Vanuatu Independence Day
Thank you, Madam Speaker. Yesterday was Independence Day for Vanuatu – Australia’s neighbour on the other side of the Coral Sea. As is the case with many Pacific Islands nations, Vanuatu has close historical links to this country. The New Hebrides [HEB – ri – deez] group of islands, as it was then called, was one of the major sources for workers brought into Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century to provide cheap labour on Australian plantations. It is estimated that before this practice ended, approximately 60,000 South Sea Islanders were imported through a practice commonly known as ‘blackbirding’ – which often relied on deception or outright kidnapping to coerce people into leaving their native lands for the promise of jobs or other benefits.
We do not know how many of the labourers who came to Australia were specifically from the New Hebrides, but at one point, more than half of the adult male population of several of the islands had been taken away to work. This has had a lasting impact on independent Vanuatu in some significant ways. Although most labourers were on three-year contracts, it is estimated that 30 per cent of the South Sea Islanders who worked in Australia died during their three years. This resulted in significant depopulation, meaning that there are fewer people in Vanuatu now than there may well have been in previous centuries.
Modern Vanuatu is a beautiful nation comprised of 82 volcanic islands, though only 65 of them are inhabited. Its wet and warm tropical weather have carpeted these islands with lush tropical forests. And, to share a fun fact, it was in certain of these forests on the island of Pentecost that the precursor to bungee jumping originated. ‘Land diving’, as it is properly called, involves men carefully selecting tree vines, tying them around their ankles, and then diving, head-first, from wooden towers that soar up to 30 metres into the air. The best dives are those where the man’s shoulders actually brush the ground!
Madam Speaker, Vanuatu only achieved independence from France and the UK in 1980, making it one of the world’s newer nations. And this was the first year that Vanuatu Independence Day was celebrated in the Canberra region. It was my privilege to attend the event that was held this past Saturday evening. The theme was ‘We’re bringing tropical Vanuatu to Canberra’, and the celebration certainly lived up to that promise. On a cold winter’s night, I was immediately greeted by the warmth of the Islands – which absolutely includes the warm and friendly embrace of the Islanders themselves.
I wish to take this opportunity, Madam Speaker, to wish all Ni-Vanuatu living in the ACT a happy Independence Day. I also wish to thank those who organised the event this past weekend, including Brigitte and Sylvie. I greatly enjoyed the food, the Pacific Islands floorshow and, most importantly, the opportunity to be with dear friends and make several more in the process. Thank you.