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New Caledonia’s second independence referendum is a wake-up call

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1 October 2020. Last meeting of the Loyalists for the

In Brief

For the second time in two years, on 4 October, longstanding New Caledonian residents elected to stay with France. But the large and growing indigenous Kanak and Pacific islander support base for independence cannot be ignored.


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There are strategic implications for France, Australia and the Pacific region, beyond what this second ‘no’ to independence might seem to suggest.

This series of referendums are part of a final self-determination process established under transition agreements that sought to end major disturbances over independence in the 1980s. The latest agreement ends in 2022, risking a return to instability on Australia’s eastern border, particularly if differences over independence intensify.

The process sets up to three votes each two years apart from 2018 to 2022 if the answer to the preceding vote is ‘no’, with each vote triggered by the support of at least one-third of local Congress members. After this second ‘no’ vote, independence leaders — who hold almost half of the seats in Congress — have already said they want a third referendum. Beyond even three ‘no’ votes, the process still calls for discussions about the future.

It is hoped — whether a third vote is held or not — that discussions can start now because differences are bitter. They will only deepen once negotiated provisions confining eligibility to longstanding residents in local votes lapse. This advantages indigenous independence groups, as these provisions currently exclude over 40,000 French newcomers from the vote.

The two years since the first vote in November 2018 have seen disturbing polarisation and strengthened ethnic divide. Support for Kanak independence groups rose to 46.7 per cent, up from 43.3 per cent in 2018. These groups have worked to ensure large voter turnouts (just under 86 per cent, unheard of in France) and appear to have attracted the support of some non-Kanak islander groups (Polynesians and Vanuatuans) who usually vote French loyalist.

Loyalist groups are divided, and the most hardline withdrew from dialogue before the last vote — a particularly divisive move in a Pacific context where discussion is key. From early reactions to the vote, they may now accept the need to talk.

The stakes in retaining New Caledonia are high for France. It has based its role in the Indo-Pacific on its sovereign presence in the two oceans. The loss of New Caledonia would have flow-on effects for its 12 other overseas territories, particularly in the Pacific where French Polynesian independence leaders support independence in New Caledonia.

Australian strategic interests are also in play. For decades Australia has had the luxury of leaving to France the management of the vast French half of the South Pacific, including Australia’s closest eastern island neighbour New Caledonia, French Polynesia at the strategic centre of the Pacific Ocean, and Wallis and Futuna in between. France has proven a useful ally once it stopped nuclear testing in French Polynesia and devolved more autonomy to its Pacific territories. It offers defence and emergency services cooperation and modest aid to the region.

Australia has recognised this role and has looked to strengthen the strategic partnership, based firmly on defence cooperation in the South Pacific. The relationship was consolidated with a AU$53 billion (US$38 billion) submarine construction contract. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s statement after the second independence vote acknowledges France’s Pacific contribution.

This partnership has become more important as the United States has withdrawn from the South Pacific region and China has increasingly made its presence felt.

It was the loyalist groups who played the China card in New Caledonia’s referendum campaign, suggesting that an independent New Caledonia would become a Chinese colony. Independence voters were clearly not impressed. In his public statement after the vote, French President Emmanuel Macron referred to his Indo-Pacific vision, which he sees as key to balancing China, but this time he did not specifically name China or hegemonic tendencies as he has in the past.

This shows sensitivity to regional dispositions. China is the largest importer of New Caledonia’s vast mineral and other products. Kanak independence leaders who run the territory’s Northern Province — and a multi-billion dollar nickel plant constructed under economic rebalancing measures — have cemented productive ties with China, including a solid market and a joint venture. It is difficult to see a viable economic future for New Caledonia without the Chinese market, whether it chooses independence or otherwise.

The success of the Melanesian Kanak population in boosting independence support will not be lost on Australia’s Melanesian neighbours. The Melanesian Spearhead Group supports independence. Melanesian separatist movements in neighbouring Papua New Guinea and Indonesia’s West Papua will take heart from the independence groups’ success in this second vote.

While the term ‘Melanesian arc of instability’ is out of fashion, New Caledonia’s latest vote suggests at least an ‘arc of uncertainty’ around independence demands in the three Melanesian countries that provide a strategic buffer to Australia’s north and east.

Australia and France need to take note of growing indigenous and islander support for independence in New Caledonia. Australia should urge France to encourage loyalists to join independence leaders in early, genuine dialogue for a more certain future.

Denise Fisher is a visiting fellow at the Centre for European Studies, The Australian National University.

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