Australia has a long history and a complicated relationship with Bougainville, an island group to the east of the PNG mainland that was administered by Australia as part of Papua New Guinea for 60 years between 1915 and 1975. On 23 November 2019, its 300 000 people will commence voting in an independence referendum, and a clear majority is expected to vote for independence from Papua New Guinea. The Bougainville Peace Agreement requires PNG and Bougainville to negotiate an outcome after the conclusion of the referendum, and Canberra has indicated that it will respect any settlement reached between them. James Marape, the new PNG prime minister, has expressed a clear preference for an autonomous, not independent, Bougainville.

With geostrategic rivalry growing across the Pacific, Australia will need to step up its engagement and consider further policy approaches to Bougainville if it wishes to remain a trusted peace and security broker in Melanesia. If the people of Bougainville vote for independence and are unable to reach agreement with the government of Papua New Guinea, the Bougainville issue may precipitate another regional crisis.

Key findings:

  • Bougainville is largely ‘referendum ready’ and its people are expected to vote overwhelmingly for independence in the November referendum.
  • While Bougainville has abundant natural resources and a skilled older generation, as an independent nation it would face many challenges including fiscal self-reliance, consensus on mining issues, unity and political integrity.
  • Australia has a significant stake in the outcome and should step up its engagement to remain a trusted peace and security broker in Melanesia. It should not oppose Bougainville’s independence if that is the result under the referendum and peace process, and should take a leading role in ensuring a peaceful resolution between the parties.
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