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Question & questions for Bougainville independence referendum

John Momis and Peter O'Neill sign the agreement (Joseph Nobetau)
John Momis and Peter O'Neill sign the joint statement (Joseph Nobetau)


PORT MORESBY – At a meeting here on Friday, Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O’Neill and Bougainville president John Momis agreed the important question to be put to Bougainville voters at next June’s referendum on the autonomous province’s political future.

The question gives the voters a choice of opting for greater autonomy or independence, the precise wording being, “Do you agree for Bougainville to have (1) Greater Autonomy or (2) Independence”.

The question itself raises other questions. Why has it been framed in the way it has? What is 'greater autonomy'? Is the offer of 'greater autonomy' as the alternative to 'independence' a successful demand by Momis or a clever distraction by O'Neill?

I'm sure these matters will soon be addressed by people smarter and better informed than I.

The agreement came late on Friday after weeks of delays at a meeting of a joint supervisory board attended by the chairman of the Bougainville Referendum Commission, former Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahearn.

The referendum will mark the end of a 20-year process following the end of the Bougainville civil war which devastated the province and caused great loss of life over the ten years before it ended in April 1998.

In a media statement the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring the full implementation of the Bougainville Peace Agreement.

They noted the importance of ensuring that the referendum is free and fair, and conducted in full accordance with the constitution and the peace agreement.

They agreed it was essential that people understand the choice they had to make and the process to be followed once the referendum has taken place.

Once the people of Bougainville have opted for their preferred pathway, the PNG national parliament will need to agree to either greater autonomy or independence.

The leader also endorsed a proposed budget of K34 million for 2019, with O’Neill undertaking to incorporate it into the 2019 PNG budget to be handed down later this year.

A comprehensive awareness campaign will precede the referendum.

The joint supervisory board will meet again in late January when further details of arrangements are expected to be released.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

I think I've worked out what "greater autonomy" means.

According to an article yesterday in Lowy Institute's 'The Interpreter' it means "decentralisation" i.e. shifting responsibility for government services from the national to the provincial governments.

I'm not sure that's a good idea.

Judge for yourself:

Chips Mackellar

The problem is how precise should the question be. For example, in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 the question was "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

The main reason the referendum failed was that nobody knew what the question meant. Did it mean for Scotland to become independent from England but to remain federated with the United Kingdom?

Did it mean for Scotland to become another country within the Queen's dominion like New Zealand, or did it mean for Scotland to become a republic.

On the other hand the question in the Singapore independence referendum of 1965 was very precise. It went something like this: "Should Singapore be (1) A British Crown Colony, (2) A State within the Federation of Malaya, (3) An independent country within the Queen's dominion, or (4) a republic?" And the people chose option 4.

So, to preclude confusion about the future of Bougainville, the referendum question should follow the Singapore model by giving the people a clear choice of precise options.

Philip Fitzpatrick

New Zealand has a similar relationship to the Cook Islands. They refer to it as free association.

New Zealand kicks in a fair whack of both the Tokelau and Cook Island budgets and all of its peoples are New Zealand citizens. New Zealand takes care of their defence and foreign affairs but with close consultation.

Both places have been slowly assuming greater independence.

The Americans have similar arrangements with Micronesia.

So it can be done, given the right circumstances.

Unfortunately, I can't see Papua New Guinea being a reliable partner in such as association.

It would have been a good model for Australia and Papua New Guinea back in the 1970s but I'm not sure the idea was ever floated.

I've never been to Tokelau but the Cook Islands is one of my favourite places.

Martin Auld

"Wouldn't 'greater autonomy" eventually lead to more calls for independence?"

Not necessarily. That depends upon whether the autonomy package on offer has been genuinely negotiated by the parties in conflict prior to a ballot.

In East Timor it wasn't. It accommodated the interests of those already pro-Jakarta but not those of the opposition.

If readers wish to see a model for a successful autonomy process and package, have a look at Aceh - but that was negotiated by the parties in conflict and not put to a ballot.

For another model perhaps more relevant to Bougainville, less disruptive of regional security and agreed to by referendum, see the relationship between Curacao and the Netherlands.

New Zealand's relationship with Tokelau is also interesting in this context - KJ

Paul Oates

The devil will always be in the fine print.

Exactly what does each alternative really mean for the people of Bougainville in the short, medium and long term?

Who has a crystal ball and who is claiming their interpretation is the right one and why?

Philip Fitzpatrick

Wouldn't 'greater autonomy" eventually lead to more calls for independence?

I guess we'll have to wait to see what "greater autonomy" actually means.

Why not simply ask whether Bougainvilleans want a "Clayton's Independence" instead of the real thing?

Starting to sound like "Bgexit".

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