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ANZAC cooperation: put Bougainville up on the agenda

PETER JENNINGS |The Strategist | Australian Strategic Policy Institute | Extracts

DISMAY ABOUT THE recent lacklustre summit of Australian and New Zealand prime ministers is easily understandable. It produced so little of substance that one was left asking: why bother?

What we got was an agreement to house a largish boat-load of asylum seekers and to fund a war memorial for Wellington, ‘… made of rugged Australian red sandstone’.

On the Australian side of the Tasman, your average daily prime ministerial media event often delivers more than that. It’s thin pickings for a relationship that’s allegedly so close—prime minister Gillard has used the word ‘family’ to describe it no less than 13 times in the last two years….

That might well be an acceptable way to manage the relationship if it were the case that our strategic outlook was mostly positive. But there are sufficient challenges of a type that Australia and New Zealand should jointly think through.

High on my list of ANZAC challenges is the future stability of Bougainville. A conflict on the island in the late 1980s and 1990s lead to the deaths of, by some estimates, 15,000 people. (DFAT’s primer on the peace process acknowledges thousands of deaths without being more precise).

Australia and New Zealand were involved in a costly peace monitoring mission at the end of the 1990s until a largely New Zealand-brokered peace arrangement brought stability to the Province in return for greater political autonomy and the breathing space offered by delaying the final political settlement.

Bougainville now has the opportunity to vote in a referendum on self-determination at some point between 2015 and 2020.

The challenge for Australia and New Zealand is to make sure a move to a referendum happens as peacefully as possible after a process of disarming groups on the island, with all sides prepared to accept its results whatever they may be.

That said, there are those in Port Moresby and those on Bougainville who probably have significantly differing expectations about what the referendum might deliver.

The potential for Bougainville to slide back into instability or serious violence is quite high. Should that happen, only Australia and New Zealand have the interest and capability to respond.

If ever there was a case for a heavy joint pre-investment designed to prevent a conflict, this is it. As our work together on Bougainville in the late 1990s showed, both countries bring particular strengths to bear that the other can’t so easily provide.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.


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