June 6, 2024

Political settlements in the Pacific are under pressure. What’s Australia’s next move?

Recent deadly riots in New Caledonia – triggered by the French government’s planned legal reforms that would have diluted the voting power of New Caledonia’s indigenous Kanak people – illuminated what some have described as the “unfinished business of decolonisation across the Blue Pacific Continent.”

The Pacific is home to a spectrum of models of statehood. From independent states to post-colonial and post-conflict political settlements, each arrangement is a balance of varying levels of sovereignty, autonomy and interdependence.

But across the region, this careful balance is at risk. The battle for influence in the Pacific is stoking external powers’ geopolitical anxieties and fuelling simmering sub-national tensions.

Amidst this tension, Australia is also balancing its stated commitment to being led by the voices of the Pacific, its goal of advancing a peaceful region, and its geostrategic interests. We consulted three Pacific experts, posing the question: “Political settlements in the Pacific are under pressure. What’s Australia’s next move?”

Nic Maclellan
Correspondent, Islands Business Magazine (Fiji)

There’s an old saying: “If you can’t ride two horses at once, you shouldn’t be in the circus.” Since its election in 2022, the Albanese government has been trying to balance its Indo-Pacific strategic partnership with France, alongside engagement with New Caledonia and French Polynesia. But balancing on two horses only works when they’re heading in the same direction. The current crisis in New Caledonia highlights this tension in Australian policy, which I argue has prioritised Indo-Pacific strategic agendas over indigenous sovereignty.

It’s time to shift gear and really address decolonisation in the region. Could people stop saying France is “a Pacific nation”? Under international law, it’s a European colonial power! Many Pacific voices – silenced in Australian debate – say the focus on military co-operation in the 2023 Australia-France Road Map undercuts the government’s rhetorical support for self-determination and climate action.

The Government has reached out to francophone neighbours (in April 2023, Penny Wong was the first Australian Foreign Minister ever to address the Congress of New Caledonia). It has reversed some bad policy (e.g. overturning rules that banned New Caledonian students from accessing Australia Award scholarships). But much more can be done to back political settlement at a time of conflict, including support for civil society initiatives.

The lessons of RAMSI should be applied today, as fragile political settlements are under threat in New Caledonia, Bougainville, West Papua and beyond. Canberra should spend less on ADF and AFP operations, and more to back community groups who empower youth and address the climate and development drivers of riots across the Pacific.

Nic is an award-winning journalist and researcher, specialising on the Pacific Islands. In a previous life, he was a senior policy advisor contributing to Oxfam International’s regional strategy for the Pacific. Nic has published widely on French policy in the Pacific Islands and engaged in research consultancies for UNICEF Pacific, the World Bank and the Lowy Institute.  At the Lab, we deeply respect Nic’s unwavering commitment to Pacific agency and self-determination.

Kerryn Baker
Fellow (Pacific Politics), Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University

Across the Pacific region, we are seeing pressure on democratic norms and practices – contested transfers of power, delayed elections, and breaches of judicial independence. These examples illustrate the potential for democratic backsliding. Yet the picture is not all doom and gloom. In fact, the Pacific is a staunchly democratic region. While the exceptions are what make the headlines, the reality is that most countries have records of unbroken, and relatively free and fair, elections. What’s more, there’s also a clear popular commitment to democracy in the Pacific. A recent popular attitudes survey in Vanuatu found very high levels of support for democracy both in principle and in practice.

Support for democracy in the region is a strength of Australia’s foreign policy – we are good at it, and it is good for soft power. But democracy is a broad concept, the Pacific is a complex political environment, and there are obvious limits on what any external actor will be able to achieve in this space. In such a complicated context, what is needed is a clear sense of what Australia is trying to achieve in terms of supporting democracy. This is where a democracy policy can come in.

The 2023 Inquiry into Supporting Democracy in Our Region recommended a public policy on elections support, but such a policy could go further, with an expansive rather than technical definition that encompasses the full and vibrant nature of democratic participation. A substantive policy would not only guard against any accusations of foreign interference in politics, but also help craft evidence-based and effective tools for strengthening and protecting democracy. Delivering democracy support is important to us, so articulating how and why it matters should be too.

Kerryn is a highly regarded researcher and expert in Pacific politics. Her research focuses on women’s leadership and political participation, electoral reform, civic knowledge and citizen engagement. She has conducted fieldwork all over the Pacific, including in Bougainville, Samoa, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. At the Lab, we’re huge fans of Kerryn’s work, and credit her as one of the most exciting and impressive thinkers on Pacific politics and geopolitics in Australia.

Oliver Nobetau
FDC Pacific Fellow, Lowy Institute

Bougainvilleans overwhelmingly voted for independence from PNG in the 2019 referendum on the region’s future political status. But since the vote, negotiations between the governments of PNG and Bougainville have stalled, while pressure for some kind of resolution slowly builds on both sides. The contentious issues on the table between the two sides have largely related to reaching a consensus on the procedure for bringing the referendum results before the PNG parliament for ratification.

While Bougainville’s leadership is focused on post-referendum processes, concerns remain about the poor performance of human development indicators in Bougainville, particularly in health and education.  The biggest issue hindering Bougainville tapping into its immense development potential has been the slow progress in realizing full autonomy through the draw-down and exercise of all powers guaranteed under the PNG Constitution. In the absence of these powers, Bougainville is yet to establish a firm foundation (socially and economically) to support a fledgling independent nation. Revenue generation is crucial to this, yet according to Bougainville’s 2024 budget only 6.6% of its revenue is generated internally. In this sense, being granted immediate independence could lead to an exacerbation of issues related to underdevelopment.

As an international partner, Australia’s comparative advantage is its understanding of the contextual and cultural equities at play. The stalemate between both Governments may justify an intervention by the Australian Government  to assist the leaders to move this process along: even if this intervention is not as the envisaged mediator/broker of negotiations. But there’s another role for it to play, as an effective and impactful development partner for Bougainville. Australia has led development initiatives on the ground in Bougainville. Its greatest contribution will be through enhancing the impact of these development initiatives, in accordance with Bougainville’s priorities, to address the autonomous region’s pressing development challenges.

Oliver is a lawyer and researcher, practicing in international law and previously representing the Government of Papua New Guinea in international negotiations relating to security and climate change. Currently he is a FDC Pacific Fellow at the Lowy Institute. Oliver has a deep interest in climate change, national security, PNG governance and politics, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and broader international relations across the Pacific region. At the Lab, we always enjoy hearing Oliver’s politically-savvy insights on all things Pacific and PNG.

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