Australia's policy towards the French Pacific territories is to be the best possible friend and neighbour while they work out the relationships with France.
That's according to Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, who has just returned from Paris where he met with the new French Minister for overseas Territories, Victorin Lurel.
Mr Marles tells Bruce Hill that Australia is very supportive of France's role within the Pacific.
RICHARD MARLES: France is a strong, stable democracy which brings a lot of resources to the Pacific. We cooperate with the French military, for example, in maritime surveillance. Fisheries surveillance is not just within the exclusive economic zones of the French collectivities but, indeed, inside the exclusive economic zones of neighbouring countries.
France plays an important role in disaster response. It plays an important role and we coordinate with them on that.
That, combined with the fact that France is a stable and strong democracy which projects the values of democracy within a region where democracy is young and we can't take it for granted.
So, for all those reasons, France is a very positive player within the Pacific, and we very much welcome France's ongoing role in the Pacific.
In my conversations with Minister Lurel, the new Minister for Overseas Territories in France, there was a strong commitment indicated from him about France's ongoing role in the Pacific, which was greatly welcomed.
BRUCE HILL: Where does Australia stand on the question of decolonisation? I know that French Polynesia is looking to being re-inscribed on the UN decolonisation list. Of course, there are pressures from the Kanaks in New Caledonia for independence there from France. Where does Australia stand on those?
RICHARD MARLES: The position in relation to each of the French collectivities is quite different from the other. In relation to New Caledonia, we have in place the Noumea Accord which, really, has been a model in the way in which differing sides of the debate are coming together to try and resolve their differences and put, ultimately, a consensus proposition to the people of New Caledonia about their future.
It's a very laudable process indeed. You will hear people from both sides – borne out of the experience, the very negative experiences of the mid '80s – you'll hear people from both sides make a commitment that they don't want to see losers in this process, that they really do want to come up with a proposition which does encompass the future aspirations of the entire New Caledonian community.
Now, getting that will be a real challenge. Getting in place that consensus proposition – and it doesn't exist yet. But the commitment that all sides have to reaching that is certainly something to be admired. And the way in which the French have conducted the process up until now is also something to be admired.
In relation to French Polynesia, the situation is a little different. Oscar Temaru, the President of French Polynesia, has been seeking French Polynesia's re-inscription on the Committee of 24.
Our view is that this is principally a matter between France and French Polynesia, that ultimately, this is a matter that will be resolved in the discussion between France and French Polynesia. It's important that others not get in front of that whilst encouraging that conversation to happen.
That was really the outcome of the declaration that came out of the leaders retreat at the Pacific Island Forum a couple of weeks ago. [break in transmission] right outcome to encourage the conversation to happen, but not get in from of it, and allow the two parties to work together to see how they best progress their constitutional arrangement.
BRUCE HILL: In New Caledonia in the 1980s, there was virtually a civil war between the French and the Indigenous Kanaks. They put in place the Matignon Accords, the Noumea Accords to, sort of, kick the can up the road a few decades. That time is running out now and the fundamentals haven't changed. If that tension flares up again, would Australia be forced to pick one side?
RICHARD MARLES: What we need to be doing is being the best friend we can be in supporting both France and New Caledonia through this process, such that the tensions don't flare up again.
I would also say that I think there is a fundamental which is different. There is a commitment now from all sides to reaching an agreement which, perhaps, was not there in the '80s. And you are right in saying that I can't articulate what a consensus proposition might be. It doesn't exist at the moment. You're also right in saying that the time by which a consensus would need to be achieved, we're getting closer to that time.
But, having said that, when you go to New Caledonia, there really does appear to be a commitment by all players not to see the kind of conflict and contest which existed previously. Ultimately, all the people in New Caledonia live with each other no matter what the constitutional arrangements end up being. And so, there does need to be a consensus built amongst that community about their future.
I think the way in which it's being approached is very laudable. From an Australian point of view, we will do everything we can to support that and to support France's role in that, and to support the role of all the parties within New Caledonia as well.
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