November 2019


The promised land

By Hamish McDonald
Image of Panguna mine, 1994

Bougainville Revolutionary Army guerrillas above the Panguna mine, 1994. © Ben Bohane

Bougainville’s independence vote is a historic moment for Papua New Guinea, and a reckoning for Australia

We drive through the ruins of Panguna, central Bougainville, with Joyce Ampa’oi giving a running commentary. “Here was a shipping office, a bank, the Kawerong coffee shop run by my mother,” she says. “The supermarket over there, the church, the mess, the ladies’ accommodation, the hospital, the kindergarten. The expat executives lived up there, the managing director’s residence up on top – you can see the rubble.”

A gateway in a low wall opens to a tangle of vines. “That was the 50-metre swimming pool.” Four rusting light towers mark out a playing field, now scrub. A flight of steps leads up to a concrete slab. “That was the cricket club.” There was an indoor sports centre over there. Ampa’oi recalls a big match between world featherweight champion Eusebio Pedroza of Panama and local hero Johnny Aba.

This was a slice of Australia, inserted in the late 1960s into a Pacific island whose disparate peoples had lived by age-old custom, with occasional head-hunting and cannibalism, until, less than a century earlier, they’d been invaded successively by German ­colonisers, labour kidnappers, missionaries, Australian soldiers and patrol officers, and the armies of Japan and the Allies, before coming under the rule of distant Canberra and Port Moresby.

There were huge deposits of copper and gold in the mountain below Panguna. An open-cut mine owned by Bougainville Copper Ltd, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto via its Melbourne arm Conzinc Rio Tinto, opened in 1972. It soon provided 45 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s export income, 17 per cent of its internal revenue and 12 per cent of its gross domestic product, underwriting PNG’s transition to independence in September 1975 and its economy 14 years beyond.

It all worked well, it seemed, for nearly 20 years. As well as the town at the mine itself, the project supported the development of a new township, Arawa, on the plain near the island’s idyllic east coast. Company families lived in Queenslander-style houses. Dealers imported Holdens and Fords. Young mothers pushed baby strollers to the clinic, the supermarket, the recreation centre. Mining executives and managers from the Burns Philp and W.R. Carpenter trading houses, dressed in the tropical rig of shorts and long white socks, relaxed over drinks at the club.

Ampa’oi’s late father was one of a number of PNG nationals who joined this enclave. A Bougainvillean, he’d been educated and trained as a teacher by the Marist Fathers, and then got hired as a community liaison officer by Bougainville Copper. Later, he became a successful small businessman, running a fleet of taxis in Arawa.

The family lived in a house built for them by the mining company on their traditional land, close to Panguna. Joyce Ampa’oi went to the schools in Arawa and Panguna. “It was a beautiful life, from my recollection,” she says. “I had white friends. We mixed and hung about. Your next-door neighbours were Australian, or Swedish, or whatever. A lot of the kids that grew up there still have their friends from that whole collage of cultures.”

Yet the huge mine never sat easily with most Bougainvilleans. How could it? There was widespread shock when Canberra’s minister for territories, old-style Country Party politician Charles “Ceb” Barnes, visited in 1966 and bluntly told a crowd the Panguna mine would be developed “for all of Papua New Guinea”, and Bougainvilleans would have to be content with the spin-off from local spending. Many locals thought secession a better idea, and they began campaigning.

Meanwhile, counsellors were sent in to explain to people that while they might own the surface of the land, they did not own what was beneath it, under the law of Crown ownership of mineral resources.

But that law, developed in far-off Britain when mines were just shafts sunk to rich and visible mineral seams, looked out of place in this context. Mines like Panguna were huge open-cut operations. In its 17 years of operation, 3 million tonnes of copper were extracted, along with associated gold and silver. That this came from rock with average copper content of 0.34 per cent gives an idea of the volume of land dug up and discarded – 150,000 tonnes of rock waste and tailings per day. The landscape disappeared, becoming a huge hole surrounded by dumps of overburden, while ground-up rock washed down a river to the sea, coating the banks with verdigris, raising the riverbed so that surrounding land became swamps, and extending silt out into the coastal fishing ground.

Neither the colonial administration nor the company properly checked who owned the land. In some places, men had usurped the female ownership lineage of the local Nasioi people. When women lay down in front of bulldozers, police hauled them away. The mine’s first managing director, Don Vernon, was later to write that the land had seemed largely empty of habitation and agriculture: “Yet we were to learn that every square metre of the apparent wilderness belonged to someone under customary land law.”

Debate over the ownership of the land and its subterranean riches, the possible revitalisation of the Panguna mine, which closed amid violence in 1989, and even Papua New Guinea’s dominion over the region is reaching a new peak this month, as Bougainville finally gets its long-promised independence referendum. Delayed several times, it is set for November 23, with huge implications not just for the local peoples, but regionally and for a trickily positioned Australia.

The era of the Panguna mine all started unravelling in 1988. The murder of a local nurse led to a rampage by Bougainvilleans against migrants from the PNG highlands living in squatter settlements around Arawa, whom they blamed for the crime. A young group challenged established Panguna landowners over the distribution of the trickle of royalties conceded to locals by Port Moresby. To reiterate their point, they cut the power line to the mine. Port Moresby sent in the notoriously rough police mobile squad, whose rampage led in return to armed rebellion by the newly formed Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). Further acts of sabotage stopped mining operations in May the following year.

One Friday in July 1989, Joyce Ampa’oi flew back from college in Madang (on the PNG mainland) for the midyear break. Around 10pm that night, the family heard an explosion in the distance, then, through the night and next morning, the popping of distant gunshots. The BRA had blown down another pylon carrying power to Panguna.

About midday the next day, PNG Defence Force soldiers emerged from the bush around the family’s house. “They called us out and made us lie face down in the yard with guns to our heads,” Ampa’oi says. “They asked us, ‘Do you have any BRA people come through?’ We said we had no idea.” Ampa’oi’s father told the soldiers he was under police protection, as someone previously connected with the mine, and had the police commissioner’s phone number.

The soldiers withdrew, one of them gratuitously firing a bullet through the windscreen of the family car.

Later that afternoon, Joyce was playing with her young nieces and nephews in the garden. “Then one coconut fell, then another,” she says. “Then it hit me: someone was shooting across the tree tops, from one ridge to another. I grabbed the kids and ran inside. Then a helicopter came in low overhead and fired rockets into the hillside.”

The family packed up and moved down to Arawa that same day. They never saw their house again. On the following Tuesday it was burnt down. In August, they moved to Port Moresby.

In November 1989, Bougainville Copper declared the mine closed and paid off its staff. “It was all such a shock,” Ampa’oi says. “We thought it would be sorted out. Nobody expected this place to blow up like that.”

But it did, and this lovely, remote Pacific island collapsed into civil war. The PNG Defence Force, with just two under-equipped battalions of infantry, had little hope of a decisive victory.

The political head of the BRA was a former mine worker, Francis Ona, from a breakaway group of Panguna landowners. Its military commander was a young Bougainvillean named Sam Kauona, who had graduated from the Australian Army’s officer training school at Portsea with a specialisation in explosives, before becoming a captain in the PNG Defence Force. Upon learning his own army was being sent into Bougainville, he had deserted.

Kauona’s young volunteers seized weapons from soldiers and police, or made crude pipe guns. Dominic Babatani, who commanded the BRA company operating around Arawa, told me how they’d gone to the Torokina district, on the western coast, where departing American and Australian forces had buried dumps of weapons in 1945. His group found a heavy machine gun in working condition, retrieved belts of ammunition, and made a mount for it in an abandoned mine workshop. He showed me where his men had used it to drive off a PNG patrol boat trying to land soldiers on Arawa’s beach.

The fighting soon became a three-way conflict, between the government forces, the BRA rebels and islander militia groups known as the Resistance, who were antagonised by the BRA’s depredations. Villages emptied around Panguna.

“All the mothers and families moved into the refuge centres, but the boys were holding the fort up in the jungle,” says Alphons Tavore, a former BRA fighter. “In 1990 there was a ceasefire, but it broke down the following year. The care centres closed and everyone went back into the mountains until 1997. We survived on wild yams, choko vines, possums, crabs, fish.”

Up to 20,000 of Bougainville’s then population of 200,000 are estimated to have died, some from direct conflict and violence, most from sickness due to isolation and the lack of medical services.

The conflict came to a head in 1996–97. PNG military operations collapsed after its soldiers were lured by women into an ambush, where 12 were slaughtered by the BRA. Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan’s attempts to negotiate with the BRA were not reciprocated, and PNG soldiers assassinated the premier of a transitional government that Chan had set up in Bougainville. Chan turned to an African mercenary force formed by British-based Sandline International. The plan was to clear out the BRA, using an Mi-24 helicopter gunship and other heavy weapons, and then to reopen the Panguna mine.

Disclosure of this plan led to a mutiny by the PNG Defence Force in Port Moresby and the fall of Chan’s government. The new government and the nominal Bougainville premier worked out a ceasefire agreement with Kauona’s forces, an international monitoring group moved in, and talks on a permanent settlement began under New Zealand’s auspices. In 2001, the attending parties signed the Bougainville Peace Agreement, setting up a new Autonomous Bougainville Government and committing to a referendum on independence by June 2020.

Francis Ona never joined the process and, before he died in 2005, proclaimed himself king of a state he declared was already independent: Me’ekamui, or “Promised Land”.

Bougainville’s moment of reckoning has almost arrived: the question of independence is to be put to a referendum over two weeks from November 23.

Port Moresby, having kicked the political-diplomatic can about as far down the road as it could go, still wants Bougainville to remain part of PNG, but by most analyses has squandered the past 18 years rather than building support for this position. And starved of funds, the autonomous Bougainville government based on Buka Island – just off the main island’s northern tip, and headed since 2010 by veteran politico John Momis, a former Catholic priest – has not been particularly impressive.

The replacement in May of PNG’s prime minister of the past eight years, Peter O’Neill, over various fiscal scandals, has helped galvanise Port Moresby into belated action. His successor, James Marape, who had been O’Neill’s deputy and finance minister, finally disbursed the 30 million kina ($14 million) he’d allocated several months back to an electoral commission chaired by former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern.

Marape also appointed one of PNG’s more respected politicians, former foreign minister Sir Puka Temu, from the region around Port Moresby, as minister for Bougainville affairs. In June, Temu visited the island and spoke to a crowd in Arawa attending the annual Bougainville Day celebrations, assuring them the government would “fully honour” the peace agreement by conducting the referendum properly.

“We are together in this process,” Temu said, citing the “Melanesian culture of compassion”. “Our hands are tied together … I want to assure you we will work together until the final outcome is announced.”

However the logistics were lagging badly. The referendum date had been put back from June until October, to let officials catch up with enrolling voters in Bougainville and its diaspora across PNG, Australia and New Zealand, and it was then rescheduled again.

In many ways this island with its smoking volcano is a microcosm of Melanesia. It has 16 surviving language groups; similar patterns of agriculture; belief in spirits and the presence of the dead; distinctions between “bush” people and “saltwater” people; and a cultural mix from ancient Papuan settlement and more recent though still prehistoric influxes of Austronesians from South-East Asia, historically often at war with each other.

But if Sir Puka Temu and other visiting ministers thought they could call on Melanesian fellowship to convince Bougainvilleans to stay with PNG, it seemed a forlorn hope. The violent intrusions of the past century, the disruption of the mine and the civil war created a pan-Bougainvillean identity, according to Australian National University scholar Anthony Regan.

Among the crowd listening to Temu in Arawa, there was hardly a PNG flag in sight. Most people wore shirts and vests adorned with the Bougainville flag, the design based on a headdress worn by young boys approaching traditional initiation ceremonies. Many garments also carried the slogans “Black is beautiful” or “Kawas Pawa” (“Black Power”). The Bougainvilleans, along with nearby islanders in the northern Solomon Islands, are possibly the darkest-skinned people in the world, which makes them different from the lighter-skinned peoples elsewhere in PNG and which they regard as an important part of their identity, along with a predominance of matrilineal land ownership.

The former BRA commander Sam Kauona also talks of a broad consensus among Bouganvilleans. Now living at his sprawling family compound south of the port town of Kieta, where his cattle wander between coconut groves and the beach, he says firmly: “Bougainville’s intention is to go for full independence.”

But Kauona accuses Port Moresby of doing its best to confuse the issue. “That’s why we ended up with the two choices: one is greater autonomy and the second one is independence,” he says. “PNG tries every step of the way to make sure the referendum is made difficult for the people of Bougainville.” He said it should have been a simple yes or no vote on independence, leaving autonomy the option in case of a rejection.

PNG politicians have stepped up their efforts to convince voters to stay. In September, Marape took his cabinet to the island and in a humbly worded speech to its parliament promised a billion kina over 10 years for development. This was not long after his government asked Australia for 300 million kina ($130 million) just to balance this year’s budget.

Despite the sense of different identity, sentiment towards the rest of PNG is not hostile. After the conflict started, many educated Bougainvilleans found good jobs and marriage partners elsewhere in PNG, and small traders pack the weekly ferry to Rabaul.

On the ground, Kauona has welded his former fighters and their opponents in the Resistance into a powerful island-wide movement, known as the Bougainville Ex-Combatants Core Group. It operates as a kind of home guard in normal life, helping to quell local disturbances. Kauona says it would also help keep security around the referendum. But not in a neutral way. “At the same time, we are telling our people … number one, people need to enrol; number two, when they enrol they need to vote for independence.”

Genevieve Korokoro, who studied at the Queensland University of Technology and is now Arawa’s deputy mayor, is spreading word that this is a decisive moment. “This is your chance,” she tells people. “You suffered for it. It is your only chance to decide on the political future of Bougainville.”

“I’m for independence,” she declares. “I want to put this thing to a stop somewhere. It’s been from our forefathers, from colonial times. So let us go for this chance and see what happens. But we have to work on it – it’s not going to be easy.”

The former New Zealand foreign minister and Commonwealth secretary-general Sir Donald McKinnon, who helped steer the peace negotiations in the 1990s and revisited Bougainville midyear, predicts the vote for independence will be very strong. “It would be very surprising if it was below 90 per cent,” he tells me.

The most obvious challenge for an independent state would be financing itself. More than 90 per cent of the annual autonomous government budget of 286 million kina ($125 million) is met by transfers from the central government and foreign aid. “An independent Bougainville would require two to three times more,” wrote Professor Satish Chand, an economist specialising in the Pacific, in a recent study for Port Moresby’s National Research Institute.  

Carving out a notional share of PNG’s licence fees for tuna fishing would bring perhaps 100 million kina. The remaining funding gap is still wide.

For this reason, the autonomous government has been “hell-bent” – as one foreign adviser put it – on getting at least one big copper-gold mine operating: either the old Panguna one, which has remained shut since 1989, or a new project, or both. In 2015, it enacted a new mining law, giving ownership of mineral resources to landowners rather than the state. Mining companies now have to wrangle deals with the villagers sitting on top of the resources.

Rio Tinto, the largest shareholder in the Panguna mine, decided not to stick around. It got out of Bougainville Copper in mid 2016, leaving the Australian-listed company with the PNG and Bougainville governments each holding 36.4 per cent equity, and various investors the rest. Currently Bougainville Copper’s assets may just be its cash reserves, around $40 million, after the autonomous government last year declined to extend the exploration licence that would have given it first right of development – a decision the company has taken to court in PNG. In 2012, the company had said a bare-bones reopening of the mine would take five years and cost US$5.2 ­billion.

With the mountainous spine of the island fused with copper and its streambeds flecked with gold, would-be mine operators have been arriving since the civil conflict ended, from the United States, Canada and Australia.

Earlier this year, a horse-breeder from Perth convinced the autonomous government to give his British Virgin Islands–registered company an exclusive right to 40 per cent of all new mining projects in return for six months to find US$6 billion to reopen Panguna. But in June the legislation to enable this scheme got blocked by opposition in the Bougainville legislature.

Two rather more experienced mining groups, also from Perth, are active. Kalia Ltd has two exploration leases across the northern end of Bougainville Island, and reports promising traces of copper and gold. It proposes giving landowners 25 per cent of any projects that result. The other firm, RTG Mining, which has activity in Africa and Asia as well as Australia, has some 90 individuals from the land-owning groups at Panguna on “stipends”. According to Laurence Daviona, a leader among these locals, RTG is thinking of a lean operation costing about US$2 billion initially to reopen Panguna, and is proposing an ownership split with 10 per cent to the landowners, 40 per cent to the Bougainville government, and the remaining 50 per cent for itself.

There would be no shortage of uses for any additional government revenue. The highway down the island is still only paved in patches near the interim capital of Buka Town. Japanese aid got some bridges rebuilt since the conflict, but vehicles still need to ford one big river across submerged rocks and pebbles. The clinic in Arawa, financed by Australian aid, is barely coping with needs. A large coconut-oil refinery, built in Arawa by an earlier mining hopeful, is locked up.

Schools have reopened for one of the fastest growing populations in the world – already estimated over 300,000 – but a generation, now adult, missed out on education. “Young people have grown up displaced in care centres,” says Genevieve Korokoro. “In the villages they had some sort of authority from the chiefs and parents. Now the parents don’t have control over them. We need to get the 16- to 20-year-olds into technical training and apprenticeships.” The Arawa Technical College, opened during the mining years, is abandoned.

For a lot of Bougainville people, though, worries about the money are for later. Most have got used to looking after themselves, growing, gathering or catching their own food, with cash coming from small businesses such as transport and shops, from selling buai (betel nut) or panning for gold in streams. “We don’t really need the mine to reopen,” Korokoro says. “We have enough natural resources: tuna, coconuts, vanilla, tourism. If there is to be mining, maybe later. Why waste time when people are not ready for it?”

“Many Solomon Islanders and Papua New Guineans are just not touched by the state,” points out the Australian National University specialist on the Pacific, James Batley, a former Australian ambassador to Timor-Leste, the Solomon Islands and Fiji who also helped run the Bougainville peace negotiations. “They might occasionally see the police, if there has been a murder; they receive their education from the churches.”

Even those agreeing that the mine reopening is necessary, and could keep landowners happy, are cautious. Sam Kauona said the tax revenues must be put into agriculture, fisheries and infrastructure, or saved in a sovereign wealth fund. “The amount of minerals we extract should service Bougainville’s needs, not overdoing it,” he said. “Bougainville is so small.”

Elsewhere in PNG, where the huge resource projects that followed Panguna have poured in revenue – the Ok Tedi copper mine, the gold mines at Porgera, Lihir and Misima, and the natural gas fields of the Southern Highlands and the Papuan Gulf – the money has remained in Port Moresby, while services for the regional populations decay.

A more immediate obstacle to independence is the need for the referendum outcome to be ratified by the PNG parliament. This proviso was inserted into the peace agreement to break a deadlock, at the suggestion of the then Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer. It enabled the agreement to be presented in two ways. In PNG, it allowed leaders to stress their ultimate say over the outcome. Elsewhere, Downer and others could say that going against a strong independence majority would be unthinkable.

James Batley says Australian politicians and officials hoped Bougainvilleans could be persuaded back into the PNG fold. “The message to Port Moresby was that this gives you 15 to 20 years to fix up your act there.”

But that opportunity has largely been wasted. The central government has paid the Autonomous Bougainville Government only a small fraction of the restoration and development grants stipulated in the peace agreement, regional president John Momis told the PNG parliament in August. “Without the proper payment of this grant, the ABG can do very little to improve services and provide infrastructure in Bougainville,” he said. “The problems with this grant have contributed to a growing sense of frustration amongst Bougainvilleans with the autonomy arrangements.”

Post-referendum scenarios have been studiously avoided in South Pacific bilateral and regional summits this year. When questioned, members of the PNG parliament react differently to the question of the pro­independence vote.

“No one in the parliament is going to vote to ratify secession, I can tell you that now,” Bryan Kramer, an anti-corruption campaigner brought in to James Marape’s new government as police minister, told me in June this year. “We would have to persuade them they would be better off staying, that in this uncertain world, there is safety in numbers.”

Allan Bird, an Opposition MP and governor of the East Sepik province, argues the opposite. “We have mistreated them,” he told me midyear. “If they vote to leave and we try to stop them, it will get nasty. If we let them go, we can have friendly relations with them.”

While Bougainville is no longer the revenue provider for PNG that it was up to 1990, seeing the departure of such a region would be a bitter moment for any leader in Port Moresby, however sugar-coated. Yet in Bougainville, many see Marape, who has declared his ambition to make PNG “the richest black Christian nation on earth”, as more inclined to honour the people’s expressed will than his predecessor, Peter O’Neill. Before it comes to that, an advance on Bougainville’s current autonomy will be offered, possibly “free association” as enjoyed by the Cook Islands and three Micronesian states, though PNG can hardly match the welfare and migration offered by their protectors, New Zealand and the United States respectively.

For Canberra, it will be excruciating. Until now, the easy diplomatic line has been to express support for a “peaceful resolution” of the Bougainville conflict. Senior officials have spent their careers managing fraying states in the region, from New Caledonia to Timor-Leste, not to mention those regions attempting to secede. “Will we actually come out and say that we think Bougainville should be independent?” asks Batley.

Port Moresby is also aware other regions could take up Bougainville’s example. Two years ago, the former prime minister who had hired the Sandline mercenaries, Sir Julius Chan, from the East New Britain region around the township of Rabaul, astonished an audience at ANU by declaring: “If Bougainville goes, we go too.”

Other regional governments aren’t barracking for secession either, particularly Honiara, in the neighbouring Solomon Islands. “Solomons leaders are terrified about what could happen in Bougainville,” says Batley. “Partly because of violence breaking out again and how it could spill over, and partly because it poses an existential question about the Solomons’ future.”

Australia’s long-running Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, of which Batley was a director, was about rebuilding “an irreducible minimum” of national institutions for government to function, he says, because “for Australia it is important to see things that look like states”. (Yet he adds: “The Solomons is still a work in progress as a country. They still have endless debates about reforming the constitution, a federal system.”)

In northern parts of the Solomons, such as the island of Choiseul – whose people share strong cultural links with Bougainville, with which it was briefly joined under German rule – talk of joining Bougainville is common enough, though it’s tempered by awareness that Bougainvilleans would be dominant, and is voiced in part to secure more attention from Honiara.

Jakarta has long opposed Bougainville’s independence, to prevent it becoming a model for the West Papuans seething with new unrest against Indonesian rule. Even Vanuatu, the most vociferous Pacific supporter of self-determination for West Papua, has been quiet on Bougainville.

Canberra would risk deepening distrust among Bougainvilleans if it were seen trying to hold independence back. Despite its self-perception as a benevolent power, Australia’s record in Bougainville, as elsewhere in Melanesia, has not been benign. At the start of last century, after “blackbirding” for the Queensland sugarcane fields had ended, Australian “recruiters” hauled off thousands of men and boys in the holds of their schooners to labour on coconut plantations in German New Guinea. After the island was handed to Australia in 1920, along with other German territories, Australian authorities continued pacification with “conspicuous brutality”, according to scholar Peter Elder. Australia’s tiny garrison vanished during World War Two when the Japanese appeared, a desertion not outweighed by the diggers’ return and the unnecessary campaign that filled Port Moresby’s Bomana War Cemetery with 19-year-old soldiers killed in the war’s final weeks. The big Australian effort behind the peace process from 1994 has not compensated for the earlier mining debacle and Australian support for the PNG military. “It was Bougainville Copper Ltd, an Australian company, which dictated the war in Bougainville and subsequently supported it in terms of finance, military,” Sam Kauona says. “It was like an Australian proxy war in Bougainville.”

Kauona for one sees the island forging ahead with independence regardless of what Port Moresby does, and subsequently building ties with neighbours, including a reconciliation with Australia. “We will go ahead from our position of victory,” he tells me. “Papua New Guinea would be making a big mistake if some advisers tell them not to ratify. Their country will go down; their country will collapse.”

A little over a hundred firearms have been handed in as part of the pre-referendum amnesty. It can be presumed many more have been stashed away, along with the buried wartime arms, so any extension of PNG rule by force would not be relished by the PNG Defence Force. “We defeated them, humiliated them,” Kauona says. “But we don’t talk about it and rub it in.”

In any case, negotiations will follow the outcome of the referendum. Sir Donald McKinnon says the economics of independence have to be carefully modelled, citing his Commonwealth experience helping settle secession movements in Africa and the Caribbean. “Independence is a very costly exercise,” he says. “It’s more than just running a flag up the pole and having a couple of missions somewhere. It’s an extraordinarily expensive exercise, and you’ve got to know that it really is going to cost.”

Batley wonders if he’s “thinking like a white man” in assuming the referendum outcome will be a point of no return. Perhaps this underestimates the Melanesian capacity to keep talking. He also thinks it a mistake to assume national boundaries in the Southwest Pacific are fixed: “Why should we assume that the independence settlement is permanent?”

In August, John Momis floated the idea in PNG’s national parliament that an independent “facilitator” could help bring post-referendum agreement. Australia has some senior figures with Bougainville peace-making experience – such as former governor-general Sir Peter Cosgrove and Defence Department secretary Greg Moriarty – but might do well to back off from any leading role, for reasons of trust and responsibility. Even so, Bougainville seems about to present Australia with an unprecedented challenge. “It’s just a situation that we cannot ultimately control and shape,” Batley says.

But it seems highly likely to mean supporting a new and currently cashless nation of 300,000 people located right in the middle of the zone where Morrison is trying to apply his Pacific “step-up”.

“It would cost us an absolute fortune,” Batley says. The Solomons mission cost “near enough to $3 billion over 14 years. It would be easily of the same magnitude.”

The bills are just starting to come in from the postcolonial reckoning in the Southwest Pacific.

Hamish McDonald

Hamish McDonald has been a correspondent and editor for the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Saturday Paper.

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In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality