Unsurprisingly, most Australians don’t know much about the Falkland Islands, so visiting Legislative Assembly member Mike Summers faced lots of questions during his trip to Melbourne this week.
At 51 degrees south, it’s further south than Australia, and is often perceived as being almost polar. But maps can be deceptive. In the northern hemisphere the landmasses stretch much closer to the pole, so in fact the Falklands are only at the equivalent latitude to England.
Mike described the healthy economy, based on a strong fisheries industry, sheep farming and tourism, and the excellent prospects for oil and gas development. He set out such an attractive picture of the tourist opportunities that many who heard him expressed an interest in visiting.
People were keen to know how the 3,000 islanders lived and how they connected to the rest of the world. 3AW Radio interviewer Tom Elliott said it sounded perfect: a budget surplus, zero unemployment and only eight politicians!
Mike explained that the islands’ leaders had decided to engage more actively internationally, to explain their situation, in the face of increasingly assertive efforts by Argentine authorities to inhibit their economic development. He argued that the rights of the Falkland islanders to self-determination, a right enshrined in the UN Charter, should be paramount.
In a referendum last year 99.8% had voted in favour of remaining a self-governing overseas territory of the UK. The Islanders had sent a clear message to the world that they wanted to remain British. You can read an article he wrote prior to his visit.
Mike was here just after Australia Day which commemorates the arrival of the first western settlement in 1788. In recent years the annual event has given rise to much reflection here on the impact of that arrival on Australia’s Aboriginal inhabitants. Australians were interested to learn from Mike that the first British settlement on the Falklands had been even earlier, in 1766, and that there had been no indigenous population prior to their arrival.
There has been continuous British settlement on the Falklands since the 1830s, and some of the current population are 9th generation islanders. Mike suggested that whilst accusations of colonialism were being bandied about, it was actually the Argentine who were seeking to be colonisers, against the will of the Falklands people.
A number of the people Mike met reflected on their memories of the Falklands conflict in 1982. We had a fascinating dinner with Malcolm Fraser who had been Prime Minister at the time. Many of Mike’s interlocutors expressed genuine understanding and sympathy for his message about the importance of respecting the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination.