Consulat Général d'Australie
Nouvelle-Calédonie, Wallis et Futuna

Melanesia – an important region for Australia

Text of speech prepared jointly by Ms Anita Butler, Australian Consul General and Mr Stephan Bohnen, Deputy Consul general, and presented by Mr Bohnen to the Conference on New Caledonia and Melanesian Integration, organised by House Blong Melanesia, 4 and 5 September 2008.

Melanesia – an important region for Australia

The islands of Melanesia are some of the most populous in the Pacific and are also some of Australia’s nearest neighbours. Geographically, it is no surprise that Australia has had a long association with the countries of Melanesia – from early European explorers, whalers, traders and, in the case of Papua New Guinea, colonial administration, to our strong present involvement in development cooperation.

Australia’s bilateral relations with the countries of Melanesia have not always been rosy, and continue to experience highs and lows, partly because some of the most serious problems of governance and inter-ethnic tension in the region have been found in Melanesia. Our relationship with Papua New Guinea is made more complex by the history of Australia’s role in administering that country from 1906 to 1975.

At present, our relations with Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are particularly amicable, but those with Fiji are obviously more difficult. Regardless, however, of the challenges that have arisen in our relations over time, we can see clearly that there has never been a period when Australia did not consider its engagement with its Melanesian neighbours to be of importance and was not strongly focused on developments in this region.

Australian policy in relation to New Caledonia

The same is true for New Caledonia, which is part of Melanesia both geographically and culturally through its indigenous population. The proximity which makes the other countries of Melanesia important to Australia applies equally to New Caledonia, even if its status as an overseas collectivity of France and its advanced level of development make it different. At only two and half hours from Sydney, New Caledonia is arguably the closest neighbour to the most populous region of Australia. We clearly have an interest in maintaining strong, constructive and friendly relations. And it is clearly of equally importance to us that this near neighbour is stable and prosperous, and a full participant in regional affairs.

This has always been the case. Australia’s interest in developing relations with New Caledonia and in the country’s development and political stability have been at the core of our policy towards the collectivity for at least the last thirty years. But, as a consequence of changing regional and global contexts, our interest has not always been expressed in the same way. This is most evident in the evolution of our position on New Caledonian independence.

To understand the path by which Australia came by its current policy in relation to New Caledonia, and our attitude towards the subject of this conference (New Caledonia and Melanesian integration) it is helpful to cast our minds back to the start of the 1980s and remind ourselves how the regional context and the international political environment have changed in the last three decades.

Historical overview – the early 1980s

It is no secret that the position held by Australia thirty years ago in support of New Caledonian independence brought us into conflict with a majority of the New Caledonian population and of course with France. It is important to understand that Australia took that position in the context of a regional environment in which many Pacific island countries, Melanesian as well as Polynesian, had only recently become independent. The future of these countries seemed promising, and they had not yet come face to face with the challenges of micro-state independence which are a regional preoccupation today. Australia, which had only given up its role as administrator of Papua New Guinea five years previously, was keen to demonstrate support for this new regional independence, and believed genuinely in the possibility of its success. For us, in this context, the situation of New Caledonia – largely dependent on and under the direction of France – seemed an anomaly.

It also seemed to be an impediment to New Caledonia’s full participation in regional affairs. In 1981, the South Pacific Forum (as the Pacific Islands Forum was then known) was only ten years old and had undergone rapid expansion to incorporate the newly independent states. It had become the pre-eminent forum for discussion of regional political and social affairs, and New Caledonia’s relationship with France was excluding it from this discussion. The region considered independence a pre-requisite for Forum membership and thus for participation in dialogue on the future of the region and in the development of regional solidarity at the international level. Once again, New Caledonia’s absence from these discussions and this process of regional evolution seemed like an anomaly or, at best, a transitional situation.

To return to the subject of our conference, it is therefore reasonable to assert that Australia’s interest in seeing New Caledonia participate in regional affairs – to be integrated into the region – in part contributed to our position during that period in support of Kanak independence. For the Pacific at that time, independence was a priority before all else, so Australia took a position which, along with our stance in relation to French nuclear testing in the Pacific, distanced us from France and New Caledonia for a time.

But times change, as do priorities and contexts. Thirty years is a long time for a country as young as Australia, where the first European colony was established only 220 years ago and which has been federated as a single country for only 107 years.

The Matignon and Noumea Accords

Australia’s position had already changed considerably from that of the early 1980s by the time of the signature of the Matignon Accords in 1988. Just as “Les Evènements” pushed New Caledonians towards the handshake, Australia came to see that the most important objective for the future of New Caledonia was the re-establishment of civil security.

It was with this objective in mind that Australia wholeheartedly supported the approach of Michel Rocard which led to the signature of the Matignon Accords. Along with New Zealand, we lent our official support at the time and have done so in international fora since. We reiterated this support through the official attendance at the signature of the Noumea Accords in 1998 of the then Speaker of the Australian Parliament (the third highest Australian authority), Ian Sinclair.
In short, our policy had become, and remains today, one of support for a democratic process put in place by the French State to permit increasing autonomy for New Caledonia, a process which is enabling New Caledonia’s inhabitants to determine the future political structure of their country.

The present

The regional context in which this discussion takes place today is unrecognisable from that of the early 1980s. Stability and prosperity are now the principal objectives of the majority of the independent Pacific island states, and political structures are of less importance. On the global plane, as Michel Rocard noted during his speech in Noumea at the end of May, countries are increasingly ceding elements of their sovereignty in response to the changing demands of globalisation.

In this context, it is no longer necessary to know the future political status of New Caledonia to be sure that the country has a role to play in the region. Whether it retains significant autonomy while remaining a part of France or decides to take on the final sovereign powers will not change the fact that New Caledonia is geographically part of the Pacific region.

There is no doubt that the New Caledonia of today, while of course having specific preoccupations of its own, already shares many interests with the other countries of the zone. It may not face the same challenges of governance and weak institutions, and the significant gap in living standards between New Caledonia and the Forum island countries may pose a challenge for bilateral and regional engagement, but the stability of the region as a whole, its ability respond to climate change and the challenges of geographic isolation – access to maritime and air transport, communications, and the importance of renewable energies – are of importance to all countries of the region. What happens in New Caledonia’s neighbourhood is of relevance to New Caledonia, part of its population has strong cultural links with its near neighbours and, importantly, the country has something to contribute to regional discussions.

Australia’s support for the regional integration of New Caledonia

Accordingly, Australia sees as crucial the Noumea Accord’s insistence on New Caledonia’s regional integration and the undertaking by the French State to support this (which we hope to see continue, even if France’s strategic interests in the region are no longer what they were).

Australia has done its best to support this process, through words but also through action. It is predominantly to foster regional integration that we have, since 1989, provided a modest number of scholarships in addition to our small grants program. The scholarships allow New Caledonian students to undertake tertiary studies in Australia, develop English language skills that will facilitate their engagement with regional neighbours, and broaden their knowledge and understanding of one near neighbour – Australia.

Increasingly, we are also promoting regional integration through facilitating the participation of New Caledonian officials and technical experts in regional workshops and seminars. This enables them to keep abreast of regional developments in their fields and build ties with their regional counterparts. We encourage this participation in full awareness of the significant gap in technical needs between well-developed New Caledonia and its regional neighbours, but see as beneficial the possibilities for mutual exchange.

The particular case of Melanesia

Our support is aimed at aiding New Caledonia’s engagement with the region as a whole but the arguments in favour of broader regional engagement are even more pertinent in relation to Melanesia. It is no surprise that New Caledonia’s regional outreach is most developed with the countries most geographically proximate to it and with which it shares cultural links through its indigenous population.

These links have long been recognised by the other countries of Melanesia, including through the inclusion of the FLNKS in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (acknowledging of course that this was initially for political reasons relating to the demand for independence). The cultural links between the populations of New Caledonia and Vanuatu, both European and Melanesian, are undeniable.

The joint engagement of the New Caledonian Government and Provinces and the French State on development projects in Vanuatu is an excellent example of the way in which the particular characteristics of francophone New Caledonia can benefit its regional neighbours. Australia is pleased to be cooperating with France and New Caledonia on some of these projects, for example in the area of public health.

The role of New Caledonia

There is no doubt that New Caledonia has much to offer. And the timing is right to push this regional engagement further. Discussion of regional integration has blossomed in the Pacific over the past few years. Most of the independent Pacific island states have now had 25 or 30 years to fully appreciate the difficulty of going it alone to confront the serious challenges faced by the region. As a result, there is an increasing tendency within the Forum and particularly in relation to the Pacific Plan, to speak of the pooling of regional resources and of working together; of regional integration.

In this context, Australia’s wish to see New Caledonia participate fully in the region, which we understand to be shared by the French State, is increasingly the wish of the independent Pacific island states. We all appreciate that New Caledonia is a regional neighbour with a contribution to make to regional debate, and a country which can bring a different perspective to the serious challenges the region must surmount. This new attitude was reflected in the Forum’s willingness to accept New Caledonia as an Associate Member in October 2006.

We all wish to see New Caledonia play an active role in the future of the region; to participate fully in cooperative efforts to ensure broad regional stability and economic development, with the objective of improving living conditions for the people of the Pacific islands, so that we can all live in a region where peaceful and sustainable economic development can be envisaged by all.