Royal commission into matters relating to norfolk island

The right to the Pitcairn way of life


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2.The right to the Pitcairn way of life

Containing much of the very essence of the alleged historical Rights is the ‘way of life’ of the Pitcairn descendants. There should be no difficulty and few administrative problems in preserving and maintaining its features. There is nothing to stop them from continuing to show their respect for the dead; maintaining their tradition of free burials and communal grave digging; preserving their dialect ‘Norfolkese’; helping one another in ways epitomised by the words of their own Anthem (Appendix VII); holding their family gatherings, picnics, special holidays and festive days and practising their forms of the Christian religion. Nothing has altered sufficiently in 120 years to cause anyone to question their freedoms in regard to these desirable customs. Indeed, they add colour and character to the Island and should be preserved at all costs.

Regarding the obligation to give one’s labour to public works, this was removed (in deference to an International Labour Organisation Convention against forced labour) by the Public Works Ordinance 1974 (No 7) which requires a payment to be made in lieu of the labour.

3.Rights open to question

Turning now to matters such as freedom from taxation, freedom to graze cattle indiscriminately, and the right to preferential treatment in the acquisition of either freehold or leasehold land, when one considers these purported rights in the present twentieth century setting of the Norfolk community, one is forced to conclude that the circumstances in which the beliefs in such rights originated have changed so radically as to have entirely altered the very basis of living which once may have justified those belief
  1. The aspect of taxation freedom

For instance, the Pitcairners, prior to their move to Norfolk, were a self—contained and self—sufficient community. They needed and demanded little from the outside world and, indeed, received little. Their life style was simple and it was fundamentally a subsistence economy. Contrast that with the present community in Norfolk. Not only is it many times larger, but it is no longer a community based on a subsistence economy; it is utterly dependant for its survival upon a complex economy, relying almost entirely upon assistance in the form of tourism from the outside world. In Pitcairn’s the community had no developed hospital facilities, no pharmacy, no airport, no electricity generators, no jetty cranes, no telephones, no overseas radio communications, nor any formal administrative structure. It even lacked money itself. 11 of these the people in Norfolk Island today would regard as necessities of modern day life.

In other words, while the original Pitcairners on their departure from Pitcairn’s wished to preserve their way of life, their descendants voluntarily departed radically over the years from that way of life in favour of a life which gave them greater protection against illness and disease, better schooling for their children, more amenities and higher standards of living. They willingly adopted and used Australian currency as money, Australian passports, Australian technical advice on agricultural, forestry and other matters, Australian (and New Zealand) mercy flights, Australian assistance in restoring and preserving historic buildings and sites and Australian monetary aid toward the administration of the Island in an orderly manner.

Evidence has revealed that Australian assistance, direct and indirect, to Norfolk Island was about 2½ million dollars for the year ended 30 June 1975. Over the years, it has amounted to a very considerable payment by Australian taxpayers, --in return for which Australia has received little, other than some basic meteorological information.

If one accepts the benefits flowing from a taxation system, it is only equitable that one should be prepared to accept the burdens, and in fairness to many residents in the Island, both of Pitcairn and non—Pitcairn descent, it should be mentioned that there was a majority view expressed in evidence to acceptance of either the Australian taxation system or preferably subjection of themselves to a local system of taxation at a level sufficient to pay for the services they need.

One can see, therefore, from this brief examination of this item, an acceptance by many of the need to depart from what once was regarded as a historical right.

  1. Grazing rights

On the question of the right to commons grazing, here again a totally different set of circumstances has arisen over the years since the Pitcairners came to Norfolk. At that time, there was no motor traffic in Norfolk Island, cattle grazing up till then had produced no serious erosion problems, the subsistence needs of the new settlement for meat and dairy products could be easily satisfied by virtually uncontrolled breeding of the appropriate animals; open range type grazing and the denudation of the steep slopes of their pines and other cover had not produced soil slumping, nor was the exotic kikuyu grass then a problem in preventing regeneration of young pines. Again, whereas in 1856 and the immediate subsequent years, probably every family grazed its own animals, now only approximately fifty people in the Island graze cattle or horses19 and over half of the Island’s meat and dairy products requirements are imported.

The importance, therefore, to the Island and its economy of cattle grazing has diminished greatly, while problems associated with free grazing by cattle and horses have grown considerably. It is a curious anomaly that in spite of the evidence provided by the man—made moonscape desert of Philip Island 5.6 kilometres south of Norfolk being virtually before their eyes every day of their lives, many Norfolk residents seem relatively unconcerned over the obvious and widespread signs of both incipient and advanced erosion in Norfolk itself. While the deplorable denudation of Philip Island was wrought by over-grazing chiefly by rabbits, goats and pigs, the hazards to Norfolk by uncontrolled grazing by cattle could cause similar difficulties in certain areas of Norfolk

Expert evidence given to the Commission left one in no doubt that porous volcanic soil on steep slopes in a rainfall belt of an average of 1345 mm (53 inches) per annum, if denuded of the forest cover and associated sponges of vegetation litter and soil humus which once covered it, will first begin to slump and then to erode and wash into the sea. Philip Island stands as mute testimony to the truth of this statement.

Slumping on such steep slopes is widespread throughout Norfolk Island. Other stages of erosion have progressed still further to bare rock. In some localities, reforestation and the exclusion of cattle have successfully reclothed gullies and slopes, and it is obvious that the sooner the remaining steep slopes are re-covered in forest the better. Such slopes are simply not suitable for grazing in those environmental conditions.

Furthermore, the trampling and compaction of the forest floor by cattle has been identified as a prime factor in the deterioration through ‘die-back’ of some areas of pine forest in the Island.

On the other hand, any balanced appraisal of commons grazing in Norfolk Island must acknowledge that it keeps the grass of areas affected neatly trimmed, reduces the fire hazard which would Otherwise exist in the presence of ungrazed dead and dry kikuyu grass, and enables those persons not possessed of private grazing land to produce some beef. Also it must be conceded that the kikuyu grass itself does fulfill a valuable role as a soil binder in the absence of the former forest cover; the same can be said of the scrub lantana and tobacco weed — all three are at least better than nothing as ‘soil caretakers’.

Nonetheless, uncontrolled grazing, while allegedly a historical right, must be viewed in the context of the present overall situation of the Island. When obviously the continued exercise of such a right will imperil the very existence of the Island and ultimately the community itself, that right must be subordinated to broader interests.

Cattle and horses not only wander at will over the Island’s grassed areas but also amongst the shopping areas and around the Kingston administration centre and an incidental feature of this commons grazing is the aspect of sheer filth in locations frequented by humans.

Animal droppings at the entrances of shops and public buildings may be considered by some people to be quaintly colourful and odorous reminders of an interesting earlier society. To others the spectacle may disgust and repel.

From another aspect also, it is only a matter of time before free—straying cattle on Norfolk’s roads cause a serious accident, involving death or severe injury to people.

In these changed circumstances, therefore, it is felt that this alleged historical right to graze cattle indiscriminately should be subjected to greater controls (not only on roads and commons but on private property occupying steep slopes) and that the Island’s greater needs of soil and land conservation and human health and safety should be given clear priority in the administration of the Island.

While the Pasturage and Enclosure Ordinance 1949—1964 modified the original right of commons grazing by making it necessary to obtain from the Administrator a right of pasturage upon payment of a prescribed fee, it certainly does not go far enough to preserve the Island’s soil.

If it is desired to maintain at least a vestige of communal grazing of cattle it should not be difficult to set aside suitable land, fenced and worked on a rotation system, for that purpose. At all times, however, the need to protect the Island and its inhabitants should be paramount.

On grazing, therefore, the Commission recommends that commons grazing be prohibited on steep slopes in Norfolk Island and that other commons grazing areas be fenced and grazed in rotation

  1. Land rights

On the question of the right of Pitcairn descendants to hold land, here again one must view the subject in the very much Changed context of the Island’s economy as it exists at present. As stated earlier, the Island is no longer a type of commune surviving by subsistence farming and barter. The need for land has greatly diminished and, in addition, a structure of land ownership amongst non—Pitcairn descendants has evolved over many years with the consent of the Pitcairners and their descendants. This cannot be reversed. A land transfer system, albeit primitive, has operated for decades. The old practice of granting land to Pitcairners and their descendants has long vanished, the last grants having been made in 1890. To contemplate, therefore, restoring in some way the former right for Pitcairn descended families exclusively to hold land is impracticable, unreal and anachronistic. At most the Pitcairners were only given the right to live in Norfolk Island. Nonetheless, it is equally true that to contemplate a situation where not a single freehold in Norfolk Island is held by a Pitcairn descendant would be to view an Island stripped of a vital part of its character. Norfolk Island and Pitcairn’s Island together occupy a special place in history, and it would be a loss to the world not to encourage the preservation of the genuine and unique character of Norfolk.

It is important that agricultural blocks of land be retained in large numbers in Norfolk, and it is felt that Pitcairn descendants should be encouraged to retain their holdings within their families. Necessity or cupidity may cause them to diminish further their holdings but if this happens, it should be in the face of government encouragement to the contrary and not due in part to government apathy.

In the past, approximately 1700 acres have been set aside as reserves in the Island (excluding Philip and Nepean Islands which are wholly reserves). This makes a significant contribution to ensuring the Island retains an essentially rural character. However, it is regrettable that a reserve around the entire Island to protect the foreshore has not been established. This situation should be corrected and the Commission recommends that the Commonwealth Government complete the reservation of a coastal strip (not less than one hundred metres from the edge of any cliffor 150 metres from the high water mark of the shore, whichever is the greater) around the entire Island.

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