Australia’s rich bounty of small island cultures going untapped

Published 26 April 2012

The rich cultural heritage of Australia’s fringing islands could disappear unless it is recognised in national cultural policy, says a Southern Cross University researcher.

Professor Philip Hayward, Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor of Research, is one of the key speakers at the inaugural Australia’s Small Island Forum on Lord Howe Island from April 30 to May 4.

“The Australian government has never done a survey or audit of the culture of its external islands so therefore there is no cultural policy outlining or addressing the assets that are there,” said Professor Hayward.

Australia’s seven external island territories include Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, Coral Sea Islands, Heard Island and Norfolk Island.

“Norfolk Island has a globally distinct language, Norf’k, a mix of Tahitian and 18th century English. It’s recognised by UNESCO but is not recognised under the Australian constitution as an Indigenous language.

“On the Cocos Islands there’s a form of Cocos Malay, a distinct dialect of Malay, which has also not received recognition.

“There’s also extensive musical repertoire, dance and visual arts traditions on Norfolk and various other islands but they’ve all fallen off the map of Australia’s cultural policy.”

Professor Hayward has been working in the area of small island research since 1995 and is the international network convenor of SICRI (The Small Island Cultures Research Initiative) and the editor of Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures.

He said the traditional cultures of small islands were an asset.

“These island heritages are valuable in terms of promoting a strong self-identity which central to developing a tourism industry or developing economic assets that can be traded in a global environment.”

Culture, the environment and sustainability in tourism will be key topics of the Small Island Forum. Key speakers include the federal Minister for Regional Australia Simon Crean, scientist and conservationist Professor Tim Flannery, president and co-founder of the Shorefast Foundation Zita Cobb and Anne Prince, director of APC Environmental Management.

Representatives from small island communities, including government and territory leaders, businesses, tourism bodies and educational institutions, will be discussing the major issues that affect people living on small islands.

“Despite their varied sizes, scale and distance from other places, small islands around the world have similar characteristics,” Professor Hayward said.

“The conference is addressing the shared assets, the shared limitations, the shared advantages and disadvantages of small islands, particularly in an increasingly globalised world of the 21st century.”

Professor Hayward lists social and cultural organisation, sustainability and viability as some of the advantages of small islands.

On the downside while low lying islands face rising sea levels brought about by climate change, other issues, like access to technology and energy, affect all small island communities.

“Small islands are experiencing an increase in technology poverty. In a world where everything’s increasingly on the internet living and doing business on a small island causes residents, businesses and governing authorities real difficulties,” he said.

“A large number of small islands don’t even have electric power which makes them even more marginalised. One solution is developing small scale, locally relevant energy systems where the costs don’t outweigh the incomes of small island communities.”

Photo: Professor Philip Hayward.

Media contact: Sharlene King media officer, Southern Cross University Lismore, 02 6620 3508 or 0429 661 349.