Helping Hand for Norfolk Island PSA

  • 16 September 2015

There are six flights a week to and from Norfolk Island, made up of two from Sydney, two from Brisbane and two from Auckland.  The airport and not the town centre is arguably the most important hub on the Island, it is where the Island’s residents meet, greet and congregate.  Almost everyone you speak to on the Island appears to know the airline schedule, and being a part-time operation, many hold a second or third job there for a few hours a week.  It makes a strange sight when through the window of your departing plane you spot someone who served you in a shop or waited a table only a few days later now loading baggage or guiding the pilot down the runway, but serves as a reminder of the remarkable self-sufficiency and multi-skilling of the people that live here.  

At request of the Norfolk Island Public Service Association (NIPSA) I had the privilege of visiting Norfolk Island two months ago to assist them on a number of industrial matters.  The NIPSA and CPSU’s relationship has been one of co-operation and support for a number of years.  

I was asked in 2013 to assist with their Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) application before the Public Sector Remuneration Tribunal (PRST) which saw a 7% increase awarded to salaries over the following two years.  NIPSA is a small union of 100 members with only officials and no paid staff, however what they lack in resources and industrial experience they more than make up for in dedication and commitment.  To understand the challenges that this remote community faces, one must understand a few facts about the community itself.  Norfolk has approximately 1500 permanent residents, with about 500 tourists at any time also visiting the Island.  The public service of the Norfolk Island Administration employs approximately 140 people (of whom about 100 are union members).  The Administration could be thought of as a condensed version of what we rely on three levels of government to provide on the mainland.   In addition to the airport, it is responsible for utilities such as telecommunications, electricity and waste, customs and quarantine, emergency services, courts, public works, the cemetery, museums and the significant historical site, and lighterage (ports).   It raises its own taxes through a 15% GST and some other levies (there is no income tax on the Island), registers companies, manages planning and development, and even administers a small social security service for residents. 

The Administration has been roundly criticised in various consultancy reports and audits over the last ten years, usually commissioned by the Commonwealth, regarding its monopolistic control of certain services and the absence of competitive tendering or private sector investment.  For instance, many services which we on the mainland are now conditioned to describe as assets, such as the airport or the electricity generation plant, are still wholly in public ownership.  The Administration is also the sole importer and distributor of fuel and liquor, with the latter being a lucrative revenue stream.  But most of this involvement by the Administration in commercial activity has been by default.  There are many examples of the private sector either not being interested in stepping into the breech for such a small market, or withdrawing from it entirely.  If the Administration had not stepped up, then the services would not exist. 

The end of self-determination

The expiration of the previous determination of the PRST with respect to public sector salaries on 30 June 2015 was coinciding with some far more tumultuous changes for the Island and the Administration.  Following the passage of  the Norfolk Island Act 1979 (Cth) the Island was been an Australian external territory with a degree of self-governance.  It elected its own nine-member Legislative Assembly with almost unrestricted powers to pass laws.  Legislative assent was given by a Commonwealth –appointed Administrator, and the Australian Parliament had the power to override laws where they saw fit.  The Norfolk Island Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 (Cth) was passed by the Australian Parliament on 14 May 2015 and received Royal Assent twelve days later.  It effectively repealed self-governance and imposed a combination of Commonwealth and New South Wales in its place.  The Legislative Assembly was replaced in the interim by the Administrator and an Advisory Council, with a representative government the status equivalent of a Regional Council to be elected.  The date for full implementation of mainland law is 1 July 2016.  Obviously this change in governance arrangements has implications on a vast number of issues on the Island, not the least of them being public sector employment.  With this in mind and answers scarce on the ground, the NIPSA sought assistance from the CPSU with a series of meetings scheduled across two days with the Island’s Administrator (former Howard Government Minister Gary Hardgrave) and the Administration’s CEO. 

Industrial issues arising from the repeal of self-government

First and foremost in the Islander’s concerns was which jurisdiction with respect to industrial relations applied both now and post 1 July 2016.  As the legislative intent of the Amendment Act had been to impose New South Wales law on the Island, it had been assumed prior to my arrival that the Industrial Relations Act 1996 (NSW)  would be the relevant scheme.  This would mean a NSW Award could be sought in the NSW Industrial Relations Commission for the Administration’s workforce, and also meant the NIPSA would need to initiate registration under that system.   A meeting with the Administrator indicated that this was not necessarily the case.  Rather, being a Council of a Territory, it was thought that the Fair work Act 2009 (Cth) would apply post 1 July 2016 as per section 14(1)(f) of that Act.  Importantly, given the Public Sector Remuneration Tribunal 1992 (NI) was not a piece of legislation repealed by the empowering Act, it would continue to have force until 1 July 201, leaving open the possibility of seeking a further determination in that accessible jurisdiction.  

Post 1 July 2016 the issue of industrial relations for all employees of the Island becomes even more interesting.  While it is proposed that the Fair Work system would apply, this would result in significant uplifts for all employees in terms of minimum wages (currently approximately $10 on the Island), penalty rates and superannuation.  The Administration indicated however that some of these employment rights were proposed to be phased in, with superannuation for example starting at a meagre 1% and increasing to the current legal minimum of 9.5% only after nine years.  Obviously this represents a case of the Island’s employers, the Administration included, having the rights but not any responsibilities under the Act and is grossly unfair, not to say that it undercuts minimum standards the movement has fought hard to achieve on the mainland. 

A further issue for all employees is the imposition of income tax.  The public sector’s wages are set with this in mind, with most if not all positions renumerated at an annual salary lower than the net salary of their mainland job equivalent.  Of great concern is that there were no firm commitments regarding an increase in salary rates to compensate for the introduction of tax, which would leave all public sector employees far worse off. 

Other issues emerged during the visit that also require attention include the transfer of powers and positions to Commonwealth and State Governments, and whether incumbent employees will retain their jobs and/or be trained up to required standards, and also the dissolution of the Island’s Provident Fund, a retirement savings scheme in place in lieu of superannuation. 

CPSU has offered to provide industrial, legal and campaigning support for each of these issues.  Another COLA will need to be run in the short-term, which can hopefully address the issues of both the maintenance of real wage levels in the eye of inflation in the short term, as well as the imposition of income tax.  Efforts will be made with Federal Parliamentarians and the ACTU to raise awareness and seek assistance with broader industrial issues that undermine the safety net for all. 

Flying home this time I watched the preparations of the aircraft by the many members I had met during the preceding three days and reflected on the levels of interdependence the Island’s community enjoys that we will never experience on the mainland.  The importance of the airport to the people then struck me.  It is more than merely a demonstration of the remarkable adaptability of its people, but a reflection of the way they consider their connection to the outside world.  It is a link that they treat seriously and appreciate, however one that distinguishes them both geographically and culturally from the rest of Australia. 

Our Federal Parliament may not recognise this and has run rough shod over many rights of independence they consider important, but as a union movement we must not and will not. 

Troy Wright
Senior Industrial Officer