New Caledonia country brief
New Caledonia is a French overseas collectivity with significant autonomy under the terms of the 1998 Noumea Accord. It comprises the main island of Grande Terre (where the capital, Noumea, is situated), the four Loyalty Islands (Ouvea, Lifou, Tiga and Maré), the Belep archipelago, the Isle of Pines and some remote islands.
Just over 270,000 people live in New Caledonia (2019). Approximately 39 per cent are indigenous ('Kanak'). The remainder are Caledonians of European, Polynesian and other (including Vietnamese, Indonesian and Algerian) origins.
New Caledonians are French and European citizens with the right to live anywhere in France. They are entitled to vote in territorial and French national elections.
The President of the French Republic is New Caledonia's Head of State and is represented in New Caledonia by a High Commissioner.
New Caledonia is one of the European Union’s Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs), but is not part of the European Union, the Euro or Schengen zones.
The Noumea Accord (1998) and consequent Organic Law (March 1999) provide the constitutional framework under which New Caledonia is governed. The Accord also defines New Caledonia's relations with France and sets out a timetable for New Caledonia to assume responsibility for most areas of government.
The New Caledonian Congress was mandated to request up to three referenda on whether New Caledonia should assume the final sovereign powers (justice, public order, defence, monetary and foreign affairs) and become fully independent from France. After the two previous referendums produced results against independence, a third and final referendum was held on 12 December 2021 with the majority of votes cast on the day being in favour of remaining a part of France. On 13 December, New Caledonia entered an 18-month transitional period in which new arrangements with France are to be developed.
Under the Noumea Accord, there are three provincial assemblies (elected under a proportional representation process for five year terms) — the Southern (40 members), Northern (22 members) and Islands provinces (14 members). The most recent provincial election was held in New Caledonia on 12 May 2019. Fifty-four (from these 76) members of the Provincial Assemblies then become the New Caledonian Congress which, in turn, elects a collegiate, cross-party executive Government of New Caledonia of between five and 11 members (which do not necessarily need to be assembly members themselves), and is accountable to the Congress. The members of the Government of New Caledonia appoint a President to lead the executive. The New Caledonia Congress also appoints a President of Congress (equivalent to a Speaker role).
The Noumea Accord provides for an Economic and Social Council and a Customary Senate, comprising representatives from each of New Caledonia's eight customary areas, to advise the Government. Both the Government and the French State must consult the Customary Senate on subjects relating to Kanak identity.
New Caledonia has a long-established nickel industry and around one-quarter of the world's known nickel deposits, making it one of the world’s leading nickel exporters. New Caledonia also has a well-established tourism industry, that caters to high-end, eco driven and cruise tourism. The Government of New Caledonia is encouraging ongoing diversification of potential exports and enhanced economic integration in the Pacific region.
Financial transfers from France are also an important source of income in New Caledonia – amounting to some AUD2.2 billion in 2020 (as at 4 May 2022 exchange rate), equal to 19 per cent of local GDP. This covers expenditure on defence, domestic security, education and public services, as well as the salaries, social security contributions and pensions of State employees. It also includes direct grants to the Territorial and Provincial Governments, and additional funds go to targeted economic development projects.
New Caledonians enjoy a GDP per capita higher than most other Pacific Island countries There is a significant disparity in wealth distribution and a high cost of living, partly owing to heavy market protection.
New Caledonia has close ties with its neighbours, particularly Vanuatu where it has had a cooperation agreement since 2002. Since 2019, New Caledonia has appointed official representatives to represent it in five Pacific countries including Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. These officials are embedded within these countries’ respective French Embassies.
Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand and Vanuatu each have a diplomatic presence in New Caledonia through their respective Consulates-General.
As provided for in the Noumea Accord, New Caledonia and France now share responsibility for New Caledonia's regional relations, allowing New Caledonia to join some regional organisations in its own right. In 2016, New Caledonia was granted full membership of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). New Caledonia is a long-standing member of the Pacific Community (SPC), which has its secretariat headquartered in Noumea.
New Caledonia is also a member of the South Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP) and the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO). New Caledonia is also an associate member of the International Organisation of La Francophonie and has a non-voting seat on the World Health Organization Western Pacific Regional Committee.
The Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) coalition of pro-independence parties is a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).
Australia is represented in New Caledonia by a Consul-General based in Noumea.
Relations between Australia and New Caledonia are broad and historic, extending across a range of domains. In 2020, Australia celebrated its 80th anniversary of Australian diplomatic representation in New Caledonia. Noumea was Australia’s fourth overseas diplomatic mission, after only London, Washington and Ottawa.
Australia and New Caledonia share much in common, foremost our interest in stability in the Pacific region. As close neighbours, our two countries have worked closely together in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including repatriations, medical evacuations and the regional health response. We also coordinate closely our responses to natural disasters in the region. New Caledonia, working with the French Armed Forces in New Caledonia, also sent humanitarian supplies to Tonga following the volcanic eruption and tsunami in January 2022.
Australia has interests in working with the New Caledonian and French authorities in New Caledonia in a range of areas including promoting greater trade and investment; cooperating on regional and natural disaster relief; defence cooperation including visits and joint exercises; combating security threats and transnational crime; and tackling gender-based violence across the Pacific.
In late 2020, defence ties strengthened further with the establishment of a new Australian Defence Force Liaison Officer to the French Armed Forces in New Caledonia (FANC).
Australians and New Caledonians have forged longstanding and enduring people-to-people links across business, education, arts, sport, defence, police cooperation and healthcare.
Prior to the pandemic, tourism links were strong with more than 300,000 Australians visiting New Caledonia each year on cruise boats. Australia rwas also the primary holiday destination for New Caledonians, particularly the Gold Coast, which has a sister city relationship with Noumea.
Australians and New Caledonians have longstanding and enduring links in the education sector. Australia’s New Colombo Plan has included New Caledonia as a destination for Australian students since 2018, enabling dozens of Australian students to learn about New Caledonia, its regional integration, culture and languages.
In June 2020, France and Australia exchanged letters, formally endorsing the introduction of an Australian studies section in the French Baccalaureate International Option (OIB), which had been piloted in New Caledonian schools since 2017.
Australian and New Caledonian based universities and research bodies have strong ties in a number of fields including mining, agriculture, marine science and tropical health.
Australia and New Caledonia also have strong cultural exchanges. In November 2019, Indigenous Australian rapper and dancer, as well as then Young Australian of the Year, Baker Boy conducted a series of culturally and linguistically diverse musical workshops with children across New Caledonia in celebration of the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
Australians and New Caledonians also share a strong passion for sports, especially rugby and football. In the lead up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the Wallabies held their final training camp in New Caledonia.
Trade and investment
There are an estimated 1,700 Australian companies doing business with New Caledonia. Australian exports to New Caledonia include coal, civil engineering equipment and parts, tourism and education services. New Caledonia's merchandise exports to Australia include salts of inorganic acids and metals. Australia is also a significant investment destination for New Caledonia.
High-level visits and meetings
- March 2020: Visit by Christopher Gygès, Minister-equivalent for the Economy of the Government of New Caledonia, to Brisbane and Canberra, including meeting with then Minister Assisting the Minister for Trade and Investment, the Hon Andrew Gee MP.
- March 2020: Visit by Jacques Lalié, President of the Loyalty Islands Province of New Caledonia, to Brisbane.
- January 2020: Visit by General Angus Campbell, Chief of the Australian Defence Force, to New Caledonia
- December 2019: Visit by Sonia Backès, President of the South Province of New Caledonia, to Sydney.
- July 2019: Visit by Senator the Hon Marise Payne, then Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women to New Caledonia.
- May 2018: Visit by Senator the Hon Marise Payne, then Minister for Defence to New Caledonia.
- May 2018: Visit by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, then Minister for International Development and the Pacific to New Caledonia.
- July 2017: Visit by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, then Minister for International Development and the Pacific to New Caledonia.
- October 2016: Working visit by Philippe Germain, President of the Government of New Caledonia to Australia.