Kanak speaks on independence referendum

A rally promoting the upcoming Kanaky-New Caledonia independence referendum, in Noumea last October.

The Institute for Postcolonial Studies hosted a forum on August 1 to discuss the November 4 independence referendum in Kanaky-New Caledonia (KNC).

Kanaky is the indigenous name for the Pacific island country known to its French colonisers as Nouvelle Calèdonie (New Caledonia). The independence movement is proposing that the combined name Kanaky-New Caledonia be used.

Nic Maclellan, who works as a journalist and researcher in the Pacific islands, explained to the forum that KNC is regarded by the United Nations as a colony of France, while the French government claims it is not a colony but an integral part of France. The inhabitants of KNC are regarded as French citizens and can vote in French elections.

Maclellan explained that the Kanak (indigenous) population has been reduced to a minority due to the influx of migrants from France and other French colonies, such as Tahiti and the Wallis and Futuna islands.

He said France wants to keep control of KNC because of the rich nickel mines there and because it gives France control over the maritime resources in the exclusive economic zone around the islands. This includes fishing and undersea minerals, oil and gas. France controls 7 million square kilometres of the Pacific.

Charles Wea, the Melbourne representative of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), spoke about the goals of this alliance of pro-independence parties.

FLNKS proposes a democratic and secular constitution for an independent KNC, and hopes to win the support of people from all communities on the islands. 

Wea said the FLNKS is making a big effort to reach out to non-Kanak communities, reassuring them that they will not be adversely affected by independence.

Wea spoke of problems with the conduct of the upcoming independence referendum. A key issue is who is entitled to vote. The French authorities have been including people on the electoral roll who are not eligible, such as people from metropolitan France who have lived in KNC for only a few years, while excluding some Kanaks.

Authorities have also been trying to scare people with the prospect that independence will result in poverty. Wea said an independent KNC would have good economic prospects, with revenue from nickel mining, tourism and fishing.

Wea cited an agreement negotiated by the government of the predominantly Kanak northern province with Glencore, a transnational mining company. The provincial government used its control of nickel-rich land to obtain a deal giving it 51% ownership of a smelter to process the nickel. This is a much higher proportion of local ownership than is usual in the Pacific.

Maclellan said the Australian government has expressed support for French colonialism in the Pacific. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has described France as a "Pacific nation" and said he welcomed this.

Australia and France have signed an agreement on the use of each other's military bases. There is also an agreement between the two countries over oil and gas exploration in the sea between Australia and KNC.