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Bougainville’s referendum: Part 2 – The status quo

Bougainville 2016JOHN MOMIS | Address to the Papua New Guinea Parliament

PNG Attitude is publishing edited extracts of Dr Momis’s address in three parts representing the history, the present and the future of November’s referendum on Bougainville’s political future

PORT MORESBY - The referendum on independence for Bougainville is the third pillar of the peace agreement between the PNG government and Bougainville leaders signed on 30 August 2001.

The referendum is being held in accordance with the agreement from late November to early December.

The provisions for autonomy and referendum are not only contained in the peace agreement, more importantly they are provided for in the PNG constitution, in a new part inserted by amendments made in March 2002.

So implementing the referendum involves implementing  the PNG constitution. Refusal to hold the referendum would have resulted in a breach of the constitution.

The provisions of the constitution state that the referendum must be held but do not provide for the referendum outcome to be binding.

However, neither PNG nor Bougainville can just ignore the outcome of the referendum.

This is because the constitution requires that, after the referendum, the two governments must consult on the outcome and, subject to that consultation, the outcome must be forwarded to the PNG parliament.

The peace agreement is clear that the parliament has the final decision-making authority in relation to the referendum outcomes.

It may not be widely realised that the two governments have been consulting about the arrangements for the referendum for more than three years.

This consultation has been necessary because the peace agreement and the constitution do not provide for all aspects of the referendum arrangements. Some important matters were left to be agreed between the governments closer to the holding of the referendum.

A few key aspects of the arrangements were left until later, and have been the subject of recent agreement between the two governments. These matters include:

  • The body to conduct the referendum - the decision was to establish an independent Bougainville Referendum Commission (BRC).
  • The chair of the BRC - the decision was made to appoint an independent person of international standing, namely the former prime minister of the Republic of Ireland, Hon Bertie Ahern.
  • The criteria for non-resident Bougainvilleans to be eligible to enrol to vote.
  • The question to be asked in the referendum - the decision of the two governments was to ask voters to choose between independence and greater autonomy.
  • The date of the referendum - the most recent decision of the two governments is for voting to be held from late November to early December.

FlagWith the arrangements for the referendum in place, and the Bougainville Referendum Commission working hard to prepare for it, the key thing left to the two governments is to consult on how the situation after the referendum will be handled.

For a start, there is little faith amongst Bougainvilleans about the current autonomy arrangements.

In large part this is because of the PNG government’s treatment of Bougainville in the 14 years since the Autonomous Bougainville Government was established.

The most significant issue here concerns the Restoration and Development Grant, one of the two main grants payable annually to the ABG by the national government. In most years since the ABG was established, the national government has paid the ABG a fraction of what the constitutional laws say the ABG should receive.

For this year – 2019 – there is no provision in the national budget for payment of the restoration and development grant.

Without the proper payment of this grant, the ABG can do very little to improve services and provide infrastructure in Bougainville. The problems with this grant have contributed to a growing sense of frustration amongst Bougainvilleans with the autonomy arrangements.

The reason why Bougainvilleans agreed to the autonomy arrangements in the peace agreement was that they wanted their own government, one that would be empowered to solve the problems of Bougainville, manage our own affairs, and work to realise our aspirations. This is stated in paragraph  4(b) of the peace agreement.

But, without the funding agreed to in the peace agreement and the constitutional laws, we cannot manage our own affairs. This is a source of great frustration to Bougainvilleans.

It is still not too late for the national government to pay the 2019 Restoration and Development Grant.

To do so would significantly reduce the frustrations of Bougainvileans with the grant, and perhaps open their minds more to the possibility of remaining a part of Papua New Guinea.

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