The Commonwealth Secretary General, Patricia Scotland, has continued to express her optimism about the future of Commonwealth/UK trade post-Brexit.
In a statement on 26 May, following a financial services conference in London attended by the High Commissioners of Australia, Canada and India, she pointed out that the cost of doing business between Commonwealth countries is, on average, 19 per cent cheaper than between non-member countries. This is because of a shared common language, common law, common institutions and common parliamentary structures.
Former UK Foreign Minister, Hugo Swire, now deputy chair of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, observed that small and medium businesses in Commonwealth countries need to be better equipped to trade, to do business with each other, and for the Commonwealth to be there to help them ‘up their game’ in order to compete effectively.
Since 2005, the share by the Commonwealth in the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) has increased and has overtaken the share of the European Union.
Last word to Mr Swire: ‘If you judge a club by the length of the queue of those seeking membership, then the Commonwealth is in robust health’.
The London conference was followed a few days later by the first India-Commonwealth Small and Medium Enterprises trade summit in Delhi, attended by representatives from 300 Indian firms and more than 100 businesses from other countries.
The South Australian Branch of the RCS organised a full agenda and lively social schedule when it hosted a national meeting of RCS Branches in Adelaide in May.
The RCS ACT Branch was represented by President Colin Milner, past presidents Hugh Craft and Kanti Jinna, and Councillor Elmo Jacob.
Also there were the Regional Coordinator for the Pacific, Darryl Stevens of RCS Wellington, New Zealand, and Peter Mann from the RCS Hong Kong Branch.
The President of the RCS SA Branch, Libby Ellis has since been appointed Regional Coordinator for Australia by RCS London. Jack Milne was made National Youth Coordinator.
For the first time, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castel will be among venues when Commonwealth Heads of Government meet in Britain in April 2018.
In statement in March, the Commonwealth SecretaryGeneral, Patricia Scotland, said the 2018 meeting would ‘cement the shared aims of good governance, sustainable growth and inclusive social and economic development’. These, she said, are aided by our common language, common laws, common parliamentary and other institutions as well as our cultural ties.
A Ministerial Roundtable in March, coordinated by the Secretariat, was attended by 40 of the 52 Commonwealth member states and included representatives from all six regions. The meeting agreed that a key aim of CHOGM in 2018 would be to increase trade between Commonwealth nations. This is projected to increase to US$1 trillion by 2020.
The 2018 CHOGM will see the UK take over from Malta as Chair Office until 2020. This will be the first Commonwealth Heads summit under the leadership of Baroness Scotland as Commonwealth Secretary-General.
Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has announced a new policy framework intended to counter violent extremism though Australian aid programs.
Ms Bishop’s announcement was made shortly before the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack in March and following the provision of $2.5 million to the Commonwealth Secretariat to establish a Counter-Violent Extremism Unit at its London headquarters.
She said that the new framework will ensure that development assistance considers countering violent extremism in targeted and sensitive ways, including across education, civil society, governance, livelihoods, justice and the rule of law.
In 2016, Australia supported a revision of OECD rules to make non-coercive efforts to counter violent extremism eligible for Official Development Assistance.
Meanwhile, in Canberra, the RCS and the Commonwealth Round Table in Australia have made a joint contribution to the development of a new Australian Foreign Policy White Paper—the first since 2003.
Members and friends of the RCS ACT Branch celebrated Commonwealth Day this year with a variety of events starting with the Multi-Faith Celebration in the spirit of the Commonwealth theme for 2017, A Commonwealth for Peace, followed by our annual Commonwealth Dinner and ending in a cricket match.
The Multi-Faith celebration at the Centre for Christianity and Culture in Barton on Commonwealth Day began with the tolling of the great bell in the Centre’s forecourt, once for each of the Commonwealth’s current 52 member countries. As guests took their places, unaccompanied singing from a Pacific Islands choir filled the hall. A procession of honoured guests and participants followed, led by Lieut. General John Sanderson, former Governor of Western Australia and Deputy Chair of the Centre. Then there were readings of three messages to mark the day, the first from HM The Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth, from the Prime Minister, the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull and from HE General the Hon. Sir Peter Cosgrove, Governor General of Australia, our RCS ACT Branch Patron.
Following an address by General Sanderson on the theme A Commonwealth for Peace following by a performance of Irish dancing, a joint statement was made on behalf of ACT Faith Communities, with parts read by Mr Dean Sahu Khan, the Venerable Tempa Bejanke, Deacon John Lim and Mrs Deepali Jain.
As the celebration drew to a close, the Woden Valley Youth Choir sang, a Punjabi Dance group performed on stage, the National Anthem was sung by the congregation, and, as guests left the chapel, Pacific Island voices were again raised in a farewell song.
A few days later, members and friends of the RCS gathered for the annual Commonwealth Dinner at the Commonwealth Club in Yarralumla. The guest speaker was the British High Commissioner, HE Mrs Menna Rawlings, who gave a wide-ranging address on the importance of Commonwealth relationships.
A cheque for $5000 was presented to the winner of the 2017 Phyllis Montgomerie Award, Mitchell McMaster, by RCS president, Colin Milner. Mitchell, a PhD candidate at the ANU, received the award for his research into mild cognitive impairment and whether it can be halted or reversed in those affected by interventions such as diet, exercise and intellectual stimulation.
An inaugural lecture in honour of the late Professor Anthony Low, former Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University and historian of the Commonwealth, was given by the University's current Chancellor and Australia's former Foreign Minister, the Hon. Gareth Evans, to a packed audience in the ANU’s Hedley Bull Lecture Theatre in October 2016.
Professor Evans’s lecture concentrated on what has become one of the Commonwealth's proudest achievements: its role in hastening the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the central part—from the beginning—played by Australia in the Whitlam and Fraser governments of the 1970s and later by the Hawke government, in which Gareth Evans served.
Principally through the use of sporting and trade sanctions— which were progressively lifted as the apartheid system ‘unwound’— as well as international pressure for change, and what Professor Evans described as ‘the ever-mounting internal tension’ combined with ‘white political leadership clearheaded enough to grasp the moment’, opportunity came in February 1989 when FW De Klerk replaced hardliner PW Botha as President. One year later, the dismantling of apartheid had begun, with the new government willing to negotiate on democratic and non-racial constitutional reforms, lift the bans on the African National Congress and importantly, release from prison, after 27 years, Nelson Mandela.
‘I am sometimes still asked,’ said Professor Evans, ‘why it was that successive Australian governments … committed so much effort to resolving a South African situation so little of our making. My short answer has always been that it lies in that instinct for good international citizenship which I continue to believe is part of our national psyche…
‘The enforcers of apartheid, proclaiming their superiority to others on the basis of race alone, were not just another unpalatable regime, but beyond the civilised pale. If we had washed our hands of the struggle against them, we would not only have failed in our humanitarian duty, but would have debased the very values which are at the core of our sense of human dignity.’
The biennial Commonwealth Lecture, sponsored by the Commonwealth Round Table in Australia of which Professor Low was Founding Convenor, will now be known as the Anthony Low Commonwealth Lecture.
A PhD candidate in the Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing at ANU is to receive the 2017 Phyllis Montgomerie Commonwealth Award to support his work in dementia research.
Mr Mitchell McMaster is conducting a randomised controlled trial of older adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). It hopes to show whether multiple factors that are known to increase the risk of dementia can be countered through physical exercise, diet, mental stimulation and increased social contact to improve cognitive function and halt further decline.
It is believed to be the first time this type of intervention has been trialled in people with MCI, one of the highest risk groups for dementia.
Mr McMaster is to receive his cheque for $5000 at the Commonwealth Dinner on the 16 March.
See also: ANU Article.
Over 80 RCS members from 33 branches in 20 countries were in London in October 2016 for an International Meeting of RCS Branches to share experiences and knowledge, discuss the challenges facing branches and opportunities for expanding the network.
Australia was well-represented with 16 delegates from ACT, Victoria, NSW, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia.
Representing the ACT were the President, Kanti Jinna and Mrs Jyoti Jinna and Council members Dr Elmo Jacob and Mr Colin Milner.
The three-day meeting was preceded by a two-day Youth Assembly.
As the RCS London Branch was in the process of moving into its new headquarters in Pall Mall, the High Commissions of New Zealand, Canada and Nigeria hosted various sessions in their chanceries.
Functions were held at the High Commissions of Australia and Malta, the House of Lords and Buckingham Palace and there was a tour of Westminster Abbey. This was the first International Meeting of RCS Branches since that in Kuala Lumpur in 2011.
Australia has committed to planting 20 million native trees by 2020 as its contribution to The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, a network of forest conservation projects involving all Commonwealth member countries.
The Queen’s Canopy was launched at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta in 2015. Its purpose is to create a physical and lasting legacy to mark the Queen’s leadership of the Commonwealth while conserving indigenous forests for future generations.
Australia’s contribution to the Canopy aims to re-establish green corridors and urban forests on public and private land. Britain has dedicated 200 square miles of its National Forrest, Canada 6.5 million hectares of its Great Bear Rain Forest in British Columbia, while Singapore has dedicated six hectares of its Botanic Gardens. By the end of 2016, 20 countries from all five regions had committed to the Canopy project with more countries expected to join. In the AsiaPacific region, this includes Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, New Zealand and Australia.
The Canopy project involves partnerships between RCS London, Cool Earth—a UK-based charity that works with indigenous villages to halt forest destruction—and the Commonwealth Forestry Association.
Student delegates to a Model Youth Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Old Parliament House in August chose four sub-themes to set the agenda for debate to reflect the ‘youth’ theme of the meeting: These were Youth and Education, Poverty and Youth, Youth and Gender, Youth and Health.
Meeting in the old House of Representatives chamber, delegates were students from the Australian National University where a branch of CommonYouth was established earlier this year. Each was invited to represent a Head of State from a Commonwealth country of which they were not themselves nationals. Although in the main Australian citizens— many with overseas backgrounds— participants also included overseas students, including those from Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Singapore, China, Taiwan, Nigeria, Thailand, Botswana, Pakistan, India, The Philippines, New Zealand and Afghanistan.
In their final communiqué, the ‘Heads of Government’ agreed that education should be a cornerstone of all government policy and that access to education be provided to all women. They also called for a lowering of costs of education in their respective nations and their entry into multinational relationships regarding the transfer of knowledge and labour between them.
One of the recommendations on theme of Poverty and Youth was that regional alliances of Young Entrepreneurs be established between Commonwealth nations to maximise capacity for youth in development. On Gender, ‘Heads’ agreed to focus on gender equality in the implementation of youth empowerment programs to reduce existing gender disparities.
Participants said they found the experience useful as an exercise in learning about the procedure of Commonwealth decision-making, with some being interested in attending the Commonwealth Youth Forum, one of the side events of the November CHOGM.
The motivation for those taking part ranged from a general interest in the Commonwealth and international relations to youth leadership opportunities, a career in diplomacy, the opportunity to develop skills in public speaking, advocacy and negotiation. Some also named learning to think from the perspective of a different culture as an important reason to take part.
HE Mr Charles Muscat, High Commissioner Malta, the host nation for CHOGM, gave a small reception for Youth CHOGM representatives where he was presented with a copy of their communiqué for handing over to the Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat.
The Australian Government has provided $340,000 for the Royal Commonwealth Society in London to promote youth leadership and gender equality in the Commonwealth.
Part of the funds will be used to train young Commonwealth citizens as skilled advocates for gender equality in local, national and international politics.
The RCS will also conduct research into young peoples’ experiences of gender-based violence and how they might effectively address the issue. Much of the work will be carried out through the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network (CYGEN).
The funding announcement was made by Natasha Stott-Despoja, Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, at the Commonwealth Women’s Ministerial meeting in Apia, Samoa, on 7 September 2016.
Australia has previously provided $320,000 in an earlier phase of funding to support the CYGEN initiative on gender equality.
As Malta prepares to welcome Commonwealth Heads of Government to their biennial meeting from 27 to 29 November, the refugee crisis facing many member countries could dominate an already crowded agenda.
A European Union Summit in Malta on migration earlier in November followed by a G20 summit in Turkey is likely set the scene for an issue that observers say can’t be avoided. Malta itself has been described as ‘almost sinking’ under the weight of refugees. Climate change is another pressing issue, considering that that a significant number of Commonwealth members are small island states, some already experiencing inundation and destruction from extreme weather events.
Yet another priority will be addressing the problems facing a number of member countries in countering violent extremism and radicalisation.
One of the most important decisions for the Malta CHOGM, however, is to appoint a new SecretaryGeneral to replace Kamalesh Sharma, who will complete his second four-year term. Mr Sharma, formerly India’s High Commissioner to London, has been seen by many observers of Commonwealth affairs as too conservative and set in his ways to be an effective leader. The appointment of a successor is seen as an opportunity for Heads to bring new life to a once-vigorous and proactive institution that has become moribund.
The role of the Secretary-General is considered crucial in setting the course for how the Commonwealth will be run and how effective it will be in applying the principles of democracy, rule of law and human rights that bind member states to uphold. In recent years, these principles have often been flouted, with no effective response from either the Secretary-General or the Commonwealth Ministerial Advisory Group (CMAG). This is despite the 2011 Perth CHOGM agreeing that the Secretary-General should speak out publicly in expressing disapproval of ‘serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values’. CMAG’s role as watchdog for Commonwealth principles was similarly endorsed.
The new Secretary-General is likely to be from four main contenders. Patricia Scotland, Baroness Scotland of Asthar, born in Dominica, was educated in the UK and was Attorney-General in the Blair government. She was the youngest QC, at aged 35, since Pitt the Younger. Another possibility is Gabaipone Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba from Botswana, educated in London in science and law, who held various high level positions in government and corporate affairs in Botswana and the UK before appointment as a Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General. Her term finished in 2014.
The Tanzanian Foreign Minister and current chair of CMAG, Bernard Membe, is also in the running, along with Sir Ronald Sanders, Ambassador to Washington for Antigua and Barbuda, who played an important role on the Eminent Persons’ Group whose recommendations to the Perth CHOGM on the future of the Commonwealth dominated the meeting. The Group’s proposed Commonwealth Charter, setting out fundamental principles, values and aspirations of the people of the Commonwealth was endorsed at the meeting.
Commonwealth observers over recent years have noted that the length of the CHOGM agenda has been growing with each meeting (the draft agenda for the Malta meeting is rumoured to be 10 pages). There is also concern about the length of the joint communiqué issued by Heads at the end of their three-day meeting. The Sri Lanka CHOGM statement in 2013 covered 98 topics and ran to over 8000 words.