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Bougainville consultation never really got off the ground


ARAWA - The entire Bougainville Peace Agreement signed in 2001 has plenty of loopholes, but these weak points are catered for by one word that repeatedly appears. It is the word ‘consultation’.

When complications occur or conflict erupts, the peace agreement suggests it is consultation that can be initiated to address such hurdles.

The issue today is that many problems brought about the Bougainville crisis (1988-97) were not covered by the peace agreement and have since been ignored by both the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and the PNG national government.

In June next year, Bougainville will hold a referendum on its political future and, as the months roll by, both governments are rushing everything often in the absence of care, consideration and even good faith.

The thick documents they have compiled by this December of 2018 are certainly great in quantity but not in quality.

Last year, between September and October, with me as one of their officers, the Department of Bougainville Peace agreement and Implementation held what was planned as a Bougainville-wide public consultation.

From the beginning, to me, the consultation lacked both quality and quantity in terms of both practice and ethics and I could not accept it as being appropriately managed by a professionally functioning bureaucracy.

In their wandering, our team leaders engaged only with an average of about seven persons each from local level government, former combatants, women and ‘people in the street’.

The ABG referendum directorate began this public consultation as scheduled in September 2017 as a two-three month project. We kicked off at Nigeria Guest House in Buin Town, driving there from Arawa’s Arevai Guest House which was our base camp.

Upon reaching Nigeria on the morning of 21 September, the Buin district stakeholders arranged by our advance officers were not there. So our leaders sent the two hired Landcruisers to collect them.

When they returned having still not reached the expected numbers, the leaders ordered the vehicles to go to Buin Town to pick up any Tom, Dick and Harry they could. The consultation happened but, as the officer tasked to conduct and pay for the referendum research, I was sick thinking about the ethics of what we were doing.

From that very first day there was no observance of research ethics. Some known factions in Buin were represented in the consultation; but most of Buin district was not. The 17 people we talked with were those we had hauled in and far from a representative sample.

The same scene was repeated at our next consultation in the Siwai district.

There, on a Friday at the Siwai District Office, we mingled with the staff. There was no one else.

Five days later, on 27 September, we were at the Motuna-Hukonoh community government in Siwai for a meeting that was well attended but, as in Buin, not representative.

Kieta, Bana and Panguna consultations were also flawed and problematic. The consultation team split up in Buin and again in Kieta due to poor leadership. I was one who walked out. The team leaders were university youths with no power and experience in the tangle of Bougainville politics.

Then, another big problem. The funding earmarked to cover consultation in the entirety of Bougainville was exhausted when we had done no more than south and central Bougainville.

These incidents hijacked the consultation process. It was not because we were not capable, but because both the Bougainville and PNG governments had treated this aspect of things as nominal. Poor leadership, poor logistics and poor resources.

The ABG bureaucracy is a system designed by consultants for public servants with impressive university degrees but no insight or experience of entrenched Bougainville problems. They do not seem to understand the seriousness of the work required nor the solutions that are relevant for Bougainvilleans.

So now we face a Bougainville referendum as the long-awaited ultimate resolution of a 10-year bloody civil war and some 15,000 deaths.

But the problem we want to address is not a new one and not a Papua New Guinean problem, it’s the old conflict of Solomon islanders against Papua New Guineans and colonisation.

It will take more than a flawed consultation to sort that one out.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

I've done a few of these consultation tours, both in PNG and in Australia, and my experiences have been similar to those described by Leonard, people stay away in droves.

The tours I did were nowhere near as contentious as the one he describes and the issues had nothing like the import of those he was seeking opinion on.

My first inclination is to suggest that people in Bougainville may have reached a level of fatigue with respect to the referendum and the issues involved but my own experiences suggest that isn't all.

I suspect a lot of people believe that no matter what they say the 'authorities' will do what they want and there is no point talking about it over and over again.

It will be interesting to see what the actual turnout is for the actual referendum. I suspect it might be low.

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