Saturday, July 1, 2017

No paradise on Christmas Island

No paradise on Christmas Island

  • TheAustralian


Image result for Christmas Island Seasons Palace
HAPPY hour at Christmas Island's Seasons Palace has nothing to do with the price of drinks: it was named by the president of the local union, Foo Kee Heng, because that is when he gets to shed his inhibitions singing his karaoke favourites, such as Engelbert Humperdinck's The Last Waltz.
Foo's enthusiastic strains, emboldened a little by his Saturday night ritual of two cans of VB followed by a glass of red wine, ring out from about 9pm after the Seasons Palace owner has cleared away the remains of house specialties: Guinness pork, bitter gourd and local wahoo fish with ginger.
Karaoke is the way to unwind for the usually reserved dump-truck driver and his union friends. Like the majority of the residents of this tiny speck just 380km from Java, they are Chinese Malaysians observing many of the traditions of their homeland while living in an Australian territory.
"We have only a little bit of red wine," Foo explains before closing happy hour with his signature seven-minute performance; an aria from Carmen performed in Chinese. After rapturous applause, he adds triumphantly: "Taking too much wine is no good for us, no good for the singing."
There is no such restraint at the bar next door, where guards flown in to work at the island's Immigration Detention Centre are milling around two pool tables and kicking on into the warm night with scotch and Coke.
Some of them have to start work at 6am the following day, but they are partying like young Australians on an overseas holiday.
Their hourly rate of pay is not extraordinary, but it is boosted by a living allowance of about $80 a day. With accommodation taken care of and alcohol sold tax-free, they can afford to kick up their heels.
The few dive enthusiasts and bird watchers who make the expensive decision to holiday on the rainforest-clad Christmas Island can attest that it is spectacular, mesmerising and unique. But it can be a maddening place to live.
Almost no food is grown on the island because of nematodes in the soil, making locals heavily dependent on a government-contracted supply ship which is regularly late. Last year, it was almost five months late, and the only toilet paper and rice left on the island was in the homes of locals battle-scarred enough to keep a stash.
A packet of cigarettes costs $2.40, but fruit and vegetables are scarce and pricey; one local claims to have paid $21 for three capsicums from an air-freighted delivery that reached the shelves of the local store last week.
The influx of 636 asylum seekers to Christmas Island since the Rudd Government announced a softening of its detention policy last September has been a shot in the arm for the island's handful of restaurants, bars and hotels, and nobody has done better from the mini-boom than Kiat Tan, a former quarry worker who is doing a roaring trade hiring out cars and hotel rooms to immigration workers.
But Tan shares his fellow islanders' view that Christmas Island is a place that Australia has never quite known what to do with, and says it has no future unless that changes.
There will be no local economy to speak of within 10 years if the island's major employer, its phosphate mine, fails to win eight new leases from Environment Minister Peter Garrett. Tensions are building and long-held resentment against government is beginning to bubble up.
There are now 264 immigration workers, including guards, living fly-in, fly-out among the community of 1200 residents, 65 per cent of whom are Chinese Malaysians, 20 per cent Malays and 15 per cent of European descent.
The Department of Immigration, which employs just four locals, was confronted by residents' frustration when it convened a community meeting last Monday; more than 150 people turned up to lambast department officials for more than two hours.
Azmi Yon, president of the island's Malaysian Association, said people were tired of being ignored by Canberra when they wanted help to build a lasting natural economy, but used when it suited Canberra to place asylum seekers there.
"We are not hateful people, but there is only so much we can put up with," he said.
The issue of asylum seekers in community detention has cased some damaging misunderstandings; many locals wrongly believe the 29 asylum seekers who are allowed to live in local houses have unlimited accounts at the local store.
In scenes one might expect in a war-torn country, there have been ugly confrontations over grapes at Cindy Boong's store, Boong Trading. On finding the weekly planeload of vegetables and fruit sold out just a few hours after it arrived, one guard from the mainland was aghast and asked: "What am I supposed to eat?"
The department has moved to scotch rumours, outlining precisely what cash and store credit each asylum seeker is entitled to (a family of two adults and two children would receive $300 cash and a $766 store credit each fortnight, administered by the Red Cross).
The food eaten by the 334 detainees inside the island's $400 million immigration detention centre is flown in by the department, not taken from the local store.
But resentment persists over the quality, quantity and price of food that locals are receiving; Yon, a ranger in the national park that covers 63 per cent of the island, says it upsets him to see asylum seekers buying up expensive fruit and vegetables on the Department of Immigration's tab when he can not afford to buy them for his own son.
"My wife and I give my son one apple in his lunch and he comes home from school and asks, 'Why do the refugee kids have bags of fruit?'," he says.
If locals believe they are being treated with less regard than their fellow citizens on the mainland, it is not for the first time.
The island was established using cheap Chinese labour at the turn of the last century, and workers such as Foo and Tan worked hard for low pay for decades.
Neither man has forgotten what it felt like to be banned from the suburb of Silver City, where their European bosses lived, nor the unwritten rule that they must not overtake a European on the road.
In the minutes of a Department of External Affairs meeting about Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands on March 19, 1964, the remarks of a territories representative are summaried as follows: "The question was whether or not we wanted the island with an Asian population, should it have strategic value." The meeting concluded there was a "de facto indigenous population on the island" and those with Australian citizenship would be entitled to entry, employment and residence in Australia.
One conclusion was that "the younger people should be orientated to Australia where provision for study could be made", but another was that "to contain the birth rate only single or unaccompanied people be employed (at the mine) in the future".
Foo and Tan both now live in Silver City, after buying the properties cut-price in a deal with the federal Government.
Tan likes to retell the story of how he and other mine workers got their houses by squatting in them in 1987, after the mine closed and a storm ripped through the island.
Gordon Bennett, the secretary of
the Union of Christmas Island Workers, encouraged workers to occupy their former bosses' government-owned homes because they were more durable than their own accommodation.
In negotiations that followed, workers were able to buy the houses relatively cheaply.
Foo remembers that chapter but personally did not follow Bennett's suggestion.
"At that time I did not think it was gentlemanly so I wait," he says.
The Government's recent investments in the island are massive.
Capital works estimates obtained from the shire show the Howard government spent more than $500 million transforming Christmas Island into a processing centre for asylum seekers. The projects included a $30 million alternative port facility on the east coast costing $30million. It was approved by parliament in 2002 to ensure building supplies could be delivered in all-weather conditions to the site of the new detention centre, but locals say they have only seen it used once, with great difficulty.
A transport corridor for the new loading facility at Nui Nui cost $11 million.
The Government built 160 bedsits for security guards in the seaside area of the island known as Poon San, at an estimated cost of $40 million. Temporary living quarters built for workers flown in to construct the new detention centre cost $15 million.
But residents say they are crying out for something to sustain them long term, and employ their children.
The island's annual red crab migration, and its array of unique birds, such as the endangered Abbott's booby, have led some locals to argue tourism must be the focus.
Others argue the potential is limited, though new airline AIOTA has managed to bring down the cost of flights to the island.
Meanwhile, think tank Future Directions International has urged the Government to treat the island as a strategic asset.
The Department of the Attorney General, which pours about $60 million a year into the island for services, is taking advice on how to encourage an industry or industries on the island that will make it prosperous.