Imagine that the most senior leader of one of Australia's neighbours resigns suddenly during a visit by a minister. And that this follows an election where the winners cannot agree on allocating a key economic portfolio, a street protest where two policemen are shot and a boozy lunch where a senior political adviser is murdered. Now imagine that none of this is even mentioned in an Australian newspaper.

Noumea, New Caledonia. (Flickr/lagrandeterre.)

Well, it's true and it reflects of our lack of awareness, and information, about what goes on in New Caledonia. I have written about Australian ignorance of the strategic significance of France being our closest neighbour to the east of Queensland. Nothing has changed. Our 2013 Defence White Paper doesn't mention New Caledonia, nor even France's role in the Pacific, even as France's 2013 Defence White Paper talks of political and maritime power deriving from the Pacific 'collectivities' (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, Clipperton) and strategic collaboration with Australia.

In a sense, our benevolent disregard for New Caledonia, and the French Pacific territories, has not mattered much until now. France has sought to improve cooperation with Australia in the Pacific by stopping its nuclear testing in the region and negotiating an end to bloodshed over independence demands in New Caledonia.

But the 1988 Matignon/Oudinot and 1998 Noumea Accord, which provided a temporary respite from violence in New Caledonia, are coming to their end. The last provincial elections under the Noumea Accord were held in May, resulting in the election of the local Congress that will decide the future of the collectivity, including its international status, the extent of its sovereign powers and its citizenship. These three things must be the subject of a referendum process before 2018. Three-fifths of the Congress must decide on proceeding to referendum, and if they can't agree, France must hold one by then.

As I wrote in May, the elections resulted in no one political grouping (either pro-France or pro-independence) holding three-fifths of the seats. They will need to work with each other to achieve agreement.

But since the elections, the path has not been smooth. A Kanak protest against environmental degradation from nickel development resulted in the shooting of two French policemen in June. The pro-independence groups cannot agree over which of their parties runs the valuable nickel portfolio, the subject of the murderous lunch in June. The post remains vacant. Disagreements remain about issues critical to the procedures ahead. Voter eligibility, concerning longstanding and new residents, is a sensitive issue. Disputes about electoral lists for the May elections involving over 6000 possible votes from new residents are so bitter that pro-independence leader Rock Wamytan raised the issue in the UN Decolonisation Committee, along with a separate reference to increased arms flows into the territory.

Electoral differences contributed to the unprecedented resignation of the French High Commissioner during a visit by the Overseas France Minister on 19 July. The High Commissioner was seen as being too much in favour of expanding the electoral lists for new pro-France arrivals. A commission sent to review the issue supported the pro-independence claims that Accord principles had not been upheld.

This does not bode well for an agreement over the lists for the referendum process. Elements of the pro-independence groups either did not attend or walked out of a recent planning meeting hosted by the High Commissioner. Later this month, the guiding Committee of Signatories to the Noumea Accord will meet, a controversial preparatory commission to canvas broad post-Accord issues, led by the able Alain Christnacht (a founding father of the Accord), followed by a visit by the French President in November.

The French State has taken its responsibilities seriously in preparing for discussions aiming at broad agreement about the referendum ahead. Two papers have been released. The first (reviewed here) is written by two senior French legal advisers and unsurprisingly favours New Caledonia staying with France, but sets out the legalities under each of four options (full sovereignty, partnership, extended autonomy and continued autonomy). The second, the Charter of the Kanak People, was released in April 2014 by the Customary Senate, a Noumea Accord institution of Kanak elders who advise on matters touching Kanak custom. Focusing on Kanak identity and victimisation under colonisation, the Charter sets respect and equality as minimum requirements for the future.

Interestingly, few pro-independence players (either the chiefs or the key Kanak political leaders) use the 'I' word in broad public messages. They speak of 'sovereignty', 'emancipation' and 'self-determination' rather than 'independence', suggesting scope for compromise. The Charter is no exception, indeed referring to 'shared sovereignty' with 'no effect on the territorial integrity of the State'. But it also cites the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights as the basis for sovereignty and calls on regional countries to support it.

The strategic stakes for Australia arising from these developments are high. First, continued stability in one of our closest neighbours has regional implications. And second, there is the extent of France's role in the region. An outcome in New Caledonia will have spin-off effects for the region, including for French Polynesia and also Papua New Guinea, when the Bougainville Agreement, itself partly based on the Noumea Accord, reaches a turning point around 2016. It could also effect the Solomon Islands, now operating without RAMSI, a fragile Fiji and neighbouring Vanuatu. 

As for France's regional role, it has been useful in recent years to have a close ally with strategic weight. France is a G20 member, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and NATO, leader of the EU's Pacific regional presence, and host to the Secretariat for the Pacific Community (in Noumea). It participates in defence exercises and FRANZ fisheries surveillance and emergency assistance, and is beginning to share its maritime and environmental expertise. Moreover, France generously bankrolls its collectivities, to the tune of at least US$2 billion each for New Caledonia and French Polynesia every year. If France's hold were to be shaken substantially, Australia would have to meet some of the shortfall.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Keith Bacongco