Oct 30, 2020 Last Updated 9:15 PM, Oct 29, 2020
Sep-Oct

Sep-Oct (19)

In 1965, buoyed by the outcomes of the constitutional conference in London, the Leader of Government Business in Fiji’s colonial government, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara sent a cable home: ‘Ni yalovinaka ni kakua ni taqaya, na veika kece koni taqayataka e sega ni yaco, sa nomuni na lagilagi. [Do not be concerned. All that you were concerned about did not materialise. The victory is yours].’

Those poignant words were captured by renowned Fijian historian and author, Professor Brij Lal in his book A Time Bomb Lies Buried – Fiji’s Road to Independence, 1960-1970. 

Some 22 years later, Professor Lal described a public event in Suva, seven days after then Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka had overthrown Fiji’s democratically government in a coup d’état.

“A hush descended upon the lawn as the coup-maker, Lt Col. Sitiveni Rabuka appeared on the balcony. An athletic, handsome young man with a massive handlebar moustache, and dressed in powder blue safari jacket and sulu, he spoke in Fijian for a few minutes, explaining why he had carried out the coup and urging his people to remain calm. Then, with both fists punching the air, as the crowd roared approval, he said: “Sa noda na qaqa” (Rest assured, we have won).

In uttering essentially the same words two decades apart, the leaders were addressing the one issue that has plagued Fiji’s political journey for 50 years: the political paramountcy of Fiji’s indigenous community as the first settlers of the island nation.

Fiji’s political journey since independence from Great Britain in 1970 has been one of attempting to strive to strike a balance between the interests of the indigenous or iTaukei community and those of the other ethnicities that call Fiji home, in particular the descendants of Indian indentured labourers the British brought to Fiji to work sugarcane plantations during the late 1870s.

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Growers like Gyan Deo may be the reason why Fiji’s sugar industry will still have a future in the next half a century.

Like the bulk of the country’s 12,000 sugarcane growers, Deo works his 12-acre farm in rural farmland, outside Nadi town, on the west coast of Fiji’s main island.

“If I can get 300 tonnes from this year’s crop, I would be happy,” said Deo. “I might not have a lot in my take home pay, but at least I would be able to pay my cane cutters, and meet my fertiliser, delivery and other costs.”

At the current Fiji government guaranteed price of F$85 (US$40) per tonne, the Nadi farmer should expect a gross income of F$25,500 ($11,800). 

Unfortunately for him and the Fiji Government, such feelings of optimism among cane growers are not contagious.

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From the zenith of Pacific regionalism (the Forum) from the early 1970s, Fiji’s standing in the group and amongst its regional neighbours stooped to unprecedented ignominy in 2009. Fiji was the first member country ever to be suspended from the Forum. It remained in the doldrums until 2014 when its membership was reinstated after the country’s 2014 general elections. After tentative steps to regain its rightful status, Fiji appears to be firmly on the way to recapturing its lost good name. Its task is a foregone conclusion. It has to be the mainspring of transformative changes under the proposed 2050 Strategy. Fiji’s first step is to ensure that the strategy is expertly and adequately framed to effectively deliver on all the changes that will transform the economies of the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) to sustainability, secure inter-dependencies and heightened levels of self-sufficiency.

Fiji’s good name in the Forum had a pre-Forum lead-up. In 1965, independent Western Samoa was a member of the then South Pacific Commission (SPC). Fiji and other non-independent PICs attended SPC meetings only on invitation. But they were unhappy about their treatment by the metropolitan countries. At the meeting in Lae that year, Fiji’s Ratu Kamisese Mara masterminded what was to be later referred to as the Lae Rebellion.

Ratu Mara articulated the PICs’ concern: “The powers seemed incapable of realising that the winds of change had at last reached the South Pacific and that we peoples of the territories were no longer going to tolerate the domination of the Commission by the metropolitan powers. We were sick of having little to say and no authority. Regardless of what we said or did the final decision was always in the hands of the metropolitan powers.”

The Lae Rebellion resulted in the breakaway of five PICs—the Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Tonga and Western Samoa—with the idea to establish their own forum between 1970 - 1971. Ratu Mara, Fiji’s first Prime Minster, was the principal interlocutor for the group and he negotiated the terms of the inclusion in the group of New Zealand first and Australia later. The South Pacific Forum was thus formalised in Wellington in 1971. Ratu Mara later justified the inclusion of the two developed countries: “We were happy to be joined by Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) in the Forum…..Indeed, we wanted them for a special reason for part of the ambitious plan of the Forum..…was no less than to alter the whole balance of the terms of trade.”

Fiji’s good record persisted over the years when the Forum needed to negotiate and resolve intractable global issues like The Law of the Sea and nuclear testing. Fast forward to 2000, under the Biketawa Declaration, specifically under RAMSI, where Fiji’s contribution of security personnel, along with those from Australia, New Zealand and other PICs assisted Solomon Islands in its hour of need, is to be commended.

But the period starting in December 2006 marked Fiji’s decline in favour in terms of Pacific regionalism. The same Biketawa Declaration was invoked to suspend Fiji in 2009 following the coup of 2006 and failure to conduct general elections as first indicated.  Fiji’s suspension was lifted in October 2014 after the general elections. But the controversies surrounding Fiji persisted. This was due to Prime Minister Bainimarama’s intention to find ways to exclude Australia and New Zealand from the Forum’s membership.

This intention, however, waned somewhat with the execution of the provisions of Australia’s ‘Step-Up’ and New Zealand’s ‘Pacific Re-set’ that strengthened regional aid packages for the PICs. PM Bainimarama’s mood was upbeat on the way to the Tuvalu Forum Leaders’ meeting last year. When asked about his relationship with Australia and New Zealand, he said that the Forum was reaching a new stage in its development with both. His mood, however, reverted to being critical of the two developed country members after the divisive shenanigans of Funafuti instigated by Australia as perceived by the PICs Leaders.

However, all that seems to be water under the bridge. PM Bainimarama opened Fiji’s national consultation on the 2050 Strategy last August. He was upbeat. He was inspirational. He spoke of Forum Leaders as the captains - the ones who must make the day-to-day decisions that lead us to our destination. Our destination “is to achieve the future we know is right and know is possible.”

The future of course, and the path to get there, will be encapsulated in the 2050 Strategy. In Fiji’s eyes, “the Strategy will be at the heart of our ambition.” Referring to Australia’s effort to ensure equitable access to a vaccine to the coronavirus in the Pacific, PM Bainimarama said: “If we harness that spirit of regional collective action, we have good reason to hold faith in our progress for the next 30 years.”

As host to next year’s Forum Leaders’ meeting, Fiji now plays a critical role in determining and advancing Pacific regionalism to the unprecedented heights to which we all aspire. At the officials’ level, Fiji provides managerial and critical inputs in the formulation of the 2050 Strategy. At the Leaders’ level, Fiji starts a three-year stint as a member of the Troika. During one third of that period, Fiji will assume the chair.

The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, to guide Fiji forward, is likely to be innovative and far-reaching, judging from the evocative elements of the Tuvalu Communique, and from the assessment and outcomes of planning to date. The Communique speaks of course of the new 2050 vision, the particularisation rendered to the ‘vision of PICs only that recognized the Blue Pacific Continent’, the link to the SAMOA Pathway and the Boe Declaration.

In the context of the experiences, fortunes and the unfolding of events of Pacific regionalism since 1971, there are likely to be critical lessons that could be incorporated into the strategy. A number of lessons stand out prominently and they, in my book, will need to be formulated with hindsight to enable curative measures to be transformative. But transformative in a positive and realistic sense. PICs need to make a quantum leap to make a difference. Pacific regionalism needs to be more meaningful through the effective delivery of the expectations of its members, especially those of the PICs.

For 49 years, PICs have remained vulnerable. Their inter-dependencies remain weak. Their economies’ dependence on aid still remains as one of the highest in the world, on a per capita basis. This needs to be turned around.

On top of that, their trade is weak. Industrialisation in regional hubs or in clusters remains a dream. Transformative ideas like value adding products for specific high-value niche markets have yet to take the world markets by storm.  In short, regional economic integration, after 49 years, is still rudimentary. Essentially, re-doing the basics of regionalism properly is a lesson that can be drawn from our 49 years of collective efforts.

Climate change is an added threat. Post-COVID-19 measures will complicate matters and will require greater resilience, commitment and grit.

The above tasks await Fiji. Fiji has the wherewithal to excel. Regional solidarity is the key.

The author is a former Fijian Ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.

Fiji’s Amalgamated Telecom Holdings’ (ATH) recent US$25 million investment from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to finance a greenfield 4G mobile network in Papua New Guinea, is a vote of confidence in the regional telecommunications powerhouse.

ATH has operations in Fiji, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Samoa, American Samoa, and Cook Islands, but the PNG venture is by far its biggest play.  While dominant in Fiji through its Vodafone, Telecom, FINTEL and Fiji Directories businesses, and listed on the stock exchange there, 22% of its earnings are generated outside the country.

That is set to expand considerably. The ABD estimates only 11% of Papua New Guinea’s population is able to connect to the internet. ATH Chief Executive Officer Ivan Fong says they’ve looked at PNG with the ADB before, but with Australia’s funding of the Coral Sea cable, falling satellite prices and Kumul Consolidated Holdings’ construction of domestic fibre and transmission networks, the timing was right to deliver a “last mile” project to reach businesses and consumers—the coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding.

“ We acknowledge that there are three operators in that market and they serve that market to varying degrees, but when you look at the business surveys …in the last few years telecommunications has been creeping up there to the top [as a challenge]. So we think there is an opportunity to provide an uplift to the services in that market and to potentially modernise some of what consumers can have in the country as well.”

Read more in Islands Business online.

In my family, October 10 marks the day that my grandparents started their life together. Some 61 years ago, on a little island seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a young man and woman made promises to love and support and care for each other, no matter what.

In the years that followed, they brought life into this world, raised children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They opened their home to family and friends. They laughed, they cried, they experienced joy and they experienced unimaginable pain.

Life happened.

But the one thing they never did was do it alone.

They raised children, who in-turn raised grandchildren to believe that this is the standard by which life is to be measured. Success, or however you want to call it, is to be measured in the moments we choose to hold each other up, to support each other, to take responsibility for our own actions, to unapologetically allow ourselves to experience the full spectrum of human emotion, and it is tested in the moments we choose solesolevaki over flying solo.

Naturally, when I was asked to reflect on Fiji at 50, my benchmark was pretty high. So, my dear reader, if you’re looking for a pretty story that focuses on the peaks and shies away from the valleys, I’m afraid this maybe isn’t the one for you, and I would advise that this is the point to do a full 180.

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Slowly but surely the once mighty Fiji Television Limited has started to crumble, taken apart from within by a combination of government pressure, acquiescent board members and questionable divestments.

Last month the company announced the resignation of CEO Karen Lobendahn and Manager Finance, Upendra Gounder. Lobendahn had been with Fiji TV for 24 years and CEO since May 2017; Gounder had been with Fiji TV for just nine months.

Fiji TV also released its audited financial statements 2020 at the end of August, and they make for sobering reading. Company Chairman, Deepak Rathod has attributed the company’s recent poor financial performance to the impacts of COVID-19. However since December 2006, the writing has been on the wall for this once blue-chip company, which has seen revenue fall from $FJD23.2 million in 2015 to $FJ9,076,306 in 2020 and net profits drop from $FJD1.63 million in 2016 to $262,544 in 2020.

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The arts have clearly shaped Fiji’s trajectory these last 50 years but have the arts and our creative industries been afforded agency to flourish and continue their critical role in nation-building and nurturing? Have we as a nation done enough to protect and support it as an essential element of our society? The arts, regardless of its form, gives soul to our existence, encoding our identity and way of life, recording the present while nourishing our collective memory.

Historians estimate that the Fiji Islands were not peopled until some 3500 years ago. The ancestors of the Fijians were referred to as Lapita people, because of their distinctive pottery. Subsequent tracing and archaeological forays in Fiji have, without fail, revealed some of the most intricate and decorated pottery shards and jewellery.

In 1953, Paul Wingert wrote in Art of the South Pacific Islands: “Oceania art reveals a close relationship between form and content, so close in fact that some knowledge of its cultural background is necessary before it can be understood. It was indeed one of the basic facets of their culture and was closely interrelated with their social customs, religious beliefs and economic practices”.

Creativity in our nation-building decades

There is purpose in our creations. Artisans borrow from a collective memory which they themselves then enrich with their own transfer of knowledge and skills. Our chants and dance, our taboos and even in traditional sports: learning and knowledge transfer was key to our survival. Implicit in creations are beneficiaries, for whom the use of a bowl or a mat with distinct design, speaks of a moment in a personal journey or of an extension of important relationships.

Our creations are of great value, our wealth, iyau, albeit opposed to the largely held views of the arts as aesthetics or simply decorative. The arts regardless of form, is fundamentally a story, it gives voice to life experiences and are indicators of intent, in politics or in the personal. The creative industry gave and continues to give voice to the imagination. It interprets life, living, people and situations. Our creative industry records our present, with all its angst and joy: without it, we lose our stories and much more.

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Four years ago, the tiny Pacific island country of Fiji won its very first Olympic medal, a gold, when it stormed its way through rugby’s debut year at the XXVI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was a win for Oceania. Now, with less than one year to go to the Tokyo Olympics, it is a good time to reflect on Olympism and what it means for Oceania. Moreover, what could it mean for this fragile and vulnerable region on the planet? With growing issues of the global climate crisis, threats of more frequent and intensifying natural hazards, a long-standing health crisis, and now the COVID-19 pandemic which has been relatively slow and sporadic arriving, but looming nonetheless and wreaking havoc on small island economies, the value of sports through its epitome, Olympism, is a useful vehicle to examine the value and direction of human life and survival on Earth, particularly that of Pacific islanders.

Pacific rugby and legacy of Fiji’s Olympic win bring a measure of equity

There is a lot that a piece of earth and a simple ball can do – none probably know this better than fans of rugby sevens, particularly those who follow it religiously in the Oceania region, the Pacific islands. Sevens rugby, the abbreviated code extracted from the original fifteens, is a smoother, crisper, flamboyant, fast-paced version that thrills as its players display skill, athleticism and the universally recognised, ancient Olympics linked virtues of grace and beauty. The inclusion of sevens rugby in the Olympic portfolio of sport is attributed to several key events and people in both the worlds of rugby and the Olympics. It is easy to lose sight of this as sports management and administration, while known to the sporting world, is seldom of interest to the general public.  However, it is critical to document and remember this as collective memory, because of the difference it has made to Olympic participation.  After all, the small island states of the Oceania region did not touch an Olympic gold medal until sevens rugby was included in the Games. The advocacy and lobby journey to that end is something the Oceania National Olympic Committees (ONOC) secretariat will hopefully document for its own promising practice, knowledge sharing and capacity building for the future. It will be an important undertaking because it is an exercise in regionalism which the Blue Pacific needs.

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On 4 October, New Caledonians will vote in a referendum on self-determination, to determine the political status of the French Pacific dependency.

This is the second referendum to be held under the Noumea Accord, an agreement signed in May 1998 by the French state, anti-independence politicians and leaders of the independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).

The Noumea Accord created new political institutions for New Caledonia, transferred legislative and administrative powers from Paris to Noumea and promoted economic and social “rebalancing” between the territory’s three provinces. After a 20 year transition, long-term residents of New Caledonia could vote on the transfer of sovereign powers in a referendum on self-determination. But the Accord included a unique provision: if the first vote for independence was unsuccessful, a third of the members of the local Congress could call for a second and then a third referendum.

On 4 November 2018, voters in New Caledonia went to the polls for the first referendum under the Noumea Accord, which asked: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”

In an unprecedented turnout, 56.67 per cent of voters decided to remain within the French Republic, while 43.33 per cent voted Yes for independence. These figures, with a clear majority opposing full sovereignty, could be read as a setback for New Caledonia’s independence movement. In reality, the size of the Yes vote disheartened supporters of the French Republic and opened the way for the second referendum in October.

However this month’s vote will not simply be a replay of the 2018 poll. There are a number of new elements that will affect the outcome, as well as the ongoing decolonisation process: a changed configuration of political parties; attempts to mobilise a large number of absentee voters; the failure of France’s new government to act with vigour and impartiality; and voter concerns about the future in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Mobilising voters

Voting is not compulsory in New Caledonia, so the level of turnout will be crucial. For the November 2018 referendum, participation rates varied across the country: 83 per cent in the Southern Province, 86 per cent in the North, but only 61 per cent in the Loyalty Islands (where the population is overwhelmingly Kanak).

From 174,165 people registered to vote in 2018, around 33,000 people did not turn out on the day, and there were also 1,143 void and 1,023 blank votes. Despite voter enrolment programs, hundreds of people claimed they could not vote because of delay and confusion over registration. Special polling booths were set up in Noumea for people from the outer islands living in the capital, but an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people found it difficult to register or access proxy votes.

Given the difference of only 18,000 votes in the final result in 2018, both supporters and opponents of independence are now seeking to mobilise support in this pool of uncommitted voters. The FLNKS aims for a higher turnout in the islands this time, the right-wing Loyalist alliance in the capital Noumea and surrounding towns.

In the lead up to the 2018 referendum, French media and polling organisations predicted that support for independence was waning. A series of opinion polls throughout 2018 stated the Yes vote would only reach between 15 and 34 per cent. Just days before voting, conservative politicians predicted a 70/30 result, expecting a strategic defeat for the independence movement.

However, as with the 2016 US presidential elections and the Brexit vote, the political elite misread the electorate. French partisans misjudged the strength of support for independence, especially amongst the colonised Kanak people. This was highlighted by the strong turnout of a younger generation who were not born at the time of the violent clashes between 1984-88, known as Les évènements, that ended with the 1988 Matignon-Oudinot Accords.

Partisans of the French Republic are eager not to make the same mistake in 2020, trying to mobilise conservative voters who didn’t bother to turn out in 2018.

Thierry Santa is President of New Caledonia and leader of the anti-independence  Rassemblement-Les Républicains party. Santa told Islands Business: “Our objective is to improve the tally achieved in the first referendum. Amongst the 33,000 people who didn’t vote last time, the vast majority live in greater Noumea. I think a proportion of these people, who thought the result would be 70/30, didn’t bother to vote. But I think that the result in 2018 really disappointed them, and that will mobilise them to get out and vote the next time.”

Veteran independence leader Roch Wamytan agrees the final result in 2018 stunned pundits and politicians from the anti-independence camp, and gave heart to the FLNKS to continue with the decolonisation process.

“Many anti-independence people were quite reassured by the polling in 2018,” he told me. “But the final result on the night of 4 November 2018 showed quite the contrary: that even after 30 years since the Matignon Accords, the desire for independence amongst the Kanak people was still very strong. This time, the anti-independence groups are more on the offensive. This was also reflected in the May 2019 elections, especially amongst the European voters from the suburbs. When Madame Backes and her group got control of the Southern Province, they went on the offensive against the Kanak.”

New political combinations

Since the previous vote, there have been significant reconfigurations in both political camps, and amongst the non-Kanak islander communities.

This year, six political parties opposed to independence have a forged an unwieldy alliance, dubbed “The Loyalists”, to run a coordinated campaign for a No vote. It includes the three parties of the governing Avenir en Confiance coalition, and three smaller groups (including the extreme-right Rassemblement National).

The Loyalists have issued a common platform that seeks to roll back many of the achievements of the Noumea Accord. They want to change the way laws can be proposed by membership of New Caledonia’s collegial, multi-party government; cut extra funding for rural areas and outlying islands; and change representation from the two Kanak-majority provinces in the national Congress. Some members of the alliance, such as President of the Southern Province Sonia Backes, have pushed for even more hard line policies, proposing the partition of the country – a clear breach of the Accord.

Calédonie Ensemble, led by Philippe Gomes, is the only significant anti-independence party that has refused to join The Loyalists. CE was the largest party in New Caledonia’s Congress between 2009-2019, but the shock result of the 2018 referendum discredited CE’s policy of engagement with the independence movement amongst conservative voters. The party faced internal splits and was punished at the polls during 2019 provincial elections and 2020 municipal elections.

CE is now running a separate No campaign from The Loyalists, with Gomes telling Islands Business: “Our No to independence is not a bleu-blanc-rouge No. When you look at their campaign materials, you see bleu-blanc-rouge flags everywhere. But we’re talking about this country, about New Caledonia. For this reason we couldn’t participate in their radical campaign, that is in part racist, very anti-Islander and very anti-independence. This can’t bring anything good to the country.”

In the independence camp, the left-wing Party Travailliste and the trade union confederation USTKE advocated “non-participation” in the 2018 referendum, arguing the colonised Kanak people alone should vote. This year, however, both are calling for a Yes vote, joining other indigenous activists as the Mouvement Nationaliste pour la Souveraineté de Kanaky (MNSK). Although smaller than the FLNKS, the MNSK will mobilise pockets of support in the rural north and Loyalty Islands who didn’t vote last time.

With indigenous Kanak at around 40 per cent of the population, however, the independence movement must draw support from other communities to win.

Historically, most Wallisian, Futunan and Tahitian voters have opposed independence, but there are significant changes in the Polynesian communities that make up more than 10% of the electorate. This is highlighted by the creation of a new political party Eveil Océanien (EO – Pacific Awakening) in March 2019. Two months later, the party won three seats in Congress and four in the Southern Province during May 2019 elections.

In the 54-member Congress, EO can swing its votes to either the Loyalist camp (25 seats) or the independence parties (26 seats) to create a majority. It has used this leverage to gain seats in the Government, Congressional Committees and Southern Provincial executive, and voted to re-elect Roch Wamytan as Speaker of Congress, creating an ‘islander majority’.

EO president Milakulo Tukumuli told Islands Business that Eveil Océanien wants to use its balance of force in the Congress to change the discussion.

“We haven’t created a movement to fight for independence or to fight for France – we’ve created a movement to fight poverty in New Caledonia,” Tukumuli said. “We are a country of 280,000 people, with mineral resources and three nickel smelters, but we have lots of people living in squatter settlements, they can’t feed their children and the children can’t get a good education. That’s what I’m fighting against.”

Rather than call for a No vote, the new Polynesian party has encouraged supporters to decide for themselves whether to vote Yes or No in October.

“For more than 30 years, the majority in the Congress – and therefore the government – has been opposed to independence,” Tukumuli said. “The independence movement calls for independence, but it has never managed the country. So we need to shake up this division and to share power, in order to see whether the independence movement can manage this responsibility, or not. So we decided to use our three votes to ensure that in both the Congress and the government, everyone has a say.”

Paris distracted

In the lead up to the 2018 referendum, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe allocated extensive time and political capital to New Caledonia, forging a consensus on the date for the referendum, the logistics of polling, who could vote and even the wording of the question. But just three months before this year’s referendum, President Emmanuel Macron reshuffled his Cabinet in Paris, appointing a new Prime Minister and Overseas Minister.

Conservative politicians have expressed concern that New Caledonia is not high on the agenda of the new government led by Jean Castex. CE’s Philippe Gomes told Islands Business: “In 2018, the government was very active. The Prime Minister and the President of the French Republic both visited, they spent hundreds of hours talking with everybody and the referendum was organised after a consensus had been forged. Everyone was on board, agreeing about the manner in which the vote would be held. For this reason, the result could not be questioned, nor was it questioned.

“Today, the French government hasn’t done its job and the process is under challenge,” Gomes added. “The independence movement doesn’t agree about the date of the referendum, nor the use of the bleu-blanc-rouge flag, nor the amount of time allocated for Loyalty Islanders to register to use the polling booths in Noumea. We haven’t agreed about anything.”

Roch Wamytan is Speaker of the Congress of New Caledonia and a long-time member of the largest independence party Union Calédonienne. He agrees that Paris is less engaged, at a time the French government struggles to cope with more than 31,000 deaths from COVID-19, post-Brexit EU debates and domestic protests over austerity.

 “In 2018, the French state issued a formal statement about what would happen in the case of a Yes vote or a No vote,” Wamytan said. “Last time, we participated in a series of meetings to discuss the sort of issues that would be put before the voters of New Caledonia in this statement. But this time, it seems that they just took the statement issued by Edouard Philippe, and just changed two or three sentences.”

At the same time, leaders of the independence movement complain that the French government is actively working against independence, in spite of pledges of impartiality. All parties accepted the result in 2018 – this may not be the case in 2020.

Social and economic woes

The current referendum campaign comes in the midst of economic uncertainty, the coronavirus pandemic, and international tensions over relations with China. New Caledonia controlled an early surge of COVID-19 from international travellers arriving in Noumea, with only 26 cases. However border closures have led to significant economic costs, with a decrease in international trade and tourism. There is uncertainty over future markets for New Caledonia’s vast reserves of nickel ore and the economic viability of the territory’s three nickel smelters – especially the Goro plant owned by the Brazilian corporation Vale.

In these uncertain times, opinion is shifting and divided. Some voters seek closer ties with the French Republic, hoping for ongoing funding, guarantees of French nationality and maintenance of the French colonial project. The majority of the Kanak people and other supporters of independence have a contrasting vision, believing independence will better allow them to manage the post-pandemic future of the Pacific nation. The vote on 4 October will not end this debate.

Predictions about the referendum turnout are complicated by a level of voter fatigue. In less than two years, New Caledonians have voted in the November 2018 referendum, May 2019 provincial elections, the first round of municipal elections in March 2020 and a second round in June 2020. Despite the high stakes on 4 October, some voters have had enough of politicians.

And the result? UC’s Roch Wamytan says: “I am hopeful that we will increase our score. I’m not sure whether we’ll get more than 50 per cent and may have to wait until the third referendum, but we certainly hope to get a few more percentage points beyond the 43 per cent obtained in 2018. This will strengthen us in the discussions that we will have to undertake with the French state.”

Given that a third referendum is possible under the Noumea Accord, CE’s Philippe Gomes agrees that the independence movement can advance its cause without gaining a majority.

“We know that the independence movement desperately wants to increase their score this time, because that would be a very powerful psychological blow for people opposed to independence,” Gomes said. “The same is true for our movement: we want to hold steady or increase our score! If they manage to increase their Yes vote by two or three per cent, our people will feel the independence movement breathing down their neck. This is another element that explains the polarisation of debate at the moment.”

The results of the historic Bougainville elections are now known.  In electoral processes setting benchmarks for emulation in the Pacific, former Bougainville Revolutionary Army Commander, Ishmael Toroama, was declared President-elect.  Toroama in coming weeks will form a government and lead further negotiations with Papua New Guinea (PNG) on the implementation of the independence process endorsed by nearly 98% of Bougainville voters in the referendum last year.

For an event with such significant implications for PNG, Bougainville and the region, it was surprising to see the paucity of reactions to this occasion.  At time of writing, Prime Minister Marape from PNG has been the lone exception, offering his congratulations to President-elect Toroama and the invitation for talks in due course.  But across the Pacific, there has been a virtual silence.  Why?  And is this silence indicative of attitudes towards negotiations to come?  More ominously, might this be suggestive of the reception a newly independent Bougainville might expect?

To be sure, there is no suggestion the silence is motivated by any malign intent.  Perhaps it is simply diplomatic decorum, observing deference to PNG on what is an “internal” matter for resolution through negotiations between the parties in accordance with agreed process.  After all – by and large – things have run well since the cessation of hostilities, despite occasional political upheavals.  Why say anything that might be misinterpreted and potentially derail all the good that has been accomplished?

But truth be told, there might be additional considerations behind this silence.  For example, from the perspective of the larger resident powers in the region, the current geopolitical dynamics and strategic competition loom large.  The emergence of another “micro-state” vulnerable to influence from competitors, is the last thing needed at such a strategic juncture.  For France, moreover, this kind of example is not exactly helpful, with campaigning well underway in New Caledonia for another independence referendum, and simmering inclinations also in French Polynesia.  In this climate, any comment might be best avoided.

It is the silence of Pacific nations, however, that is most conspicuous and difficult to fathom and reconcile.  Is this wholly in deference to PNG?  Is this the Pacific Way?  But what of the Melanesian connection with Bougainville?  Are no expressions of fraternal solidarity permissible?

Most certainly, there are sensitivities to be navigated.  And some of these are purely “internal” among Pacific neighbors, such as the Solomon Islands and recent secession issues around Malaita.  It will be interesting to watch how bilateral relations between Pacific nations, PNG and an emerging Bougainville evolve in future, and how any such sensitivities will be accounted for. 

More broadly – at a regional level – it will similarly be fascinating to observe the evolution of regionalism with Bougainville’s emergence.  Both the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) have established precedents recognising the membership of organisations or less than fully fledged independent nations – the Front De Liberational De Nationale Kanak Et Solcialiste in the case of the MSG, and for the PIF, New Caledonia and French Polynesia.  Making dynamics interesting, for both the MSG and PIF, Papua New Guinea is a full member.  And for the MSG, there are the additional issues of Indonesia being an Associate Member, and the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, an Observer.  In this complex milieu, what if a current PIF or MSG member proposes membership for Bougainville?  What kind of dynamics and repercussions will be unleashed by such a development?

No doubt, much water will pass under the bridge before we come to these issues.  But for many in the region, there will be challenging discussions to be had very soon about bringing Bougainville into the Pacific family.  While much will hang on discussions between PNG and Bougainville, the success or otherwise of these talks will have far-reaching implications for our region as a whole.  It is in the interests of us all to be invested in these.

Dr Oehlers is a Professor at Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii. The views in this article are the personal opinions of the author and are not representative of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

 

Food Revolutionaries

The founder of the Pacific Island Food Revolution says the campaign’s work on changing food choices in the Pacific region is “super relevant” in the current global coronavirus pandemic.

“Our project is about nutritional resilience and building your immunity, which if you look at all the COVID concerns and the red flags raised by health experts, it’s around those who are vulnerable to underlying conditions. And we go right to the underlying conditions,” says chef Robert Oliver. “The whole end game for us is about creating resilient and robust local food systems.”

The Pacific Island Food Revolution is most commonly associated with the competitive television contest that pits cooks from Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga against each other. It’s now in its second season, and airs in 14 island nations to six million people per week according to Oliver, plus audiences in New Zealand, Australia, Asia and soon, through the BBC food channel. But it has many other elements, online and on social media, and through radio programs on local stations.

Funding from the program, which amounted to A$7 million for two and a half years, has now run out, and Oliver says they are looking for a new home.

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The  outcome of this November’s election  will be crucial to Palau’s response to the economic crisis, as whoever will win the polls will be confronted by the impacts of COVID-19 well beyond 2020.

At the  September 22 primary election,  two of the four presidential candidates vying for the presidential post won the opportunity to face each other at the November 3 general  elections.

Vice President Raynold Oilouch and businessman Surangel Whipps Jr. will go head to head in November after beating early presidential candidates, former President Johnson Toribiong and businessman Alan Seid.

Login or subscribe today to read Bernadette Carreon's preview of the election

 

Palau's  National Marine Sanctuary— which is hailed as the tiny nation's  much celebrated signature policy—may face review from President Tommy Remengesau Jr’s successor.

More than five years in the making, Palau’s marine sanctuary law took effect on January 1 this year. It closed 80% of Palau’s exclusive economic zone to commercial fishing, a monumental policy for a tiny island nation with a population of 18,000.

The sanctuary however is at the centre of election debate, with presidential candidates Surangel Whipps Jr. and Raynold Oilouch saying during their campaign sorties that they are considering reassessing the PNMS, to ensure Palau’s people get the best benefits out of it.

Presidential candidate Surangel Whipps Jr. believes that the PNMS policy is a good one, telling the National Environment Symposium  in late September that he supports the marine sanctuary. However he believes there are things  in the policy that can be refined and amended to give more opportunities for Palauan fisherman to fish.

His rival for the Presidency in November, current Vice President, Raynold Oilouch said he is not in favour of abolishing the PNMS, but if he sees  problems with the sanctuary,  then it should be reviewed to ensure that the law will be improved.

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Movers and Shakers

In memorium

Former Cook Islands Prime Minister, Joseph Williams, has died of coronavirus in Auckland. At 82 years of age, Williams was a well-known GP, politician and author, as well as a former Cook Islands Health Minister who had been based in New Zealand in recent years, still serving his community as a doctor.  “Our national has lost a much-loved son”, Prime Minister Henry Puna said in tribute.

A long term campaigner for workers right and fair pay, Father Kevin Barr, has died in Suva at the age of 84.  Father Barr for many years worked to assist Fiji’s most vulnerable urban poor. As we went to press, details for his homecoming mass were still being finalised.

New Zealand’s Consul-General to New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna, Bruce Shepherd, has died in Noumea. “Mr Shepherd, whose diplomatic career took him to virtually every corner of the world promoting New Zealand’s interests, will be deeply missed by colleagues here and abroad,” NZ Minister for Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters said.

Palauan music legend, Johnny B has died due to kidney favour. His tape Micronesia was the first commercial recording released by a Palauan, and he had 500 songs in his repertoire and was hugely popular in the north Pacific.

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