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State Scene - The changing nature of life on Christmas Island

PHOSPHATE mining and tourism, the two economic staples of tropical Christmas Island – 2630 kilometres north-west of Perth – could be diversified.

The island is set to enter the space age with the world’s first fully commercial land-based space launching facility, and also to become Australia’s equivalent of the historic American Ellis Island migrant-processing centre adjacent to Manhattan Island.

Like spectacular Lord Howe Island – two air hours from Sydney – Christmas Island was uninhabited until relatively recently.

Christmas Island’s first recorded landing was by two of explorer-buccaneer William Dampier’s ship hands, in 1688, nearly 150 years before Captain Stirling established the Swan River Colony.

But it wasn’t until the 1880s that the 135sq km jungle limestone-phosphate outcrop was commercially eyed-off, with phosphate shipment beginning in 1900.

Until recently, public sector jobs and the phosphate industry were all that attracted outsiders.

That’s if one excludes the Japanese occupation of 1942-45 and a Perth real estate agent’s $34 million 1993 bid to transform it into a gambling Mecca for Asian high rollers. The casino closed in 1998.

Because Christmas Island was uninhabited, Chinese and Malay workers were brought in, giving rise to a traditional-style colonial class structure that remained largely unchanged until well after World War II.

This eventually attracted restless Europeans with egalitarian and unionist outlooks, including the late Gordon Bennett, who challenged its commercial, social and political order, including refusal to accept as a fait accompli a Labor government’s closure of mining.

Phosphate extraction in 1948 came under joint Australian and New Zealand control with British Phosphate Commissioners as managers.

A decade later the island was transferred from Britain’s Singapore administration to Australian sovereignty.

“The Christmas Island Act (1958) provides the basis for the island’s administration,” a Canberra publication says.

“The head of Government is the Administrator, appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Federal Cabinet. Administration works closely with the community, the local Shire Council and the Union of Christmas Island Workers (UCIW) to keep the island running smoothly.”

The 1948 and 1958 changes meant that an island 365km from Java rapidly moved into Canberra’s and Perth’s orbit.

Interestingly, it is politically linked to Alice Springs, having been incorporated into the Northern Territory’s Federal seat of Lingiari, held by Labor MP Warren Snowden, who is based in the Alice.

Phosphate extraction expanded between 1948 and 1958 and workers’ families settled, so a

permanent population emerged.

Although mining ceased in 1988 the Bennett-led UCIW acquired the mining operation and restarted work in 1991.

A number of agri-firms, including Wesfarmers, which had traditionally supplied superphosphate to WA farmers, contemplated joint venturing with the UCIW.

WA goldminer Ron Manners also considered teaming up, and Perth-based Clough Engineering briefly partnered the UCIW.

Today the economy on this union-dominated island is being offered another opportunity at diversification.

Canberra in 2001 agreed to support creation of a commercial space-launch site, slated to begin operation later this year.

Sydney-based Asia Pacific Space Center (APSC), founded in 1997, has offices in San Diego, Singapore, Moscow and Christmas Island.

APSC has signed agreements with several Russian contractors for the Aurora launch system.

Next month APSC will know if it can proceed because it is currently negotiating a crucial finance package with Korea Tele-com.

Canberra has committed to spending up to $100 million backing the proposed spaceport once deals like the one with Korea Telecom are finalised so work can proceed.

APSC will focus on the geostationary launch sector of the satellite market and low earth launches. This would mean 400 construction phase jobs and 550 when fully operational, representing about a quarter of the Island’s current population.

This, and Canberra’s Regional Services Department’s decision to build an Immigration Reception and Processing Centre for up to 800 asylum seekers (down from 1200), means expenditure in the pipeline of about a billion dollars.

Perth-based Consolidated Construction Pty Ltd and Duwal Pty Ltd has just completed 160 single bed units and a dozen three-bed houses to support the IRPC facility.

The island’s port at Flying Fish Cove has been upgraded over the past three years to meet growing demands and another at Nui Nui is being developed.

Christmas Island, like the Cocos group, is strategically important to Australia, and may be more so over coming decades.

Together they cost mainland taxpayers over $50 million annually, excluding social service outlays.

Territories Minister Wilson Tuckey has pressed for the emergence of even a budding private sector that would mean jobs other than public sector oriented ones.

But Christmas Island faces formidable challenges, especially if the spaceport plan falters.

Among these challenges is its isolation and resultant high cost airfares, which hinder efforts to boost a budding tourism sector.

And two thirds of the island (90sq/km) is gazetted national park, a Canberra-driven decision.

This means mining – the economic mainstay since 1900 – will find it difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to known phosphate reserves.

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