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The impending, testy vote on B'ville

| Academia Nomad

PORT MORESBY – On Monday, not for the first time, the contentious matter of Bougainville’s future was debated on the floor of Papua New Guinea’s parliament.

The most controversial issue of all is that the result of the 2019 referendum, in which 97.7% of Bougainvilleans voted for independence, was intended to be non-binding.

The non-binding provision is captured in both the Bougainville Peace Agreement and the PNG Constitution.

Former Bougainville Affairs minister, Dr Puka Temu, told parliament that, when he and his Bougainville counterpart visited Bougainville multiple times leading up to the referendum, he told the people of Bougainville that the referendum result would be non-binding.

But many people at the time did not seem to pay much attention to this provision, which has now become a most contentious issue.

The question that should have been raised during the turn of the century peace agreement negotiations, and certainly before the 2019 referendum, is ‘why conduct a referendum if the results would be non-binding?’

It’s such an obvious question that I’m pretty sure leaders at the time thought about it.

One answer could be that the referendum was a compromise between the two parties – the PNG government and the leaders of Bougainville seeking a peace agreement after a bloody 10-year civil war.

Their goal at the time was to bring peace. If a promised referendum 20 years hence could assist this, its results could be left for a future generation of leaders to deal with.

So, despite 97.7% of Bougainvilleans voting for independence, the PNG parliament will vote on whether Bougainville becomes independent or not.

The words ‘rectification’ and ‘rectify’ are not in the PNG Constitution. But they do exist in the Bougainville Peace Agreement.

The word ‘rectify’ in the Peace Agreement gives the impression that the PNG parliament should (for lack of better term) approve the results.

But as Richard Maru MP has argued, parliament does intend to vote on the result. And the vote can go either way.

Southern Highlands Governor William Powi then asked the hardest question: What happens on the day after the vote?

Whether parliament approves independence or not, how will Papua New Guinea and Bougainville move on the next day?

But let us return to the vote itself, and the important question of how it should be conducted when it eventually comes before the parliament, as it must.

The Bougainville side thinks the vote should be a simple majority: 50% + 1. That is, 60 of the 118 MPs.

The PNG side thinks the vote should be an absolute majority: 76%. That is 89 of the 118 MPs.

Before that matter is settled, there can be no vote.

Disagreements over constitutional questions always go to the Supreme Court for interpretation.

The matter of simple or absolute majority and other constitutional issues will almost certainly go to the Supreme Court for resolution.

But the crucial question will remain: is it likely that either party will abide by a Supreme Court ruling.

In my view, Dr Temu made a most important contribution to the debate: that PNG MPs were not as involved as they should have been in the consultation process.

The same MPs who are going to vote on the future political status of Bougainville were not involved in the process.

Apart from few leaders like Julius Chan, MPs were not part of the Bougainville Peace Agreement. There is no institutional knowledge of the history and process of the very issue which they are now entrusted to vote on.


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