A visit to New Caledonia last week highlighted the momentous discussions that are taking place to determine the future of Australia's closest eastern neighbour.
Amid profound differences, two opposing leaders have released ambit claims. On 13 November, independence Palika party leader Paul Néaoutyine announced a proposal for “full sovereignty in partnership with France”. Having followed the 1980s civil war as a junior DFAT officer in its UN Political desk in Canberra, later serving as Australian Consul-General in Noumea, and knowing the work of assassinated independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, I found this proposal, from the one independence leader indispensable in rallying the Kanak vote in the villages, no less than breathtaking. It represents a huge gesture to the other non-Kanak communities. In this it differs fundamentally from the FLNKS coalition plan, recently released, for an independent Kanaky-New Caledonia.
Within days, the leader of the largest pro-France group, Philippe Gomes, formulated his proposal, calling for an inclusive joint declaration ahead of the referendum, encompassing the autonomies granted so far and foreshadowing even more, an idea of "whole and full sovereignty within France". Like Néaouytine’s paper, this was a remarkable shift from the thinking of pro-France groups and provides material for close collaboration, discussion, and compromise.
Unsurprisingly, each leader has met initial responses that are viscerally critical, not just from the opposing side, but from within their own independence or loyalist groups. But the seeds of finding common ground have been sown.
My visit followed a meeting of the Committee of Noumea Accord Signatories in Paris, and the annual meetings of four pro-independence parties, and I attended a University of New Caledonia colloquium on future options. All of these, plus political preparation for a 2 December visit by French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, threw up controversy and division – but also further positive signs for the future.
One positive sign was agreement, on 2 November, by the Committee of Signatories, to a series of strategic working groups preparing for the final referendum. These will all be chaired by French High Commissioner Thierry Lataste, a founding negotiator of the 1998 Accord. A marathon 13-hour committee session personally chaired by Prime Minister Philippe did much to promote harmony. The committee agreed on a solution to the vexed issue of voter eligibility for the referendum to enable automatic enrolment for indigenous people and simplified procedures for eligible non-indigenous voters.
Two dissenting independence elements (the radical Parti Travailliste, and part of the Union Calédonienne) disagreed that modification of the law was necessary, but encouragingly did not stand in the way when the local congress voted in favour. They have given notice that they are closely watching the enrolment process, one mentioning a possible boycott, but are more likely setting a scene for calling foul if necessary, after the vote is held. Thus external monitoring will be important, and the committee agreed on UN observers visiting early next year and on voting day.
A further step forward was the resolution of the three-month failure to elect a President, after the local cabinet had to be re-formed following a vacancy arising from the French electoral process. The eleven-member cabinet is collegial, reflecting the relative pro-France (6 seats) and independence (5) strength in the Congress. Recently, owing to pro-France divisions, the independence groups provided the deciding vote for a pro-France president. This time the independence groups held out, but finally agreed in December to support loyalist Philippe Germain, in return for a commitment to working together on “post-Accord” issues, returning to true government collegiality, and social reform to help Kanak youth.
In preceding days all parties had publicly committed to a process of collaboration and discussion that will go beyond the date of the first referendum vote, with some explicitly referring to the need in keep talking to defuse inevitable sensitivities arising from that vote. The first vote (of a possible three from 2018 to 2022) is now likely to be in October 2018, rather than the Accord’s deadline of November, to sidestep the painful anniversary of the November 1984 ballot box axing by independence militants, that triggered the civil war.
These agreements were achieved through continual brokering by Lataste, underlining local dependence on the French State to resolve differences. Lataste’s efforts were sharpened by the need for harmony with the arrival of French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe on 2 December. President Emmanuel Macron will visit in March.
For Australia, these developments represent a shift, the beginning of a new process that, while doubtless fraught with dissension, and possibly violence, promises a path forward that may even transcend the inevitably damaging effect of voting day itself.