New Zealand Law Society - A cause worth fighting for

A cause worth fighting for

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A typical day for Shaun Kennedy would include going to his nice little office set up in Dunedin. Unlike other law, English and linguistics graduates, that same typical day would include trying to find domestic and international law alternatives in a bid to stop the Australian government from repealing the 1979 Norfolk Island Act, which is scheduled to happen as “soon as practicable”.

The 25-year-old was born and lived on Norfolk Island until he was 10. His mother, an early childhood teacher, and late father, a labourer, moved to the Island independently for job opportunities. It was there that they met, married and reared two children. Shaun spent the majority of his educational years in New Zealand.

Although Shaun was originally enthralled by the possibility of a career in the criminal law, he fell into public and administrative law thanks to his passion and “fierce loyalty” to the island and its almost 2,000 inhabitants, he says.

As a result of this passion, he has given working on the issue priority over undertaking his “profs” (Professional Legal Studies course).

His mandate while working full-time for Oceanic Economic Development Corporation (OEDC) headed by the former chief minister of the island, Andre Nobbs, is to find ways where Norfolk Island might achieve “freedom of association” status.

Repealing the Act will mean the current self-governing territory of the Commonwealth of Australia will no longer have its own legislative assembly. Instead a municipal council will be put in place to rectify infrastructural and social welfare problems that are “necessary but irrelevant to what will be achieved through drastic regulating”, he says.

Australia was obliged to declare Norfolk Island as a self-governing territory in 1946, when it did the same for Papua New Guinea and the Cocos Islands, he says. It failed to do so then, and again in 1960.

“Although a limited form of self-governance was granted in 1979 many people on the island believe that this hasn’t absolved Australia’s responsibility under international law to declare Norfolk as such a territory, and their failure to do so effectively limits the rights of Norfolk Island, such as self-determination.”

The Territories Law Reform Bill, which effectively ended the last vestige of self-government on the island, was forced upon the island in exchange for urgent funding (of approximately $3.8m) during the Global Financial Crisis, Shaun says.

“There is a huge vertical fiscal imbalance in the relationship between Australia and its states, and this is made even larger by the disparity in power and income between the Norfolk and Australian Governments.”

Forty years of an “unclear constitutional relationship between Norfolk Island and Australia has led to a vast disparity in power between the two communities, which has negatively affected the island dramatically in a financial and infrastructural sense”, he says.

Shaun says the island of 34.6 square kilometres is neither “third world, politically corrupt or gerrymandering”. It simply lacks the understanding, attention and investment by those who swore to protect it, he says.

“Unfortunately Australia, rather than offering support to the unique culture they ought to be fostering, is instead seeking to override years of political drive and progress on the island.

“I really just want to make sure that Norfolk Island is treated as the unique space that it is. It is not a ‘same country, different world’ situation. It is completely unique and the culture reflects that. The infrastructure and welfare is community driven. It’s important and precious.”

For example, the majority of the island’s residents can claim descent from the Bounty mutineers, and most speak their own language – a mix of Georgian English and Tahitian, he says.

But before Shaun can apply to the United Nations for consideration, he must exhaust all Australian domestic options, whether that be via judicial review processes or going to the Ombudsman. Nevertheless, it’s a “fight worth fighting for,” he says.

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