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Bougainville was not meant to be easy

Malcolm Fraser, prime minister of Australia, 1975-83, popularised the maxim, 'Life wasn't meant to be easy'. The issue of Bougainville independence is a vexing one for all PNG politicians


ADELAIDE – Martyn Namarong is quite correct in his commentary, Bougainville highlights need for a new PNG’, both in his analysis of the Bougainville dilemma and his discussion of the implications for Papua New Guinea.

Denying Bougainville independence would be a catastrophe for PNG; while granting it independence will inevitably open up fissures in the wider PNG polity.

To my mind the solution lies in the creation of a federal structure somewhat similar to Australia, Canada, the USA or even Germany.

The tricky bit will be ensuring that the country does not fracture into large numbers of tribally based entities that are too small to be viable states.

The other side of the same coin is figuring out how to create states that can successfully encompass people from several different tribal backgrounds.

There will be no simple solution to the basic problem, which is how to accommodate PNG's many distinct tribal identities within the governance structure without hopelessly compromising its underlying viability.

What to do, for example, where one province or state has access to huge and valuable mineral resources while others are utterly impoverished.

Australia has solved this problem, in part at least, through a process called ‘horizontal fiscal equalisation’ whereby an independent non-partisan body (the Grants Commission) advises the federal government on the fairest and most equitable way to allocate tax revenues.

While this process is always accompanied by much political posturing between the states, the results are invariably accepted, however grudgingly.

Everyone knows that this process is the price of having a viable nation state as distinct from of group of squabbling mini states, some of which are very much poorer than the others.

The truth is that the large and wealthy states generally enjoy greater influence within the overall federation.

This is reflected in their ability to negotiate favourable outcomes upon a host of things ranging from food standards and labelling through to the national education curriculum.

No-one thinks the process is perfect but no better option has yet been devised.

Federal states are messy, noisy creations, locked into a more or less continuous process of negotiation over just about everything.

As one of our prime ministers, Malcolm Fraser, famously observed, "life wasn't meant to be easy".

If Papua New Guinea goes down the federal path, this is the one certain outcome.


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