Extensive preparations were undertaken by the government of Australia to prepare the Cocos Malays to vote in their referendum of self-determination. Discussions began in 1982, with an aim of holding the referendum, under United Nations supervision, in mid-1983. Under guidelines developed by the UN Decolonization Committee, residents were to be offered three choices: full independence, free association, or integration with Australia. The last option was preferred by both the islanders and the Australian government. A change in government in Canberra following the March 1983 Australian elections delayed the vote by one year. While the Home Island Council stated a preference for a traditional communal consensus “vote”, the UN insisted on a secret ballot. The referendum was held on 6 April 1984, with all 261 eligible islanders participating, including the Clunies-Ross family: 229 voted for integration, 21 for Free Association, nine for independence, and two failed to indicate a preference. In recent years a series of disputes have occurred between the Muslim Coco Malay inhabitants and the non-Muslim population of the islands.
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands consist of two flat, low-lying coral atolls with an area of 5.5 square miles, 16 miles of coastline, a highest elevation of 16 feet and thickly covered with coconut palms and other vegetation. The climate is pleasant, moderated by the southeast trade winds for about nine months of the year and with moderate rainfall. Tropical cyclones may occur in the early months of the year.
North Keeling Island is an atoll consisting of just one C-shaped island, a nearly closed atoll ring with a small opening into the lagoon, about 160 feet wide, on the east side. The island measures 270 acres in land area and is uninhabited. The lagoon is about 120 acres. North Keeling Island and the surrounding sea to 0.93 miles from shore form the Pulu Keeling National Park, established on 12 December 1995. It is home to the only surviving population of the endemic, and endangered, Cocos Buff-banded Rail.
South Keeling Islands is an atoll consisting of 24 individual islets forming an incomplete atoll ring, with a total land area of 5.1 square miles. Only Home Island and West Island are populated. The Cocos Malays maintain weekend shacks, referred to as pondoks, on most of the larger islands.
The population of the islands is approximately 600. There is a small and growing tourist industry focused on water-based or nature activities. In 2016, a beach on Direction Island was named the best beach in Australia by Brad Farmer, an Aquatic and Coastal Ambassador for Tourism Australia and co-author of 101 Best Beaches 2017.
Small local gardens and fishing contribute to the food supply, but most food and most other necessities must be imported from Australia or elsewhere.
The Cocos Islands Cooperative Society Ltd. employs construction workers, stevedores, and lighterage worker operations. Tourism employs others. The unemployment rate was 6.7% in 2011.
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands have 9.3 miles of highway.