How effective is the Commonwealth

How effective is the Commonwealth

15 Oct 2010

dennis-altman-big Professor Dennis Altman

Professor Dennis Altman is the Director of the Institute for Human Security, which will present a discussion on changing global architecture at Melbourne's Wheeler Centre on October 24.

First published in The Australian on 14 October, 2010

This year’s Commonwealth Games, with its images of shoddy venues, confused officials and empty stadia may well seem emblematic of a collapsing international organization. Indeed, for most Australians the Commonwealth is a remarkably vague concept, and rarely surfaces in discussions of our relations with the rest of the world.

Most of us know that the Commonwealth grew out of the former British Empire, and includes countries once under British rule.  Fewer are aware the most Commonwealth countries do not, like us, regard the Queen as head of state: indeed some member countries, such as Malaysia and Tonga, have their own monarchies.
That there is a constant round of Commonwealth activities, and ministerial meetings, is less well known, and even the biennial Heads of Government meetings [CHOGM] attract relatively little attention. The last CHOGM was held last November in Trinidad, but was completely overshadowed by the Copenhagen Climate summit.

Yet Kevin Rudd used that meeting to ensure that next year’s CHOGM will be held in Australia, and Stephen Smith, then Foreign Minister, was presumably behind the decision that Perth will host the meeting. The 2011 CHOGM will therefore be the largest gathering of heads of state that Prime Minister Gillard is likely to host in her first term as elected Prime Minister.

It is tempting to regard the Commonwealth as little more than a ceremonial relic, yet on reflection it provides diplomatic links and connections far beyond those Australia would normally expect. On the one hand it contains five of the G20 nations—Britain, India, Canada and South Africa, in addition to ourselves. On the other it also contains many of the world’s smallest and poorest countries, including many in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

For small states the attractions of the Commonwealth are considerable; indeed two, not former British colonies, have now been admitted [Mozambique and Rwanda] because of their close ties to other Commonwealth countries in Africa. But before dismissing this as the league of minnows remember that some of our more significant neighbors—Malaysia, Singapore and virtually all the states of South Asia are also members.

On first glance nothing, but nineteenth century colonialism, would seem to connect states as diverse as Malta, Sri Lanka and Jamaica. Yet this is precisely its importance:  in a world dominated by major powers the Commonwealth allows the building of links across regions, on the basis of presumed commonalities that otherwise would not appear.

The commonalities may appear thin: some recognition of English; certain assumptions about the civil service and, perhaps, cricket; and a commitment to democracy. The Commonwealth proclaims itself as “a voluntary association of 54 countries that support each other and work together towards shared goals in democracy and development.” That last phrase has been the cause of constant argument, and recently countries such as Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Fiji have been expelled and readmitted on the basis of their apparent democratic standing.

Debates about ‘democracy’ can easily lead to grand standing, but there is something refreshing about making democracy a benchmark, however imperfect, of Commonwealth membership. This is particularly the case for an organization most of whose members are poor, and vulnerable to growing insecurity.

Currently there is debate in Britain over the role of the Commonwealth, with Prime Minister David Cameron suggesting further support from his government. At the same time there is concern that the Commonwealth is itself outmoded, and a meaningless distraction within the steadily growing set of international institutions.

Viewed from Britain this may well be the case. However for Australia there are benefits that go beyond the hopes of the Gold Coast to host the Commonwealth Games in 2018. If Kevin Rudd’s campaign for a Security Council seat is to be successful the Commonwealth provides a useful forum. And if Julia Gillard is to place her own stamp on Australian diplomacy she needs to be already planning for the Perth CHOGM.

As the world globalises, however imperfectly, new structures and centres of power are emerging. The Commonwealth is hardly one of these. But it provides an important forum for a country like Australia, whose security is challenged by global problems such as climate change, food shortages and population movements, to show leadership in finding new and imaginative solutions.  

Julia Gillard needs go to Perth next October with a set of firm commitments to mobilizing other rich countries towards achieving the minimal goals of a more just world set out in the Millennium Development Goals. This is not only dictated by altruism; it is clearly in Australia’s’ self interest.

The Changing Architecture of Global Governance

Sunday 24th October
5.00pm - 6.00pm
at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas
176 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne

Presented in partnership with the Institute for Human Security at La Trobe University

We are living through rapid shifts in global power, as the rising influence of states such as China, India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa creates new and more complex patterns of global interaction. At the same time issues such as climate change, electronic communications, food and water security and epidemic diseases present new demands for effective global institutions. To discuss how these changes impact on Australian foreign policy the Institute for Human Security at LaTrobe University has assembled a panel of experts to provoke your thinking: Andrew Hewett [Oxfam]; Professor Joseph Camilleri [LaTrobe] and Professor Robyn Eckersley [Melbourne]  

Free event, bookings recommended




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