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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 08:39 | SYDNEY
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The Commonwealth: Whither to wither

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13 October 2010 09:05

The empty stands at the Games in Delhi are an apt metaphor for the Commonwealth itself. The Delhi Games have people from all over the Commonwealth doing some interesting stuff, but nobody is watching. Or much interested.

Having covered four Commonwealth leaders' summits over three decades I'm a dab hand at writing wither-the-Commonwealth pieces. Or whither-the-Commonwealth. Wither and whither: where goeth the Commonwealth and how doth it age'

The Commonwealth Games are a happy venue for Australia to gather gold medals. One side benefit of the American revolution: no US swimmers in the pool. Apart from the Games, though, the Commonwealth, as an international institution, has trouble getting into the race. To vary the wither-whither formula, I'm going try to find some nice things to say about the Commonwealth. It's a difficult but not impossible task; a case of praising with faint damns.

To set the scene, here's a fine example of the wither genre:

Without interest and sympathetic discussion, the Commonwealth will not prosper. There is no common purpose. Indeed the Commonwealth is on the way to becoming not much more than a paper conception, with little reality of practical usefulness, unless something is done about it. The fact is that the countries of the post-war Commonwealth have ceased to co-operate sufficiently to enable them to be an influence in the world.

Those are the words of Australia's longest-serving Foreign Minister (until overtaken by Alexander Downer), Richard Casey. Casey was writing in 1963 in a book entitled 'The Future of the Commonwealth'. His highest hope was to restore some cohesion, if not unity.

What little cohesion the institution achieved in the following decades was provided by the fight against apartheid; Casey was writing just after South Africa had marched out of the Commonwealth in 1961. No longer in Menzies' Cabinet, Casey's Commonwealth book didn't have to defend the White Australia policy as he did in the earlier tome, 'Friends and Neighbours', published when serving as External Affairs Minister.

So Casey could be explicit in expressing one crucial insight Australia drew from the Commonwealth and what became the long fight with South Africa: a close and clear understanding of the mounting costs of the White Australia policy.

Casey wrote that Australia would have to do more than just liberalise immigration policy: 'She will have to go further and eliminate any basis for a charge of racial discrimination as soon as this is politically possible.' If the Commonwealth contributed nothing else to Australia, that would be enough.

The reality of the Commonwealth is that it was always a weak expression of what had gone before. In the earlier era of Britain and the Dominions, it was possible for both Labor and Liberal (Curtin and Menzies) to contemplate a common foreign and defence policy networked out of London.

Such an idea was put to death almost by the inception of the 'modern' Commonwealth. So when the leaders of the Commonwealth gathered for a 60th anniversary summit last year, they followed established tradition. A pleasant chat among the chaps (and a few ladies, now) and some earnest statements about important matters.

The inherent weaknesses in the model got another airing in a Guardian story about the Commonwealth Secretariat going mute on human rights. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth had gone into memo mode to tell staff that it is not their job to speak out about human rights abuses in the 54 Commonwealth member states: 'The secretariat...has no explicitly defined mandate to speak publicly on human rights,' the memo stated. 'The expectation is that the secretary general will exercise his good offices as appropriate for the complaint and not that he will pronounce on them.'

It disrupts the consensus, you see, if chaps start saying nasty things about other chaps in public. The Commonwealth put out a statement confirming the Guardian piece by faint protest: 'We work behind the scenes with governments and civil society to cause change.'

If the Commonwealth has any value, it is as a bit of operating software, not as a multilateral power. The habits and understandings of shared language, parliament, institutions and laws certainly matter. What has always flummoxed the Commonwealth is how to use that shared software to influence member states. And show how the Commonwealth as an institution actually delivers much extra value to its members.

Australia is about to run something of an experiment on that very matter. Kevin Rudd has just appointed the former Labor MP, Bob McMullan, as a special envoy to Africa to push Australia's quest for a seat at the UN Security Council. If the Commonwealth links matter at all, they should give McMullan some sort of help in Australia's race with Luxembourg. Trouble is, even if Africa gives us the thumbs-down for the UN contest, it can still rely on Australia's hospitality. The next Commonwealth summit is in Perth next year. Ah, the joy of family gatherings.

Photo courtesy of CWG Delhi 2010.

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