as local political groups seek more government authority, or even full independence. In our part of the world, New Caledonia is a case in point, with local and French government representatives about to meet to continue their on-going debate about the future of this colony-country. From time to time, there has been armed conflict between the two sides.


Representation in the National Parliament

The French scene is interesting in another way. About a dozen of its overseas departments and territories, including Reunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana in the Caribbean area, and St Pierre et Miquelon off the Canadian coast, all have elected assemblies, and the National Cabinet has an over-seeing Minister for Overseas France.


And here is the fascination for me: these territories are represented, in their own right, in the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) and the Senate in Paris. Together the territories had 2.6 million people in 2013; together they had 27 Deputies in the National Assembly and 21 Senators. The smallest, St Pierre et Miquelon, with just over six thousand people, had one Deputy and one Senator in Paris in its own right.


The message: various ways

So there are other ways of recognizing the special characteristics and needs of small island communities with distinctive cultural traditions in their relationships with the larger countries that have ultimate sovereignty over them. Australia's image would be improved if it would seriously investigate possibilities indicated by comparative research in this area, designed to select the most appropriate treatment for Norfolk and its other external territories.


* 'Phillip Tahmindjis, "Australia, the Cocos Islands and Self-Determination", Queensland

Institute of Technology Law Journal, 13 (1), 1985, p192.

**"Other details are mostly from the websites of the various territories referred to. Items from a small literature I have used include: Randall Baker (ed), Public Administration in Small &

Island States, Kumarian Press, 1992; Robert Aldrich & John Connell, France 's Overseas

Frontier, Cambridge University Press, 1992 .

*** Other small island groups have followed different paths of political development, leading to fully independent status, accompanied by membership of the United Nations. For example, in the Pacific and Indian Ocean areas: Nauru, Vanuatu, the Solomons, Tonga, Palau, Mauritius, Maldives, the Seychelles, Comoros.

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