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By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

NOUMEA, New Caledonia (Oceania Flash, Dec. 12) – Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer is to lead a delegation to New Caledonia later this week, officials said in Nouméa.

During his two-day visit , set for December 16 and 17, Downer, is scheduled to meet the French Pacific territory's top authorities, including French High Commissioner Daniel Constantin, New Caledonia's Congress Speaker Harold Martin, the local government's President, Marie-Noëlle Thémereau as well as leaders from across the political, social and business spectrum.

Downer is expected to hold talks on Australia-New Caledonia relations and possible new prospects for cooperation and bilateral ties.

Downer's visit coincides with the arrival in New Caledonia of Australia's new Consul General for French Pacific territories, Jane Urquhart, she took up her position in Nouméa two weeks ago.

Urquhart already has extensive experience of postings in the South Pacific, especially Melanesia : she has been a Special Adviser to the Prime Minister of Solomon Islands (2002), the leader of the International Peace Monitoring Team in Solomon Islands (2001) and between 1998 and 2000, the Deputy High Commissioner in Honiara.

She has also been in charge of Australia's foreign affairs Pacific Bilateral Section, four years ago and Executive Officer, PNG Section (1997-1998).

From her New Caledonia base, Urquhart, who was appointed in July this year by Alexander Downer, will also be accredited to France's other two Pacific dependencies: French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna.

Downer, in making the announcement in July, stressed that "bilateral ties between Australia and New Caledonia have broadened and strengthened in recent years, particularly after the 1998 Nouméa Accord facilitated the development of New Caledonian relationships in the Pacific.

"Australia welcomes the opportunities, created by New Caledonia's ongoing implementation of the Nouméa Accord and by the new constitutional status granted by France to French Polynesia in February this year, for both entities to intensify their dealings with their Pacific neighbors."

The Nouméa accord was signed in May 1998 between pro-independence FLNKS (Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front), anti-independence RPCR (Rally for New Caledonia within the French Republic) and French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. It paved the way for increased autonomy for New Caledonia and a gradual transfer of powers from metropolitan France to local authorities with an envisaged independence between "15 to 20 years" from the signing date of the pact.

Downer also noted that opportunities for greater bilateral trade and investment with New Caledonia over the next decade are "strong".

"New Caledonia is a significant export market for Australia with exports last year totalling $209 million".

Australia's Trade Minister Mark Vaile was on an official visit in New Caledonia in March 2002, when he signed with local authorities a " Trade and Economic Relations Arrangement".

"With plans for major developments in the mining and processing of New Caledonia's world-class nickel deposits, opportunities for greater bilateral trade and investment over the next decade are strong", Downer said.

New Caledonia is a major importer of Australian products and a preferred destination, especially the Gold Coast, for holidaymakers, many of whom have invested in a property there.

Recently, military co-operation has also increased between New-Caledonia-based French, Australian and New Zealand forces, who have resumed high-level joint action, including the recent joint exercise "Southern Cross", that was conducted last month in the North of New Caledonia's main island.

Armed Forces from New Caledonia also served in 1999 under the commandment of the UN-mandated Australian army in East Timor.

Downer further noted tat under a so-called "FRANZ" agreement signed in 1993, the three armies are also co-ordinating their efforts in case of relief to regional island nations in case of natural disasters.

"FRANZ" partners met recently in Pape'ete (French Polynesia) to take stock of past relief operations and make plans for future enhanced co-operative approaches.

"Australia works closely with the French authorities and Armed Forces in New Caledonia in providing regional natural disaster relief and in military exercises, together with regional partners", Downer stressed.

December 17, 2004

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