SPEECH TO ROYAL COMMONWEALTH SOCIETY DINNER
Canberra, Friday 11 June 1999
I was delighted to be asked to speak this evening at your Queens’ Birthday Dinner. It was Governor Philip, in 1788, who first ordered that what was then the birthday of King George III should be celebrated as a public holiday.
And I am delighted to speak this evening about the Commonwealth, something that is especially appropriate in 1999, the 50th anniversary of the Commonwealth as we know it today, for it was the London Declaration in 1949 that established the modern Commonwealth.
And I speak as a strong supporter of the Commonwealth, based on my experience working in the British Government, and attending many Commonwealth meetings and events over the past 20 years.
The first was in 1977, a meeting of Commonwealth Finance Ministers in Barbados. One of the attractions of Commonwealth Finance Ministers’ meetings is that they are often held on Carribean islands, though in September when there is often a risk of thunderstorms. I was then a very junior Treasury official, somewhat in awe of Ministers. So it was quite a shock to see the then Chancellor of the Excheqer, Dennis Healey, heading down the path from the swimming pool wearing a raincoat and flat cap, with bare legs, looking for all the world like a flasher in the park.
I remember going to a Commonwealth Finance Ministers meetings with John Major when he was Chancellor. At one point we sneaked away from the meeting and went to Queen’s Park Oval where we stood in the middle of the square and John Major practised hitting imaginary fours through the covers. And it was at a later Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that John Major and Bob Hawke batted together in a notable partnership.
Commonwealth meetings can often have their unintended light-hearted moments. One Commonwealth leader came up to Tony Blair at the Edinburgh CHOGM and said to him earnestly: "the previous leader of my country brought it to the edge of a precipice. But under my Government we will take a great step forward."
It reminds me of British politician who one said "When my back’s to the wall, I turn around and fight."
But what is the Commonwealth today? It has 54 members, in every region of the world. 1˝ billion people, a quarter of the world’s population.
It is hugely diverse:
What is it that binds these very different countries together?
The Commonwealth declaration in Singapore in 1971 summed this up well. What the leaders said then was:
"We … strive to promote in each of our countries those representative institutions, and guarantees for personal freedom under the law, that are our common heritage.
"In pursuing these principles [we] believe [we] can provide a constructive example of the multi-national approach which is vital to peace and progress in the modern world."
Australia has played a big role in the development of the Commonwealth. In 10 Downing Street, where I used to work, there is a wonderful collection of old photographs of what where originally called Colonial Conferences, then Imperial Conferences and finally Commonwealth Conferences. One of my tests for Australian visitors was to cover up the names beneath the photographs and see if they could identify Australian Prime Ministers, and tell me anything about them. They didn’t do very well, something that the Centenary of Federation Council has recognised as a wider problem among Australians and is working to reverse.
It was Curtin in the early 1940s who was one of the first to press for the establishment of a Commonwealth Secretariat, saying:
"our articulation in the world would be more impressive as a member of a family"
And as I have said, it was the London Declaration in 1949 that established the Commonwealth in its present form. It dropped the requirement that to be a member of the Commonwealth, a country must have the Queen as its sovereign, thus allowing India and other republics to remain as members.
That does of course raise the issue of what would happen if Australia were to become a republic. I certainly don’t want to get drawn into the general debate on the case for or against a republic. That is an issue for Australia rather than Britain. But people do ask whether Australia would have to leave the Commonwealth if it became a republic. And the answer to that question must "no." The majority of Commonwealth countries are republics. Australia would need to inform the Secretary General and the other members that it was changing its constitution. But in practice that would be a formality. Australia will remain a welcome member of the Commonwealth whether it becomes a republic or whether it remains as a constitutional monarchy. And I and my successors will remain High Commissioners rather than becoming Ambassadors.
Since the London Declaration, the Commonwealth has taken further steps to develop its role and its purpose. There was the Singapore meeting in 1971 that I referred to earlier. And another important step was in 1991 in Harare, when the Commonwealth committed itself to promoting good government—government based on democracy and reflecting the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
In 1995, I went with John Major to the Heads of Government Meeting in New Zealand. It was in November over the Remembrance Sunday weekend, and one of my enduring memories will the very simple but moving ceremony at Arrowtown, in the South Island, at a small cemetery on a hilltop, with all the Commonwealth leaders standing amid the gravestones on a sparklingly clear morning while the Last Post sounded.
That meeting was marred by the execution in Nigeria of Ken Saro-Wiwa, which led to the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth. What was remarkable was the role Nelson Mandela played at the meeting. Having survived years in prison himself, he felt deeply about Nigeria’s action. Many other African leaders were more cautious about reacting, but he persuaded them that the credibility of the Commonwealth’s commitment to the Harare principles depended on swift and firm action.
And since then, the Commonwealth has played a key role in pressing Nigeria to restore democracy, action which helped persuade the Nigerian Government to hold elections this year, and which now has led to Nigeria being readmitted to the Commonwealth.
Of course it wasn’t the Commonwealth alone that played a role in relation to Nigeria, and I am sometimes asked, what does the Commonwealth do that the United Nations doesn’t or couldn’t? Isn’t the Commonwealth really just a poor relation of the UN? My answer to that is an emphatic "no":
Of course, because the Commonwealth doesn’t have a big organisation to back it up, people sometimes ask what does the Commonwealth actually do? The answer is "a surprising amount"
Commonwealth Heads of Government will meet in South Africa later this year, and then in 2001 here in Canberra. That will enable people right across Australia to see the Commonwealth in action—it will be the biggest gathering of foreign heads of state on Australian soil. I am sure the Royal Commonwealth Society will have a big role to play.
Since this dinner is to mark the Queen’s Birthday, I’d like to say something about her role in the Commonwealth. It is something that means a lot to her, and to other members of the Royal Family. She has unrivalled experience and knowledge, having met Commonwealth leaders over almost 50 years. At the first Commonwealth meeting after her Coronation, Winston Churchill was in the chair, Robert Menzies represented Australia and Pandit Nehru represented India. And she has met and discussed domestic and international issues with all their successors. She has visited every Commonwealth country except for Mozambique and Cameroon, most of them several times.
I’ve had the priviledge of sitting next to the Queen when I accompanied the Prime Minister on his visits to Balmoral, and have been hugely impressed by her knowledge and insights about what was going on right around the world, including of course in Australia.
I’d like to end by quote from her speech to the Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh in 1997. It highlights the role played by the many individuals and voluntary bodies who give their time and effort in support of the Commonwealth, including of course the Royal Commonwealth Society and many of you here tonight. What the Queen said was:
"Our association is more than a partnership of governments. The real soul of the Commonwealth, the motor, the drive, call it what you will, is provided by people within and without those governments. It is people who run the non-governmental organisations, who give a helping hand to the sick or unemployed … It is people who become architects and engineers, journalists and teachers, doctors and vets, magistrates and judges. It is people who elect their governments and exercise, by the discipline of the ballot box, their right to choose how they are governed. The more the activities of the Commonwealth bring direct benefits to its peoples, the stronger the organisation will be."
That’s the message I’d like to leave with you tonight.
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