Residents of Cocos (Keeling) Islands are seeking recognition from the Australian Federal Government to be acknowledged as indigenous Australians

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are a remote territory of Australia in the Indian Ocean.  Situated 2,750 kms north west of Perth the group of coral islands form two atolls.  Only two of the 27 islands are inhabited.  And, the current population numbers about 500 people.

Cocos Malays are the first known inhabitants of the islands, who are seeking to be acknowledged as indigenous Australians.  They count amongst their ancestors the 98 slaves who belonged to the English merchant Alexander Hare who came to the islands in 1826.   In 1857 Britain declared the islands part of the British Dominions.  The islands then became an Australian Territory from 23 November, 1955 with the proclamation of the Cocos (Keeling) Island Act 1955.

A complex set of legal issues needed careful negotiating.  At that time, in the early 1950’s the islands were part of the Colony of Singapore.  The legal manoeuvring involved transition through three legal steps:

  1. Separation from the Colony of Singapore;
  2. Transfer by the United Kingdom; and
  3. Acceptance by the Commonwealth of Australia.

The administration of the Islands was conducted by a local family who became like managers.  Over time, there was a certain dictorial approach taken to the management of the Islands.  By the 1970s the Australian Federal Government was dissatisfied with the Island’s management.  In 1978, Australia forced the ruling family to sell the Islands for the sum of AUD$6,250,000.00 against the threat of compulsory acquisition.  By agreement, the family retained ownership of Oceania House, their home on the island.  However, in 1983, the Australian Federal Government reneged on this agreement and asked the manager to leave the Cocos.  The following year the High Court of Australia ruled that resumption of Oceania House was unlawful, but the Australian Federal Government ordered that no Government business was to be granted to the manager’s shipping company, an action that contributed to his bankruptcy.

In 1984, the islanders voted for full integration with Australia.

The push for indigenous recognition connects with the practicality of financial support.  If the islanders were recognised it would lead to financial help in the form of jobs training and education to improve English skills.

The Australian Federal Government funds a range of indigenous-specific services and programs, including:

  • Grants (such as Indigenous housing loans, research and study grants),
  • University courses (with specific positions for Indigenous students),
  • Centrelink and housing assistance (Indigenous-specific),
  • Employment (Indigenous identified positions), and
  • School programs for Indigenous students.

What are the requirements for proof of heritage?

Government agencies usually accept three “working criteria” as proof or confirmation of heritage in the case of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage:

  • Being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent,
  • Identifying as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person,
  • Being accepted as such by the community in which you live, or formally lived.

Typically, all of these criteria must apply.  The way that the person looks or how they live are not requirements.

This process seems very complex.  Why is it so involved?

Indigenous-specific services and programs are intended to address social, health and educational issues that Indigenous people face as the result of past removal policies and inadequate educational, employment and health services.   Requesting proof of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage from applicants helps to makes sure that this intention is honoured.  The Cocos Islands are one of several territories of Australia which are administered by the Australian Government through the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development.  Other territories include Christmas Island and the Coral Sea Islands.

As a geographic and economic entity, Australia’s territory ranges far beyond its continental borders.  The remote offshore territories are located over thousands of kilometres of ocean and including the Australian Antarctic Territory covering almost 5.9 million square kilometres.  The smallest of the territories, which is only 2 square kilometres, is the Ashmore and Cartier Islands territory.

What’s the difference in legal rights for someone living in those territories compared to a resident of a State of Australia?

The fundamental difference is that the territories do not have their own Government.  They are governed solely by Commonwealth law, meaning within the jurisdiction of the Australian Federal Government.  In contrast, each of the six States of Australia have their own state constitution and they conduct their own State Parliaments.  They are then permitted to pass laws relating to any matter concerning that State that is not controlled by the Federal Government.  This is permitted under Section 51 of the Australian Constitution.  The State Government is then led by the leader known as the Premier.  There is no such equivalent in the seven territories which are governed only by Commonwealth law, usually through an Australian Federal Government-appointed Administrator.

The Cocos Islands share the same Administrator with Christmas Island.

What other territories have been part of Australia in the past?

Most notably, the territory of Papua and New Guinea was part of Australia until becoming the independent nation of Papua New Guinea in 1975.  The Australian administration of the territory of Papua was officially created in 1906.  The territory of New Guinea was an Australian administered territory from 1920.

Another historical point of interest is the region known as New Ireland which is a volcanic island in the Bismarck Archipelago.  It was discovered by Dutch navigators in 1616 and became part of a German protectorate until 1914.  After WW1 it was mandated to Australia.  When Papua New Guinea gained independence in 1975, New Ireland became part of that country.

This Article was authored by MBA Partner, Mitchell Clark who was born in Kavieng, New Ireland, one of the most seismically active areas in our world.