Kicking the can down the road is a time-honoured solution to deadlocks over statehood and identity: hoping time, consultation and money can end up in agreement.
But in New Caledonia, the French territory of 290,000 people in the Melanesian island chain to Australia’s north-east, the road is running out after more than two decades of can-kicking.
The time is coming – perhaps has come – for Australia to take a clearer position.
On 4 October, the second of three referendums on independence promised after 20 years of peace-building saw a sharpening divide in popular sentiment about staying under the French tricolour.
Just over 53% of voters said “non” to independence, down from 56.7% in the first referendum in 2018. The trend suggests that a third referendum expected in 2022 would see the “oui” vote rise from this month’s 46.7% to parity or even a narrow majority.
Such a prospect has some observers fearing a return to the communal violence seen in the late 1980s, when indigenous Kanaks sought to follow their Melanesian counterparts in Vanuatu, the Solomons, and Papua New Guinea into independence, and French settlers mounted armed resistance.
It culminated in 1988. Kanak militants took French police as political hostages on the small island of Ouvéa; French special forces went in, with significant loss of life. The horror led to a 10-year peacemaking effort, the Matignon accords, signed by French loyalist and Kanak leaders, extended by the 1998 Nouméa accords.
This month’s vote saw the territory still largely split along the indigenous-settler divide. The “oui” vote dominated in the northern part of the main island and the Loyalty Islands to the east, where Kanaks are concentrated. The “non” vote prevailed in the main island’s south around Nouméa and a smaller settler enclave.
The question is, where to now? Under the accords, a third referendum must be held if requested by at least a third of the New Caledonia congress, its legislature. The earliest request can be in April, for a vote in 2022.
The pro-independence Kanak parties have the required numbers and say they will demand it.
Loyalists, seeing where the numbers are trending, are starting to baulk at it. Sonia Backès, a conservative loyalist who is president of the southern region, has said it even carries the risk of civil war.
Some loyalist elements are now urging new negotiations on some kind of middle way, to avoid holding the third referendum. A more hard-line element wants a vote on scrapping the accord in 2022, bringing the 40,000 more recent settlers onto the local electoral roll and thus outvoting the Kanaks for good.
But some compromise is stirring on the Kanak side too. This week, Roch Wamytan, a Kanak who was a signatory to the 1998 accords and is now president of the territory’s congress, floated the idea of independence in association with France. This would perhaps resemble the ties of the northern Pacific states of Palau, Micronesia and Marshall Islands with the United States, which extends defence, funding and social services, while still holding their own United Nations membership.
France itself looks ready to adjust.
In 2018 president Emmanuel Macron visited New Caledonia before the vote, and expressed pride in the decision to remain with France.
This time he stayed away, and afterwards, as noted by Denise Fisher, a former Australian consul-general in Nouméa, just referred to the “success” of the “second democratic rendezvous” as a sign of “confidence in the Republic.” He promised to organise a third referendum if that was requested, and urged the territory’s people to think hard about all scenarios after 2022.
The French territories minister, Sebastien Lecornu, appeared set on encouraging flexible thinking when he arrived in New Caledonia this month. “This binary question of a yes or no to independence is not the answer to all the questions raised in society today.”
New Caledonia’s region is also stepping into the debate. Vanuatu’s opposition leader and recent foreign minister, Ralph Regenvanu, this week urged more contact with loyalists to convince them New Caledonia can be a viable state.
He noted that this camp often cites Vanuatu, a former British-French condominium, as a dire example of independence.
“For us, it is quite amusing because we think we have got a very good development model happening here,” Regenvanu told Radio New Zealand.
In this context, Australia is looking oddly more pro-French than the French.
In a statement on the referendum result, foreign minister Marise Payne said “we recognise the choice made by New Caledonians to remain a part of France”, declaring “Australia values its close relationship with France as a likeminded partner in the Indo-Pacific region. We welcome France’s ongoing commitment to the Pacific, and its significant contribution to regional security and prosperity.”
Not a word about the Kanaks and their aspirations.
Two things are at play here. China has Australia spooked about the Pacific, to the point where it is open to French duchessing that they are a significant counterweight, through such things as the recently proposed France-India-Australia “axis” and the appointment of a French ambassador for the Indo-Pacific.
Both India and Australia are of course big customers for the French arms industry.
From a narrow military power-balance perspective, it might seem attractive to keep a significant Western naval power like France watching over a vast stretch of the Pacific, where France has about 80% of its present exclusive economic zone.
But it runs counter to the Morrison government’s signature initiative placing Australia in the Pacific “vuvale” (family, in Fijian).
The Melanesians are this family’s most numerous people, perhaps outnumbering Australians later this century. They take decolonisation of their Kanak brothers very seriously. We should show that we do too.
A more constructive approach would be to join regional leaders like Regenvanu in trying convince loyalists that a new independent state of Kanaky, with continuing French support and encouraged Australian investment in its struggling nickel industry, might not be a bad thing, certainly better than otherwise inevitable conflict.
For Australia, it would pre-empt malign influence from elsewhere and show our recognition that we are, as Regenvanu told me earlier this year, “part of a Black region”.