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Weight-for-age Democracy Stakes

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15 October 2010 09:31

The 60-year-old Commonwealth is a wondrous illustration of the long life an international body can enjoy. But how does this aged nag continue to roll in the clover instead of being taken down the back paddock to be shot'

The previous column tried to come up with some positive things to say about the re-badged Empire club. It was a case of praising with faint damns. To see some deeper efforts of recent days, here are excellent pieces by Dennis Altman and  Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah. Unfortunately, neither manages to give a completely compelling answer to the old nag question: what load is this horse bearing that isn't being better carried by other international steeds'

As Sriskandarajah laments, in a world crying out for a credible moral authority, the Commonwealth has become shy and retiring. The obsession with consensus (the good chap rule) shackles the Commonwealth to the views of its most conservative members. Consensus compels the Commonwealth convoy to sail at the speed of some very slow ships.

Sriskandarajah makes the then-versus-now point: 'The Commonwealth played a key role in the global campaign to end apartheid in South Africa and it pioneered independent election-observer missions, many of which criticised practices in member states. But the organisation has been woefully quiet in those areas recently.'

To boil it down further and make the point directly, the ache described by Sriskandarajah is encapsulated in one name: Mugabe. The Commonwealth experience of Zimbabwe and Mugabe is a painful demonstration of the truth that good intentions alone are never enough.

Conceding that Commonwealth commonalities may seem thin, Dennis Altman gets close to an essence that still gives the old nag a reason to canter. The Commonwealth has embraced a role that defines democracy as a shared goal with development: 'Debates about democracy can easily lead to grandstanding, but there is something refreshing about making democracy a benchmark, however imperfect, of Commonwealth membership. This is the particularly the case for an organisation whose members are mostly poor and vulnerable to growing insecurity.'

Booting out Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Fiji were moments when the Commonwealth stood up for its democratic principles.

Fiji's two expulsions from the Commonwealth matter. Unfortunately, the second time round probably didn't have quite the same impact. When Fiji was cast from the club because of the Rabuka coups in 1987, it was a moment of real import in a seminal year in Suva. The expulsion forced Fiji to remake its governing symbols. Farewell Elizabeth II as Queen of Fiji. Enter the Republic of Fiji. Being chucked out a second time because of Bainimarama has not had as much impact, symbolically or practically.

The Commonwealth message has trouble getting through because the Supremo is much better at talking than listening. The problem compounds when the message comes from outsiders trying to convey truths the Supremo doesn't want to hear.

If nothing else, the Commonwealth rebuts the Supremo's claim that it is only Australia and New Zealand which are interested in hanging the pariah label on his regime. The Bainimarama monologue is that Canberra and Wellington have bullied the Pacific Islands Forum into being so nasty. The Commonwealth position slices through that bit of Suva logic.

The democracy focus brings us back to the software argument. If the Commonwealth is to add real value on a crowded international stage, it is the democratic software it enshrines, built into the DNA (or the program codes) of language, law and legislature.

The one race the old nag might still creditably enter is the Weight-for-Age Democracy Stakes. But in the style of the racing guides: Commonwealth (60 years, from British Glory out of Colonial Empire) — hasn't impressed with recent poor starts and woeful finishes.

Photo by Flickr user Gunnsi, used under a Creative Commons license.

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