One country mines nickel, the other mines iron ore. One was colonised by the French empire, the other by the British empire. Despite their different histories, languages and cultures, New Caledonia and Australia have much in common. New Caledonia is rarely deemed worthy of attention in Australia, but there are many things our government and businesses could learn from our Pacific neighbour.
On 2 February 2021, the New Caledonian government collapsed. Five pro-independence members of the government handed in their resignations, citing “the absence of constructive dialogue with the [French] state” on New Caledonia’s future and the potential sale of the country’s largest nickel mine to an overseas company. The two concerns are inextricably linked. Similar to Australia, New Caledonia’s economy and politics are tied up with the country’s wealth in natural resources. The Kanak-led protest against foreign ownership of the Vale mine that began in 2020 is part of a larger Indigenous struggle that has existed since the French colonised New Caledonia in 1853. Over the past 168 years, France has suppressed calls for autonomy from the Kanak population, fearing loss of control over the prized nickel deposits. The sale of the country’s largest nickel mine is yet another case of New Caledonia’s assets kept out of Kanak hands. The five members of the government did not simply resign over failed talks and a single mine, these issues are an accumulation of tensions between the French state and the Kanak people that have lasted for centuries.
Major elements of the New Caledonia story parallel Australia’s own. The violent protests that have erupted from both loyalists and independence supporters have been likened to the quasi civil war of the 1980s. The French state is unwilling to learn from its own history, and the Australian government and mining interests seem determined to follow suit. While New Caledonia was grappling with the consequences of colonial history throughout 2020, Australia was doing likewise. Time and time again, Australian politicians and companies ignored the voices of Indigenous Australians. The 2019/2020 summer fires, Rio Tinto’s destruction of ancient rock shelters in Juukan Gorg, the Victorian government’s felling of the sacred Djab Wurrung tree, and the federal government’s approval of the Narrabri gas project, despite Indigenous criticism, are all an accumulation of 233 years of history. With the help of governments, Australian mining companies have a long track record of drilling past Indigenous interests. These companies’ greed for profits over respect for Indigenous people’s even touched New Caledonia when Australian company, New Century, failed in a bid for the disputed Vale mine against Kanak wishes. Australia’s history of invasion and colonisation has led it up to this point, but that does not mean those in power cannot change routes.
The present unrest in New Caledonia is a result of a former colonial power repeatedly casting aside Indigenous authority. It shows what happens when politicians refuse to confront the consequences of their country’s past. New Caledonian Kanak politician Éloi Machoro identified the common ground in both Kanak and Indigenous Australian struggles in a 1981 speech to the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, declaring:
"We support the Australian Aborigines [sic] in particular and we closely follow progress of their struggle…Like them we are fighting for the possession of our lands and for the recognition and survival of our culture."
Forty years on, Australian political powerbrokers still refuse to learn from either neighbouring New Caledonian conflicts or its own history.
In a recent article, James Blackwell highlights the progressive thinking of New Zealand Indigenous foreign policy. If New Zealand is an example of what Australia should do, then New Caledonia is the example of what to avoid. On 17 February, the New Caledonian Congress voted in a majority pro-independence government, something not seen in the country since 1999. Yet not only does Australia lag behind in Indigenous political representation but, as we’ve seen throughout 2020, it also continues to disrespect Indigenous autonomy. When one recalls that the Hawke government introduced Reconciliation as the fallback option to pursuing treaty, implementing Reconciliation policy is the bare minimum. Thus far, the Australian government and Australian mining companies have been insincere in their promises to Indigenous Australians. Now is as good a day as any to start changing that.
Emma Hartley is a journalism student at RMIT and sub-editor at demos journal. They have recently completed a Bachelor of International Relations (Honours) and Bachelor of Arts at ANU.