The Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and the PNG National Government have taken their first steps to establish an independent commission to conduct the Bougainville referendum.

The Bougainville Referendum Commission Transitional Committee met in Port Moresby and agreed on a number of activities to get referendum preparations underway.

The Transitional Committee is made up of the national and Bougainville Electoral Commissioners, and the National and ABG Chief Secretaries.

Bougainville Electoral Commissioner George Manu said the Bougainville Referendum Commission is the independent agency that has been agreed to by both governments to conduct the referendum on the future political status of Bougainville.

“Under the Bougainville Peace Agreement, the two governments have agreed that the Commission will be headed by a highly regarded and well qualified international person. This will establish the complete independence of the Commission,” Mr Manu said.

“However, while that person is being selected, the Transitional Committee will be laying out the initial groundwork.”

“With the target date for referendum just 18 months away, there are many things that must happen to ensure a credible and peaceful referendum process in Bougainville.”

The Transitional Committee meeting was attended by PNG Deputy Chief Secretary John Punde as a delegate representing the National Chief Secretary, and by ABG Mining Secretary Shadrach Himata as a delegate representing the ABG Chief Secretary.

The Transitional Committee agreed to create four committees to progress referendum planning and the establishment of the BRC Secretariat.

These committees may draw upon staff from the Papua New Guinea Electoral Commission, Office of the Bougainville Electoral Commissioner, and the national and Bougainville public services.

Mr. Manu said the Transitional Committee will call upon the two governments to formally request United Nations technical assistance to the Referendum Commission.

“The UN has been critical to the peace process, and they are well placed to support to the Referendum Commission to increase its credibility and technical competence.

“However, as a gesture of goodwill and maintaining leadership of the referendum process, Bougainville and PNG must fast-track the establishment of a trust account for the Commission and provide initial funds to kick start operations. Without funding, we cannot do our work,” Mr Manu said.

The co-chairs also called upon the two governments to resolve outstanding issues that are impeding referendum preparations.

“The meeting this week of leaders from the two governments provides the opportunity to once and for all agree on the question or questions to be put to the people of Bougainville, confirm the referendum date and agree on the process for including Bougainvilleans living outside Bougainville.”

“The Bougainville Referendum Commission very much depends on these issues of question and process to be jointly resolved as per the Peace Agreement.”

The two governments will meet at the Joint Technical Team and Joint Supervisory Body consultation meetings 11-12 and 14-15 December respectively.

Responding to widespread concerns about the importance of a credible and inclusive

voter roll for the referendum, the Transitional Committee also agreed to request the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to conduct an assessment of the options for a referendum voter roll, and that this assessment begins immediately.

Mr. Manu said the IFES report will help the Commission to develop a comprehensive and credible roll of voters in time for the referendum.

The Transitional Committee will meet again on 9 February 2018 to review the progress of the committees, and deal with other referendum issues as they come up.