Of the many foreign policy and "strategic interest" challenges Australia will face in the next few years one of the most important will relate to the status of Bougainville within Papua New Guinea – and in particular the implementation of the 2019 referendum in which 97% of the people of Bougainville voted for independence.
Last week the PNG Prime Minister, James Marape, and the ABG President, Ishmael Toroama, met to try and agree on a "road map" towards independence. The outcome of the meeting is somewhat unclear despite media reports that there was agreement independence would not happen before 2025 or after 2027 perhaps not fully reflective of the actual position or the time frames indicated.
The process agreed to by the leaders would indicate a defined step by step road map leading towards independence. But it includes a whole series of national government actions that need to be taken – and there is no guarantee a future PNG government will undertake all of them. It also requires action by the ABG administration that is more certain to be undertaken in the stated time frames.
I will go into the complexities of that below, but consideration needs to be given as to just what any independence timetable will mean for Australia.
The Australian Government principally via the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is going to have to navigate Australia's role very carefully. My confidence it will do so is hardly strengthened by our recent management of key strategic issues with our closest neighbour!
Australia has no role in determining Bougainville's independence, none whatsoever. It is entirely a matter for the PNG Government, and ultimately the PNG National Parliament, and the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG).
There will be those in DFAT and elsewhere who will hold to the belief that independence is not inevitable. Despite the complex processes that have to be followed to facilitate independence the view that it can be readily blocked is hard to sustain. .
What Australia needs to do is engage fully with both the PNG Government and the ABG with a view to playing a wholly constructive role in the economic and social development of Bougainville in the critical years ahead.
Australia has provided considerable support for Bougainville since the peace process was formalised but in the face of the prospect of independence that will have to be stepped up considerably, but very carefully.
And it will have to be done in full consultation with both governments.
What makes the task even more hazardous is the reality that reluctance to grant Bougainville independence clearly exists at the highest levels of the PNG government, and almost certainly across the rest of the nation.
On the other hand support for independence on Bougainville clearly remains almost unanimous. There are no indications the 97% yes vote two years ago has diminished.
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