TUMBY BAY - If Bougainville does achieve independence from Papua New Guinea, lawyer Sam Koim has suggested the province might be abandoned without first being properly prepared to become a sovereign state, “just as Australia did to PNG”.
Sam is obviously playing devil’s advocate but it’s food for thought. Just what is Papua New Guinea’s contingency plan if Bougainville’s June referendum shows a strong vote for independence and the PNG parliament decides to go along?
It can be argued that Australia was forced by political pressure to grant independence to PNG before it was ready but it did so after a transition phase between self-government and full independence.
It also has continued to fund PNG and continues to do so right up until the present time by more than half a billion dollars a year.
Does PNG have a similar plan should it grant Bougainville independence?
Will there be an orderly transition and will PNG continue to fund the new nation for a while at least?
So far I haven’t been able to determine whether such a plan exists and my cynical side tells me not to be surprised if it doesn’t exist.
In any event, if prime minister O’Neill and the PNG government have no intention of granting Bougainville independence no matter which way its people vote, such a plan would not be necessary.
Or perhaps it would be just the usual case of muddling through, along the lines of ‘if they get independence we’ll deal with it then, there’s no point in thinking about something that may not happen’.
On the Bougainville side, however, they are developing plans for the transition. I’m not sure how far they have developed but president John Momis has certainly been amplifying the rhetoric.
Perhaps it won’t be until if and when independence is achieved that we’ll know whether Bougainville’s experience as an autonomous region has been enough to see it successfully manage independence.
At the moment the conversation is very much about the resumption of mining at Panguna, the money from which it is hoped will keep the independent state afloat.
But the rich mineral resources on Bougainville will not magically transform into a fully integrated and prosperous economy the day independence is granted. The mine, unused for 30 years and its infrastructure and equipment stolen or trashed, will require a decade and billions of dollars to restitute.
It is unlikely that on independence day the Autonomous Bougainville Government and its struggling public service will morph into a fully formed and functional system of governance without a hiccup.
Maybe there are good PNG government plans that exist but which are being kept under wraps until the fateful day.
Releasing them now would be admitting that Bougainvillean independence is a fait accompli and such an admission might have a huge impact on voting preferences.
That must be it, Sam Koim. They are both keeping mum in case something goes wrong. There’s nothing to worry about. We should all go back to arguing about whether Panguna should be reopened and by whom.