By Jane Mahoney
The French Pacific territory of New Caledonia has many ties with Australia – especially in industry and trade.
The island territory has numerous similarities to its former colonial neighbours, like Vanuatu or Fiji, in terms of political difficulties, including an ongoing political scramble between its pro- and anti-independence parties.
Heidi Bootle, a career diplomat who is currently Australian Consul General, manages Australian interests in New Caledonia.
Ms Bootle says fostering the business relationship between Australia and New Caledonia is a primary concern; a relationship that entails $500 million in two-way trade and renders Australia New Caledonia’s second biggest trading partner only to France.
Among the 2000 Australian companies with interests in New Caledonia are subsidiaries of Caterpillar and MRC, the AVV company, Salmon and ANZ bank.
Most Australian business interests in New Caledonia are in areas of mine safety and maintenance, general equipment supply and specialised work such as warehousing management.
With its renowned expertise in mining, Australia plays an integral part in the rapid expansion of the New Caledonian nickel industry.
As well as Australia’s involvement in mining, Ms Bootle outlined to visiting journalists other areas that could assist to forge stronger ties between Australia and New Caledonia such as a tertiary education exchange program.
The program offers scholarships for New Caledonians to study in Australia, providing an opportunity for students to build up strength in English as a business language, and in the process, promote early relationships among future business leaders in the region.
Despite this, Ms Bootle says there could be and should be more trade.
Australia currently faces barriers to the New Caledonia market from French protectionist policies that privilege local and French interests through heavy import taxes and tariffs.
Ms Bootle says the New Caledonian economy is a “complicated market, that can be quite closed.”
It’s an economy with a complex history that still bears the heavy influence of French corporations and a local elite among the French settler population known as the Caldoches.
“There are lots of big vested interests who are politically influential and do not want anything to bring down their business prosperity,” Ms Bootle said.
This contentious business relationship is set against the background of New Caledonia’s ongoing troubles, the dispute between Caldoche interests and the indigenous Kanak population, who overwhelmingly vote for independence from France.
The international community, particularly the United Nations (UN), recognises the rights to self-determination of the Kanaks who make up some 40% of the population.
Independence from France would confer control to New Caledonia over a set of key policies not already in the hands of the local territory administration, for example foreign affairs, defence and trade.
The French government has set in motion processes by which New Caledonia political parties must work to settle the question of independence by referendum as early as 2015 and at latest before the end of 2018.
If no referendum is held by then, all government bodies such as the local parliament will shut down and France will intervene.
Ms Bootle states that the Kanaks currently find themselves in a relatively weak position through lacking a majority of the voting population.
“The independantists do not have the numbers at all…they would be well advised to put it back to 2018.”
The French government has removed many expatriate residents from the electoral rolls, but longer-term French nationals are demanding to stay enfranchised, in their majority position.
Ms Bootle said that Australia does not have a stance towards New Caledonia’s prospective independence, saying it is “a matter for them.”
However, she said that Australia welcomes the stabilising role played by France, which takes responsibility for security over a wide area in the Pacific region.
Further, the Australian and French governments have clear agreements in place for on-going government-to-government collaboration, specified in the 2012 joint statement of strategic partnership between the two countries.
With old disputes over French nuclear testing in the Pacific buried, France and Australia now cooperate on economic development assistance for countries across the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite the French imposed barriers that restrict trade between New Caledonia and Australia, Ms Bootle says that an opening for Australia in the New Caledonian economy is an issue that remains extraneous to the question of New Caledonian independence.
“An opening is not linked to that process. There, it does not matter who is in power. We will work with whoever …”