Commentary | 22 December 2019

PNG must respect voters and help form world’s newest nation

Originally published in The Australian.

Originally published in The Australian.

So the vote is done, and no one can say they don’t know what Bougainville thinks.

With 97.7 per cent of voters saying they want Bougainville to be independent, there seems little that can stop the world’s newest nation being given its sovereignty separate from Papua New Guinea.

Yes, there is a process to come — and PNG’s parliament will need to take steps to make it happen — but surely the discussion now about Bougainville’s independence is one of when, not if.

Bougainvilleans should be commended for their patience and commitment to this process. Some of their leaders have been pushing for separation since before even PNG came into existence — more than four decades. Through a brutal civil war that took many thousands of lives, and a peace process that enshrined patience as the price for this vote, Bougainvilleans have endured and waited for the chance to have their say.

And as the PNG Prime Minister dealing with a peace process formalised nearly two decades ago, James Marape must be commended for bringing PNG to the table — although the arguments he’s making now about economic independence and recognition of Bougainville’s frustration at PNG political dysfunction are perhaps a little too late for this conversation.

It would be tough for any PNG leader to deny what the result represents, let alone one who’s been in the job for only six months. It’s a damning repudiation of what national politics has delivered, both for Bougainville and the country as a whole.

The multi-year delay before Bougainvilleans got a vote on independence was supposed to give PNG time to make the case for national integrity. That the November vote is so overwhelming — probably even a greater majority in 2019 voting for independence than would have in 2001 — suggests that the case for PNG as a nation is weaker today than it was two decades ago.

Still, Marape deserves credit for turning up. His visit to Arawa two weeks ago — and the positive approach to the conversation to come — at least means that negotiations can start with a sound foundation.

But as much as Marape has been positive, he seems to be suggesting that his end goal is not the one that 97.7 per cent of Bougainvilleans have voted for. He and his responsible minister have asked outside powers to “respect” the process and to stay out of the negotiations. That can hold only as long as those outside powers — who underwrote the peace process and the referendum vote — see meaningful progress towards respecting the will of Bougainville’s people.

The result means those outside powers can start recalibrating their own relationships with Bougainville. Australia is one that gains some room to move from this result.

Australia is seen by many Bougainvilleans as having been a player in the conflict, from having forced through the Panguna mine in the 1960s over landowner objections through to support for the PNG government and defence force during the conflict. Since the late 1990s, Australia has taken a realistic approach to Bougainville’s future, noting in a 1996 cabinet submission that its future would require at least “some degree” of autonomy.

The overwhelming vote means that Australia can justify tweaking its approach. It should be able to step up its engagement with Bougainville more directly: the aborted 2015 plan for a consulate in Buka should be raised again, and soon. Canberra will still need to tread carefully, but at least can justify the approach with reference to Bougainville’s vote.

As for the PNG Prime Minister, it’s not just the referendum outcome that is going to limit his options. Bougainville is due to have regional elections by the middle of 2020. A go-slow on talks risks a potential Bougainville president being elected in June on a pledge to “Get Independence Done”. As Boris Johnson has shown, voters can tend to look favourably on candidates who promise to do what those voters have already said they want done.

There is a tricky path ahead. There will be expectations for a quick resolution, but it seems highly unlikely that we will see a chair at the UN General Assembly for Bougainville in 2020.

Bougainvillean patience will continue to be tested, but it is important to not lose sight of what citizens have achieved.

Yes, the economic challenges are significant, and the negotiations with PNG will be complex. But what was a vicious and violent civil conflict has become a world-standard peace process that is on the cusp of delivering a meaningful political outcome. That’s something to be recognised and celebrated as Bougainville prepares for the next step in its long march for independence.