Christmas Island Braces for Policy to Hit Home; Bill Hoffman Discovers a Community Waiting for History to Repeat

Article excerpt

CHRISTMAS ISLAND: The main loading jetty at Flying Fish Cove with the phosphate loading facility in the distance.

THE island at the centre of Australia's struggle to define an appropriate response to waves of asylum seekers, is itself a contradiction befuddled by the logistical challenges of all remote locations.

Located directly under West Java and just 440kms or a half-hour jet flight from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, Christmas Island is instead provisioned from Perth - 2594km to the south west.

There are no commercial air services into Asia despite 70% of the island's population being of either Chinese or Malay Chinese descent. Access is instead also via Perth, a flight of nearly four hours.

The cost of a round flight ticket with Virgin Airlines is $1100. Freight carried by sea also comes from Perth at a cost of $11,000 a landed container.

Yet despite the tyranny of distance and with Australia's other Indian Ocean territory - the Cocos Keeling Islands being 980km away further west - there is no bulk aviation fuel storage.

Aviation fuel arrives by ship in bubble packs from Perth and is rationed. The local belief is that customs and immigration patrol planes take precedence over the needs of commercial passenger jets.

On a fact-finding Palmer United Party campaign trip to Christmas Island last week, I was told of Virgin flights being re-routed to Port Hedland for fuel because of that competing demand.

The cost of living generally is 46% higher than Perth with food 82% more expensive.

Tourism association president Lisa Preston admits to paying $28 for an iceberg lettuce. Chicken is $30 a kilo and red meat considerably more.

The island's meeting place, The Golden Bosun Tavern is considered the best value for food and drinks but a simple meal of fish, salad and chips still costs $30. But the place was packed last Friday night, drinkers standing casually dressed, shoulder to shoulder in the bar, with the National Rugby League showing on the big screen. The ex-servicemen among the predominantly fly-in fly-out workers were easy to pick by their muscled frames.

Two naval vessels patrolled offshore, just beyond the jagged rocks on which Siev-221 founded on December 15, 2010, killing 48 people.

The island is hilly, rising 300 metres above the surrounding deep waters of the Indian Ocean. Its 73km of coastline is edged by steep and sharp-rocked 10- to 20-metre high cliffs.

Only Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island's northern tip offers easy access to the sea. It is home to the raised jetty that often features in news footage of new arrivals and is dominated by loading and storage facilities for the phosphate industry.

Attitudes towards the waves of boats arriving from West Java and Sri Lanka are a similar mix to compassion, distaste and mistrust that can be found on the mainland. …

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