Eric Hutchinson has a strong physical presence and a direct conversational style that would have served him well this past year.
The former Liberal Lyons MP has been living and working as Australian administrator on Norfolk Island.
The last administrator Gary Hargreaves reportedly had his car egged and his wife was spat upon. It is a tough gig.
Norfolk Island is an external territory of Australia, sitting 1900 kilometres from Canberra in the South Pacific Ocean, with a colourful history dating to 1788.
Those who call the island home have had a few challenging years. The murder of 29-year-old Janelle Patton in 2002 created a sense of unease and raised questions about the criminal justice system.
The global financial crisis in 2007 had a detrimental impact on the primary industry of tourism, causing their economy to reach crisis point.
Its population has been dropping steadily. Then the island lost its political independence.
In 2015 Australia stepped in and abolished the Norfolk Island self-government, a move the federal government saw as necessary reform.
The nine-member Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly and its body of local, state and federal law, which had existed since 1979, was replaced by NSW laws, and a local government has been introduced.
The NSW laws operate as de-facto state laws, Norfolk Islanders vote with Australian Capital Territory during political elections, and in addition to usual local government duties the new council will manage the island’s airport, telecommunications network and electricity generation.
Strong opposition has come from the island’s longest inhabitants.
The Council of Elders, descendants of the seven mutineers who stole away with William Bligh’s ship Bounty to live on Pitcairn Island, who then later moved to Norfolk Island, have taken their complaint to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.
They argue that Australia has breached international laws relating to the civil and political rights of Norfolk Islanders, and that the changes will have a detrimental impact on their culture, identity and legal standing.
Mr Hutchison said he has had “frank” discussions with some members of the community about the changes.
He said ultimately his focus was to oversee the governance reform.
“Norfolk Island is an integral part of Australia … Its history and connection to what has become the Commonwealth of Australia is indisputable,” he said.
“Any suggestion that anybody within the Australian government is trying to extinguish this quite distinct culture that exists on the island is misleading… the uniqueness [of Norfolk Island] can be the real pillar that underpins growth in its economy.”
It is this political and social landscape into which Mr Hutchinson had landed.
It is not all aqua-marine water views and wines on the deck for the former federal politician, who is living in the island’s 1829 colonial Government House during his two-year term while his wife and two sons, one who is still at school, remain living in Tasmania.
As administrator Mr Hutchinson was delegated responsibility from the Federal Minister of Territories to continue to dismantle the Legislative Assembly and its laws, facilitate the operation of NSW laws onto the island, and help set up the island’s regional council.
It is a role of epic proportions. One with the weight of 230 years of history in the background, of British, Polynesian and Pitcairn Islander associations, and ongoing beleaguered relations with big brother Australia.
Mr Hutchinson said he stepped into the role acknowledging the challenges that may arise.
“This is a major change and change is often difficult,’’ he said.
“When I arrived on the island I did my utmost to reach out to as many of the community as I was able to … I had a very open-door policy and that continues today.
“I tried to listen. I tried to be respectful in the way I engaged with everybody. Not everybody has liked the answers but … overwhelmingly that respect has been reciprocated and for that I am very grateful.”
Mr Hutchinson stressed that the changes, which saw the introduction of Australian systems such as taxation, employment laws, social services, Medicare and the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, will bring economic and social benefits.
“The majority of the population, including those who are opposed to the changes, are able to access a significantly broader range of services … It brings a better standard of living for those who call Norfolk Island home,’’ he said.
“They are entitled to the same benefits as any other Australian. I think that is the right thing.”
Mr Hutchinson explains the reform was necessary due to the island’s failing economy and a failure to maintain infrastructure.
Norfolk Island held loans with Australia worth more than $14 million, and consistently received federal government funding from various sources.
"...the world is run by people who show up"- Eric Hutchinson
With strong reliance on the fickle tourism industry it became difficult for the island to pay for the maintenance of infrastructure, care for its ageing population, and to pay back its debts.
Mr Hutchinson said the island had become financially unsustainable, and while the Norfolk Island government made undertakings to raise revenue it never implemented solutions.
“Because it is such a small community the ability to make difficult decisions became almost impossible on some levels … decisions that were needed were often put in the long grass and were never made,’’ Mr Hutchinson said.
“My sense is that the community is screaming out for strong leadership, in a process that is seen, and is transparent and accountable, and follows proper and good governance practices … when the difficult decisions are taken, that are inevitably required, I think that will bring greater respect.”
He praised the islanders who decided to sit on the new council and help pave the way forward for Norfolk Island.
“You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar in my view, so I take my hat off to those that put up their hand to be elected in the local council. It would not have been an easy decision, but the world is run by people who show up.”
But Mr Hutchinson said that the latest reform is a far more complex and far reaching task than first realised.
He said much of the existing Norfolk Island law was antiquated and in urgent need of an update. In 2015 up to 115 pieces of Australian legislation were amended to make way for the reform, and since then further amendments to Acts have been made, with more to come.
For example, laws relating to child protection and family violence offered inadequate protections, and the much-needed changes in this area are already underway.
Mr Hutchinson said about 90 per cent of NSW laws would transition effectively onto the island, but 10 per cent would likely need tweaking to take account of idiosyncrasies of Norfolk Island society.
“With the clarity of hindsight, it is an undertaking and a piece of work that will probably take longer than was originally anticipated,” he said.
“But it is absolutely the right thing to do for the sake of the community.”
While it has been a time of change for the island, it was also a time of change for Mr Hutchinson.
The career-politician was one of the “three amigos” ousted in the 2016 federal election after one term, losing to Labor’s Brian Mitchell.
Mr Hutchinson did not say why he was picked as administrator – “that is really a question for the minister who appointed me” – but hoped that he “brought a certain set of skills that were the right skills for Norfolk Island at this point in time”.
As for his own future, he has not given a lot of thought to what will come next.
“I have a year to go so I’m focusing on the task that I have been given,” Mr Hutchinson said.
“I was pretty battered and bruised after 2016, I can tell you, so I feel very fortunate to have been given this opportunity to play what I hope is a constructive role in this difficult time for the island.
“It is a very significant moment in Australia’s history but in Norfolk Island’s history in particular … I am a huge fan of Norfolk Island there is so much going for it. I am very optimistic about its future.”
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