Thursday 09 Apr 2020 | 08:03 | SYDNEY
Thursday 09 Apr 2020 | 08:03 | SYDNEY

Happy 60th birthday to the Commonwealth


Graeme Dobell

9 March 2009 15:21

When John Howard took over as Prime Minister in March, 1996, he sat down with his new foreign policy advisers to survey the international calendar for the rest of the year. There were some obvious  trips inscribed in the list: APEC, the South Pacific Forum and bilaterals to the US, Japan and Indonesia.

Then there were the optional trips. Top of this list was the summit of the Commonwealth. There was nothing big on the Commonwealth agenda, the officials said, and this was not necessarily a vital trip in a busy year.

The look of surprise on the Howard visage (one version described it as  astonishment) brought the briefing to a halt. ‘You don’t understand,’ the new PM told his officials, ‘That’s where I have my audience with the Queen.’ And so it was during the Howard years — he got to every Commonwealth summit.

One secret to the longevity of the Commonwealth is the way it plays to the needs and vanities of leaders (and not just for the chance to meet the Queen). One example of this dynamic is from my favourite recalcitrant, Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir made a point of snubbing the Commonwealth summit in Melbourne in October, 1981. Mahathir was just about to launch his ‘Buy British last’ campaign against the Brits as Malcolm Fraser was welcoming everyone to Melbourne. By 1989, all that acrimony was forgotten as Mahathir was quite happy to play host to a Commonwealth summit in Kuala Lumpur.

In terms of playing to leaders’ vanities, the Commmonwealth created the model for the modern multi-leader summit. The formula for CHOGMs (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings) mixes formal sessions with the informal networking opportunity of ‘the retreat’. The CHOGHM-style retreat has been adopted to various degrees by ASEAN, APEC and the Pacific Islands Forum.

The last Commonwealth true-believer-leader in Australia was Malcolm Fraser. In Parliament on 11 September, 1980, he listed the four pillars of Australia’s foreign policy:

The Western alliance, regionalism, the Commonwealth and the strengthening of relations with middle powers — these are four essential components of our foreign policy. Moreover, they are interlocking and interdependent components.

Fraser tried to create an Asia-Pacific regional version of the Commonwealth. It didn’t fly. Malcolm, though, is still a believer, arguing that the Commonwealth at 60 continues to be an ‘instrument of real value.’

For Australia, the Commonwealth is usually an instrument for trying to do Africa policy. Menzies sided with South Africa. Hawke joined up with Rajiv Ghandi to do battle with Margaret Thatcher over sanctions against South Africa. For Malcolm Fraser, it was the road to independence for Zimbabwe. For Howard, at the CHOGM he hosted in 2002, it was sanctions against Zimbabwe. If Kevin Rudd goes to CHOGM in November in Trinidad and Tobago, it will again be for the African issues — Zimbabwe and the quest for African votes for Australia’s quest for the UN Security Council.

If Rudd does go, it will be a further tribute to the Commonwealth’s ability to beguile leaders and reinvent its own story. These days, the Commonwealth sells itself as ‘a champion of democracy, development and diversity’. This is a neat trick for an institution which had its origin in a race by the British to rob the Spaniards, copy the Dutch, beat the French and plunder the Indians. The phrase is from Niall Ferguson, in his description of how Britain made the modern world through conquest, commerce and colonisation.

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