May 12, 2015

Norfolk Island Legislation Amendment Bill 2015, Tax and Superannuation Laws Amendment (Norfolk Island Reforms) Bill 2015, A New Tax System (Medicare Levy Surcharge—Fringe Benefits) Amendment Bill 2015, Health and Other Services (Compensation) Care Charges Amendment (Norfolk Island) Bill 2015, Health Insurance (Approved Pathology Specimen Collection Centres) Tax Amendment (Norfolk Island) Bill 2015, Health Insurance (Pathology) (Fees) Amendment (Norfolk Island) Bill 2015, Private Health Insurance (Risk Equalisation Levy) Amendment (Norfolk Island) Bill 2015, Aged Care (Accommodation Payment Security) Levy Amendment (Norfolk Island) Bill 2015

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (13:06): Labor will be supporting the Norfolk Island Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 and related bills, which are a comprehensive response to the difficulties that have arisen around governance relationships in Norfolk Island over a considerable period of time. It is our hope that the governance arrangements included in this package will provide a sustainable improvement in the delivery of services and infrastructure to this community of around 1,800 Australians.

At the current time, Norfolk Island is Australia’s only self-governing external territory and the only territory that operates outside the Australian tax and social security framework. What this package does is integrate Norfolk Island into the tax and social security systems that apply to all other Australians. There is give and take in terms of revenue responses by including Norfolk Islanders into the taxation system; there are obviously implications there. There are also expenditure implications—which is why this legislation, taken as a whole, is a cost to government. That is appropriate, in terms of bringing together a system whereby a regional council will be established to provide a state-level legislative model, using New South Wales as a template.

There is no doubt that some elements of this legislation are controversial and I have had some contact with Norfolk Islanders who are concerned about parts of this legislation. I say to the government: there is a need for ongoing consultation as these changes are implemented. Change is always difficult. This process, though, is the outcome of considerable consultation up to this point. At some point in time a decision needed to be made, and progress made. What this legislation does is just that. It will amend the Norfolk Island Act 1979 in order to transition the Norfolk Island legislative assembly to a Norfolk Island regional council, with elections to be held in the first half of 2016.

As a member newly-elected to this House I was somewhat surprised when I attended a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference and the Norfolk Island representative had one vote—the same number the Australian government representative had. It was a surprise to me, and I think it would have been a surprise to most Australians, that under those governance arrangements Norfolk Island was treated almost as a separate nation—notwithstanding the fact that the tyranny of distance presents real challenges, as it does for so many Australians who live outside our highly-populated areas.

From this point, as a result of this legislation, Norfolk Island citizens will be required to pay taxes, including more personal and business taxes, but will be excluded from the GST. In return, they will be entitled to access social security payments, Medicare and pharmaceutical benefits. In recent times the spur for the proposed change of governance has been the work of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories—in particular its report of October 2014, Same country: different world—the future of Norfolk Island. It is important to acknowledge the work that has been undertaken by this committee, and I want to particularly acknowledge the work of my colleagues the member for Lingiari and member for Canberra who have worked so hard on these issues and who are passionate about making a difference to the lives of Norfolk Islanders.

It is important that any legislation that brings significant change, such as this, be pursued in a bipartisan way. Often our parliamentary committees do just that, and allow issues to be debated. There is no doubt that the committee will have an ongoing role. It would be appropriate, in my view, to have an assessment of how these changes have impacted in reality over the first couple of years of their operation, to ensure there are not unintended and unenvisaged consequences as these substantial governance changes go forward.

The inquiry focused on the island’s prospects for economic development in the wake of a significant decline in tourism, a large deficit and ongoing financial management concerns. There is no doubt that the existing arrangements could simply not be allowed to continue into the future. It would have been quite irresponsible, given the hardships the member for Canberra so eloquently outlined to the House.

This report is not a one-off. It included many inquiries. There has been a royal commission that looked at matters to do with Norfolk since self-government was established some 36 years ago. In 2014, the National Audit Office forecast ongoing budget deficits of over $7 million a year and found the current administration was not a going concern. These bills, therefore, have not emerged from a vacuum. The former government put in place a roadmap for reform in 2011; the then minister, Simon Crean, was very determined to pursue these issues. At that point the government provided emergency funding and support for infrastructure projects; however, the state of infrastructure remains in long-term decline.

Important federal functions on islands such as Norfolk include immigration, Customs and quarantine, which at the moment simply are not able to be sustainably provided. In its recent report the committee looked at the state of infrastructure on the island. In order to provide economic development and support for key industries like tourism, Norfolk needs good-quality sea and air access, roads and electricity and communications networks. The standard of safety surrounding the two piers, Kingston and Cascade, is of particular concern and one that occupied the time of my former department of infrastructure, when I had the honour of being the minister. The lack of quality infrastructure to convey people and freight safely from ships to shore is preventing the greater involvement of cruise ship operators at a time when opportunities in this rapidly-growing sector are abundant.

Norfolk is a highly sought-after cruise destination. The completion of Cascade pier upgrade will need ongoing Commonwealth support. The former government allocated $13 million to this project under the Regional Development Australia Fund program. I note the current government’s infrastructure reannouncement tour extends beyond the mainland, and the same $13 million grant for this project was reannounced by the assistant minister in March of this year. It is a good thing that that grant, provided by Labor and cut by the coalition, has been restored by the government.

The department has indicated that a program to repair a large number of the roads that are in a bad state will take a number of years. The committee concluded that only the Commonwealth could fund the necessary works. Under current arrangements, Norfolk Island is unable to access funding sources like the Roads to Recovery Program and Financial Assistance Grants. This places Norfolk Island, as a remote community, in a less advantageous position for funding than other remote communities.

The efforts of the Australian government have also contributed to underwriting an airline service to the island. It is the bipartisan view of the committee, and indeed of this parliament, as a result of this legislation receiving broad support, that the time has come to integrate Norfolk Island’s revenue and services with arrangements that apply to the rest of Australia. I commend the bills to the House.