New Caledonians will vote again on independence. Will the answer this time be ‘Oui’?

Mathurin Derel/AP

Tess Newton Cain, Griffith University

On October 4, the people of New Caledonia will go to the polls. For the second time in the past two years, they will be asked if they wish to remain a part of France or become an independent country.

In the first vote in November 2018, 57% voted in favour of maintaining the status quo — remaining a French territory. This was a much narrower margin than had been anticipated, with some pre-referendum polls suggesting up to 75% would support staying with France.

These referendums take place under the Noumea Accord, an agreement signed by France in 1998 allowing New Caledonians three referendums on independence. If there is another “Non” vote this year, a third referendum will be held, most likely in 2022.

Why independence might be likely

Even in the short time since the last referendum, a number of relevant things have changed. Most significantly, local elections were held last year, which deepened the polarisation in the territory between those favouring independence and those opposed.

In the “Non” camp, an alliance of six political groupings has come together under the umbrella of the “loyalists”. On the “Oui” side, advocates are working harder to get young people politically involved.

Read more:
New Caledonia votes to stay with France this time, but independence supporters take heart

There is some sense the independence “struggle” is an issue for the older generation of indigenous Kanaks and not embraced fully by those who were born after the violence of the 1980s when Kanaks revolted against French rule. This is what led to the Noumea Accord being signed.

Casting ballots in the 2018 referendum.
Mathurin Derel/AP

There will be 6,000 new voters eligible to take part in this year’s referendum who weren’t old enough to vote in 2018.

In France, a new prime minister, Jean Castex, has also recently been appointed, as well as a new overseas minister. Neither has engaged significantly with New Caledonia, nor do they have much experience with self-determination issues.

There are some in New Caledonia who simply feel the issue isn’t high on France’s list of priorities at the moment.

However, just days out from the vote, some on the right of French politics have spoken out strongly against New Caledonia becoming independent. National Rally leader Marine Le Pen warned a vote for independence would lead to uncertainty and danger.

And Castex has said in recent days he will meet with New Caledonia’s political leaders after the referendum.

French President Emmanuel Macron visited New Caledonia just days before the 2018 vote.
Theo Rouby/AP

A key aspect of the debate around independence is what the economic future would hold. Magalie Tingal, a member in the Northern Provincial Congress, was recently at pains to point out that France currently provides only 10% of the territory’s budget.

However, French rule has certainly led to a higher level of development than in the neighbouring countries of Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands — at least in and around the capital, Noumea.

One of the major concerns of the pro-independence movement is the lack of equitable development in New Caledonia. The lack of services in predominantly Kanak areas is a source of significant discontent.

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Rebel music: the protest songs of New Caledonia’s independence referendum

Will COVID-19 cause voters to stay home?

The COVID-19 pandemic will also likely affect the level of scrutiny on the forthcoming vote.

In 2018, there were numerous delegations of international observers in New Caledonia for the vote, but that presence will be significantly reduced this time around. The same goes for the amount of international reporting we can expect, with only French journalists likely to be present.

Election observers, as well as officials coming from France to administer the vote, have been required to undergo 14 days of quarantine on arrival.

Perhaps more significantly, there is the question of whether COVID-19 will significantly reduce voter turnout, despite the fact New Caledonia has had no cases of community transmission.

In 2018, turnout was exceptionally high, at more than 80%, which no doubt caused the vote to be closer than expected.

Would a new nation drift toward China?

Officials in Australia and New Zealand have not taken a position on the referendum. However, in security and strategy circles, there is no doubt concern that an independent New Caledonia (also known as Kanaky by the Kanak people) may become a target for Chinese influence.

In a recent webinar hosted by Griffith University, those in favour of independence said it would give the Kanak people more choices when it came to foreign policy.

China is already New Caledonia’s number one trading partner and it is reasonable to expect this would be one of several relationships an independent Kanaky/New Caledonia would focus on as it built an international presence as a new country.

As Patricia Goa, a member of New Caledonia’s Congress said in the webinar, independence would offer a choice.

What’s wrong with having cooperation with China and others?

The unfinished business of decolonisation

New Caledonia’s trajectory towards possible independence is also part of a wider discussion taking place in the Pacific on decolonisation and sovereignty.

Just last year, we saw the people of Bougainville vote for independence from Papua New Guinea by an overwhelming majority.

People lining up to vote in Bougainville’s referendum last year.
Post Courier/AP

There are ongoing calls for the people of French Polynesia to be given an opportunity to vote on independence from France.

And in West Papua, the struggle for self-determination has gained renewed attention, with Vanuatu’s prime minister calling out Indonesia for “human rights abuses” at the UN General Assembly.

All of these movements are significant not only for the people who live in these territories, but for the stability of the region more generally. With increased geo-strategic focus on this part of the world, these are important shifts to watch and understand, whether from near or far.

Read more:
Bougainville has voted to become a new country, but the journey to independence is not yet over

The Conversation

Tess Newton Cain, Adjunct Associate Professor, Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New Caledonia votes to stay with France this time, but independence supporters take heart

File 20181105 83629 14vrjt8.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Voting is not compulsory in New Caledonia, but nonetheless 80.63% turned out to vote in the independence referendum.

Denise Fisher, Australian National University

The November 4 referendum in New Caledonia was a breathtaking example of democracy in action, with new consequences for the French territory, France and our region.

The vote had been long-deferred, long-awaited and for some, long-feared. It took place peacefully, a major and poignant achievement that was unimaginable 30 years ago, before the Matignon/Noumea Accords were signed. They were designed to end civil war, promising the hand-over of a number of autonomies, to be followed by this referendum.

The result favoured staying with France by 56.4% to 43.6%. Key characteristics were the strong turnout, especially by young Kanaks, the relatively strong vote for independence, and bitter division between the two sides.

Read more:
Explainer: New Caledonia’s independence referendum, and how it could impact the region

Voting queues were long, with many waiting two hours to vote. Voting is not compulsory in New Caledonia, and the turnout was an extraordinary 80.63% of those eligible to vote (all Indigenous Kanaks, and a large proportion of those from other communities with longstanding residence in New Caledonia). This is the highest in recent history, with levels at the last French national elections 37% (2017) and provincial elections 67% (2014).

As French President Emmanuel Macron noted hours after the polls closed, France has fulfilled its promise and delivered a transparent process, legitimised by the unprecedented high turnout, the attendance of 13 UN observers and a Pacific Islands Forum observer team.

What does it mean for New Caledonia?

This relatively close result is probably the best all round for stability. The campaign has been bitter, and even commentary between leaders in television coverage of the results saw strong denunciation, particularly by loyalists.

While potentially stoking fear among loyalists for the future, the sizeable independence vote nonetheless may give pause to their tendency to triumphalism, challenging opinion polls and their own belief that they would win at least 60% and possibly 70% of the vote.

In their confidence, just days before the vote, the loyalists declared that with a massive win, they would seek to reverse the Noumea Accord guarantee of a second and potentially third referendum, an inflammatory step for independence supporters.

For independence leaders, the result vindicates their careful strategy of negotiating under the Noumea Accord for potentially two more votes in 2020 and 2022 in the event of a “no” vote, automatic participation for all Indigenous Kanaks, and mobilising the young.

Young Kanaks voted in large numbers, peacefully, and apparently for independence. This was so even in mainly European Noumea, which returned a surprising 26.29% “yes” vote.

With natural population growth, their numbers will increase as 18-year-olds become eligible to vote in 2020 and 2022. In contrast, the number of voters from other long-standing communities will vary little during this time-frame.

Independence leaders can also work to improve the vote from Kanak island communities, whose turnout remained at traditional lower levels, and those who may have responded this time to one independence party’s call for a boycott.

What does it mean for France?

The relatively close result means both sides may be more likely to participate constructively in the ongoing dialogue process set up by France.

Macron has urged New Caledonians to overcome division and continue the 30-year process “in favour of peace”, emphasising dialogue. He referred to a future within France and the Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe visited the territory on November 5 to continue dialogue and urge calm.

The task of France remains delicate: to manage, impartially, a process respecting the positions of both sides. It’s complicated by the fact the 43.6% favouring independence are largely Indigenous Kanaks. They are not leaving, they have regional support, and their interests must be considered in any long-term future.

Read more:
Rebel music: the protest songs of New Caledonia’s independence referendum

On the positive side, positions canvassed by independence and loyalist parties alike threw up areas of shared interest that can form the basis of future cooperation. Provincial elections in May 2019 will clarify their support, but risk being undermined by extremist parties on both sides.

What are the implications for the region?

The result guarantees continued regional and international interest in the next steps. Reports of the Pacific Islands Forum and UN observer teams will be considered by their organisations. New Caledonia continues to be represented by the pro-independence Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) at the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

Separatists in Bougainville (Papua New Guinea), set for their own independence referendum next year, and West Papua, both the subject of MSG attention, will take heart.

Macron’s invocation of his Indo-Pacific vision engaging New Caledonia specifically to counter China gives a new edge to the interest in the referendum process by regional countries and partners.

Australia, meanwhile, will continue to retain a close interest in stability in our near neighbour, respecting the process while continuing cooperation with France.The Conversation

Denise Fisher, Visiting Fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Last night I happened to be looking at the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) web site for any signs of approaching thunderstorms and found to my great surprise that there had been a tsunami warning for all of Australia, Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island. I couldn’t believe it. This was the early warning that Australians were going to get in the event of a tsunami? Who checks the BOM web site for tsunami warnings? Something better than this needs to be done – what if there was an actual tsunami?

I hadn’t seen anything on the television and I had been watching the news when the major earthquake occurred that had sparked the tsunami concern. The quake occurred at about 6.30pm off the Loyalty Islands near New Caledonia. Not much time to get away from any location on the coast should an actual tsunami have occurred.

But there were no warnings on the television or on the radio from what I understand. The only way you could have known about it was to check the various official web sites by the look of it – which included the BOM site I guess.

The earthquake was originally reported as being an 8.3 quake but has since been reported as a 6.8. Quakes of this size can cause local tsunamis apparently – however they don’t travel too far generally. Perhaps this was the reason for the ‘low key’ warning of a possible tsunami.