In October, the New Caledonian Committee of Signatories to the Noumea Accord quietly released a document which will have important consequences for Australia and the South Pacific region.

At first glimpse, the discussion paper, Reflexions sur l'avenir institutional, would be easy for those seeking change in New Caledonia to dismiss. It was written by French authors and arguably takes a French national perspective, favouring continuing sovereignty by France. But as with most things to do with New Caledonia, the reality is much more complex.

Considering the violence in New Caledonia in the 1980s, we should be impressed by the maturity and moderation of our neighbours across the Coral Sea, evident in the relaxed response to this paper thus far.

The Noumea Accord was signed in 1998 by France and the major local political parties, both pro-France and pro-independence. It extended and built on an earlier agreement, the 1988 Matignon/Oudinot Accords, by providing for a further deferral of a long promised vote on independence, in return for a 20-year schedule of transfers of responsibilities, and economic and social 're-balancing.' The agreements brought to an end a civil war born of local frustration at French resistance to moves for greater autonomy and, for some, independence. It is built on the idea of a 'common destiny' between the indigenous Kanak people and more recently arrived French residents.

The Accord specifies that the local Congress, which will be renewed at elections in April 2014, can initiate a referendum process on sovereignty any time between 2014 and 2018.

The referendum is to focus on New Caledonia's future international status, on the transfer of remaining core 'sovereign' responsibilities (foreign affairs, defence, law and order, justice and currency), and on New Caledonian 'citizenship' (essentially, special voting and employment rights for long-term and original residents, as opposed to French nationals posted there or newly-arrived). The processes set out are complicated, requiring up to three consecutive votes if the initial answer is 'no' to full sovereignty.

The issues are delicate.

The whole point of the Noumea Accord was to defer the vote that now must take place in order to head off further violence. While there is a possibility of another deferral, the political realities suggest this is unlikely and would only lead to greater risk of violence.

In acknowledgement of this, the paper's author, Jean Courtial, French State Counsellor (a kind of French QC) dismisses the option of not proceeding with a referendum. The paper focuses instead on what might be voted upon. It outlines four options for New Caledonia: full sovereignty, sovereignty in partnership with France, expanded autonomy, and continued limited autonomy.

As Courtial indicates, the word 'independence' is not used, as nowhere in the Noumea Accord does that sensitive word appear (the Accord refers to 'emancipation').

The paper also outlines the legal requirements of the referendum process, which if fully applied could theoretically mean a vote as late as 2022.

The assumption that New Caledonia would be better off remaining French or at the least retaining sovereign links with France is evident throughout the paper.

For example, when covering the 'full sovereignty' option, familiar arguments playing to fears from the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s emerge. These include strong messages that the huge financial flow from France would stop immediately with full sovereignty, that a small weak island state needs a large protector to navigate the stormy seas of international negotiation and self-defence in the face of menacing large regional powers with their own interests, and that French nationality with all its protections would immediately be forfeited.

The paper notes that while a fully sovereign New Caledonia could negotiate special support from France, it would be starting from scratch and outcomes would not be assured. There are several references to the last ostensible vote on independence that was held in the territory, in 1987, which followed years of civil disturbance, which itself was surrounded by violence, and which was boycotted by the pro-independence group, rendering the results meaningless.

Similarly, in discussion of the options of extending or preserving existing autonomy, the paper puts forward other bogeys for the local indigenous and pro-independence population, such as the end of special voting and employment rights. These rights were essential to securing pro-independence support for the Noumea Accord and are highly sensitive for long-term residents. 

It would however be a mistake to dismiss this paper because of such references. Not many sovereign powers would prepare a document that objectively canvasses full sovereignty for one of their territories. If the self serving aspects of the paper are discounted, the paper contains a wealth of legal and other detail which is invaluable for the local parties who will plan New Caledonia's future in coming years.

Skilled pro-independence politicians who lived through the 1980s disturbances, like Paul Neaoutyne, Rock Wamytan and Charles Washetine, understand this. Initial reaction to the paper has therefore been moderate. One academic at the University of New Caledonia has written a scathing analysis chastising the authors for their one-sidedness, and this paper has appeared on a Kanak blog. But there has been little other public reaction from the pro-France or the pro-independence political parties. This restraint is especially commendable given the imminence of provincial elections, which will shape the Congress that will lead the referendum process.

It seems that the major players are taking the document at face value — as a discussion paper. This is a sign of moderation and maturity that their regional neighbours should appreciate and support.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.