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Summary of the Roundtable Discussion on
"Preparing for Perth: an action agenda for CHOGM 2011"

A seminar to recognise the centenary of The Round Table was held in Canberra on 6 November 2010 under the auspices of the Commonwealth Round Table in Australia (CRTA). With the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in mind, the theme of the Canberra seminar was Preparing for Perth: an action agenda for CHOGM 2011.

The seminar was attended by academic specialists in the Commonwealth, government officials involved in Australia's relations with and within the Commonwealth, and members of Commonwealth organisations meeting in Canberra under the umbrella of the Friends of the Commonwealth, including the Commonwealth Round Table in Australia, the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Day Celebration Committee.

The seminar was conducted under the Chatham House Rule.

The three speakers and their subjects were:

Each session was followed by discussion.

There was lively discussion of key issues facing the modern Commonwealth. A strong sense of the abiding strengths and continuity of the Commonwealth was evident - The Round Table itself was an exemplar. The Commonwealth was now just one among many international organisations, but it had unique strengths and could - and should - continue to make a substantial contribution to its wide and increasing membership and to resolving global issues.

Nevertheless, there was also a generally shared view that the Commonwealth is at a major crossroads. There is a need for fundamental reform of its ageing institutional structures, which should be better resourced to equip the Commonwealth for a much more effective future role. The establishment of the Eminent Persons Group reflected the determination of leaders to achieve significant reform and the early indications from the Group were promising. No less important than reform of the Commonwealth's political and administrative machinery were better mechanisms and greatly improved funding for technical and development assistance, through, for example, a special Commonwealth Fund.

There was discussion of the Commonwealth's contemporary agenda and the need for a clearer definition of its political role, including its mandate to act to reduce tensions among member states, including through its good offices role. It was important for the Commonwealth to take initiatives where it has special strengths and capacity to offer and be more ambitious. For example, there were questions raised as to why the Commonwealth was not playing a role as a member of the Friends of Pakistan, and why CMAG might not be more actively engaged in this and other existing or potential crises through more active and structured preventive diplomacy.

In addition to areas of common political concern already on the Commonwealth's agenda - democracy, the rule of law and good governance, small states and human rights - there was discussion of the need for the Commonwealth to identify and work on contemporary challenges to member states, including climate change, food security, AIDS and interfaith relations. The Commonwealth can and should support and work with other international bodies on such issues.

An underlying theme of the presentations and discussion was the need to improve, align and strengthen the Commonwealth network, including the wide range of Commonwealth professional bodies, which can mobilise a significant contribution to the Commonwealth as a whole. Not least, there was a need to develop a substantially greater engagement with youth.

Looking ahead to the Perth CHOGM, there was discussion of options, policies, future needs and trends. There was a strong interest in communicating the Commonwealth's strengths and values in the Australian community, and through enhanced information mechanisms, in the international arena.

Australians and 'The Round Table' 1910-2010
Professor Low gave a fascinating narrative on the history of The Round Table, including in Australia. He recalled its origins in the young men (only aged 23-31) who had assisted Lord Milner in the governance and reconstruction of South Africa at the beginning of the 20th Century, following the devastation of the Anglo-Boer War. Their success in forging a South African federation made them enthusiasts for the notion of imperial federation. Their leading member, Lionel Curtis, founded The Round Table in 1910 to advance the cause of imperial federation, and visited Australia in the same year to recruit Australian supporters. With no United Nations at the time, it had a particular attraction for those looking to build the British Empire as a community of nations. On a three months visit, Curtis successfully recruited, in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, groups of 'prominent men' who would comprise the Australian Round Table.

They were always a select company. Over the next 60 years, they only totalled around 260. Some success attended their efforts to include members of the 'left', from Prime Minister Watson to Dr Jim Cairns, but overwhelmingly those recruited were the products of independent schools. Indeed, Dr Leonie Foster's meticulous account of 'The Men and Motives of the Australian Round Table' in her 1986 book High Hopes shows that, when the national percentage of those with tertiary education stood at 5.4 per cent, the Round Table figure was 73 per cent. She classifies 68 per cent of them as 'professionals' (academics 26 per cent); 'business and pastoral as 32 per cent.

Many of the names remain familiar - Garran, Bailey, Bean, Bridges, Casey, Clunies Ross, Downing, Eggleston, Giblin, Hancock, Hawker, Latham, Murdoch, Murray, Windeyer. One can add the Australian National University's first two Vice-Chancellors, Copland and Melville, and two of its most prominent founding professors, Sawer (Law) and Borrie (Demography).

The practice amongst such groups was to meet once a month or so in some University or private club. They would hold an open discussion on the salient political and international topics of the day, which would then be honed down into the next collectively drafted Australian 'Chronicle' for dispatch to the editor of The Round Table in London, for inclusion there in the ensuing number. These 'Chronicles' were not always easily composed, not only because there would be different views to allow for, but because the text needed to be agreed between groups in different cities. All up, as Dr Foster, shows, they covered a great deal of ground from, for example, the conscription referenda in World War I, to the handling of the economic slump in the 1930s and on to the Chifley government in the 1940s. They regularly noted both the longstanding Australian anxiety about Japan, and the strength of the Round Tablers' attachment to Britain, not for any 'imperial' reasons but because of Britain's importance to Australia.

Unsurprisingly, the 'Chronicles' were sometimes labelled as 'bland'. Dr Foster's account shows, however, the remarkable extent to which they were treated as the received version of events before eventually being overtaken by original research.

Professor Low recalled his own "recruitment" to the London-based Round Table group as a young academic teaching at Makerere University in Uganda in the 1950s. He was invited to a rather intimidating dinner at a London club with Lord Hailey and the last British Governor of the North West Frontier Province in what is now Pakistan. He must have been found to have the right stuff because he was in, and became the Round Table correspondent in East Africa.

However between the 1960s and the 1980s the Round Table fell on hard times and but for the determined leadership of the redoubtable Harry Hodson might well have died altogether, as at one stage the journal actually did. Under the dedicated editorship of Peter Lyon the journal nevertheless survived, and as its editorial board the remaining members of the Moot regularly dined together each quarter at a Pall Mall club. Meanwhile, however, in Australia everything petered out. The Brisbane group died as early as 1921. The Adelaide group expired in 1951. The last two groups, in Sydney and Melbourne, soldiered on, but not far into the 1970s even they ceased to meet.

The 1990s, however, brought revival. The London Moot grew to 36 members with seemingly room for more. It dined monthly at the Royal Commonwealth Society's club house in London, and came to be addressed by invited speakers addressing an issue of Commonwealth importance. The journal now came to be published six times a year and under the new subtitle of The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs was placed on a firm financial footing as a fully refereed academic journal.

What then of Australia? There are small groups in several state capitals which variously maintain Commonwealth connections. Because of the scattered positioning of Australia's major cities, collaboration between them is not easy. But in Canberra the local branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society was saved from extinction in recent years and, among other things, came to produce a professionally constructed quarterly newsletter. Approval was given for the creation of a Commonwealth Round Table in Australia (CRTA), which holds seminars, sponsors talks and especially a sequence of major Commonwealth Lectures in Australia, and as the occasion warrants makes submissions, for example, to parliamentary inquiries. A Commonwealth Celebration along the lines of the London Commonwealth Observance is now held each year on Commonwealth Day as a multi-faith event. Now in its fifth year, it attracts about 200 participants.

A participant asked what it was that held the original Round Table together, to which Professor Low replied that the core of its early success was the focus on recruiting rising young men and nurturing them with Round Table ideals in their careers. Young men had been very important in the original Round Table groups in Australia and Ernest Scott, the Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, had been a key figure.

Another participant noted the continuing importance for the Commonwealth and the Round Table of the spread of ideals, and argued for the development of a "Democracy and Commonwealth Group" in the Commonwealth. A participant also reminded others present of the need to develop scientists in the Commonwealth. Another participant asked why the imperial federation idea did not work, to which Professor Low responded with an account of the drive for post-colonial independence in the British Empire during the 1950s and 1960s.

Some further discussion followed on the recent re-energising of the Round Table ideal in Australia, to which Professor Low had referred in his paper. This had been largely a result of the success of the Coolum CHOGM in 2002. It was recalled that a group of interested people in Canberra from diverse backgrounds in academia, politics and the public service began to meet, as what was to become the CRTA, in 2001. From this modest beginning, activities of the CRTA had grown steadily and, as noted by Professor Low, had been marked in particular by the establishment of the annual Commonwealth Lecture. Lectures had been delivered by then Prime Minister Howard, former Secretary-General McKinnon, CRTA patron Malcolm Fraser, Mr Justice Michael Kirby and Mr Justice Nicholas Hasluck. Two of these lectures were held out of Canberra (in Melbourne and Perth) and supporters of the CRTA had provided informal support in those cities.

In addition to the Commonwealth Lecture, other opportunities had been taken to sponsor and organise public meetings and seminars, often in association with other interested organisations, including the Australian Institute of International Affairs and academics and institutes within the Australian National University. A comprehensive website was established, with links to other major Commonwealth institutions.

The Commonwealth journey
Dr Craft prefaced his paper by referring to recent strong media criticism of the Commonwealth in the British and Australian press, tied in with criticism of the preparations for the Commonwealth games in New Delhi, the Commonwealth's human rights record and criticism of the Commonwealth Secretariat - all a reminder that the role, purpose and effectiveness of the Commonwealth is constantly under scrutiny by its critics and the media. It was against this background that his paper considered the journey of the modern Commonwealth - its past and what has brought us to this point; and the future and where we might be headed.

Dr Craft argued that the Commonwealth had been characterised by ambiguity and paradox throughout, which was in fact a strength, as it allowed it considerable flexibility. He then explained this under three headings - history, hegemony and mythology.

The history of the Commonwealth as an international organisation was itself paradoxical. This related not only to the Commonwealth's origins in the British Empire but also to the manner in which it has adapted itself to changed historical circumstances and evolving concepts, ideas and movements in world affairs. It was an amalgam of continuity and change, conformity and distinctiveness that have been the organisation's hallmarks.

As to hegemony, it has never been questioned that Britain has been the dominant nation in the Commonwealth association. Britain's presence as the association's only major power has been comprehensive and ubiquitous - politically, militarily, economically, culturally, socially, administratively and financially. But while hegemons, as generally understood, are self-interested power maximisers bent on using international interests to further their interests, the truth could be more complex. Britain had been this different sort of hegemon and had generally operated in the Commonwealth as a force for legitimacy, stability and order, giving considerable space for other members, and building it as an institution operating on reciprocity and consensus.

Mythology was the third important element of the Commonwealth. On the one hand it had weighed the Commonwealth down with tradition, symbols and imaginings that hindered its contributions to some inter-governmental circles. But at the same time it conferred on the Commonwealth a quite unique sense of international organisation with multiple identities and with a comparative advantage in accessing the strengths of the product of its past, including through its grass roots associations which help it to advocate civil society aspirations. These are personified in the multiplicity of Commonwealth associations and civil society organisations that spring from its past and give it a unique dimension in an international organisation with filial as well as political associations.

In talking of the Commonwealth as an international organisation, Dr Craft argued that it provided an alternative form of multilateral contribution to those based on legally binding arrangements. It did so through its informality and use of personal association between leaders, and a soft, value-laden, consensual style of operation with broad principles being favoured over precisely defined agreements. In particular, the form of summitry between leaders it pioneered in the CHOGM retreat, without officials present, has been much admired and copied internationally.

Looking to the future, Dr Craft emphasised the adaptive nature of the Commonwealth and argued for the following reforms:

  • root and branch reform of Commonwealth institutional structure, with closer alignment between its various arms and institutions, with all conforming to the organisation's overall political objectives, and supported by greater resourcing, perhaps through a new Commonwealth Development Fund;
  • a contemporary Commonwealth agenda focused on human rights, youth, the wider Commonwealth family and the work of its civil society institutions; and
  • more effective means of communicating the Commonwealth's message, including through modern media.

Professor Low picked up the theme of ambiguity, noting this had also been a concept which ran through the history of British decolonisation. A participant asked what should be the elements of the Commonwealth Charter widely expected to be agreed in Perth. Dr Craft welcomed it as long as it expanded on earlier declarations such as the Balfour declaration and London declaration. In final remarks, Dr Craft called for the re-institution of regular senior officials meetings between CHOGMs. He also emphasised the need for a greater appreciation of the variety of forms legitimate democracy can take throughout the Commonwealth.

Preparing for Perth - CHOGM 2011
Mr Neuhaus summarized preparations being made for the Perth CHOGM noting ideas were still being discussed with Ministers and other governments, and emphasising he spoke in a purely personal capacity. He noted that the Commonwealth continued to defy those who prophesied its demise, recalling a former Australian Foreign Minister saying to him "I am sorry to tell you, Matthew, the Commonwealth has no future". In contrast, along with Australia's role as host there was a fresh interest by the older Commonwealth members like Britain, and with new members like Rwanda and the first-time engagement by the UN Secretary-General and the French President at the last CHOGM, it was clear that others too saw new possibilities for the organisation.

But it could not be denied that the Commonwealth was troubled, with organisational issues and media criticism, particularly on the Commonwealth's perceived weak stand on human rights. Such problems needed to be overcome and it would be at Perth that the Commonwealth would face the challenge of transformation into an organization fit for the 21st century.

Key elements are emerging under three headings:

  • reform;
  • renewed focus on utilising the strengths of the Commonwealth; and
  • engaging with the global agenda.

1. The reform agenda
The reform agenda itself has several elements. The first is the agenda established for the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) and reflected in its statement of 26 October 2010: "Silence is not an option". The emphasis on the importance of democracy underlined by the EPG membership demonstrates that the issue of human rights is not simply one for developed countries - on the contrary, democracy and transparency are principles accepted by the membership as a whole. The EPG statement itself also sets out its aim of preparing a Commonwealth Charter for consideration by leaders, to provide better guidance to the organisation for the future, and to provide the Secretary-General with authority to speak out on human rights.

The further element is to strengthen CMAG. Australia is strongly committed to the reform of CMAG. In particular, we are concerned that CMAG should focus more on "prevention rather than suspension": encouraging rather than punishing.

An essential part of the reform agenda is reform of the Secretariat itself. The Secretariat should be more results-oriented, and there should be a greater role for the Executive Committee and the Board of Governors in its oversight. There should be more emphasis on review of the work program. Internal reorganization is also critical - could it be right that out of some 250 staff, only around 25 work on democracy building and human rights, while a third of its staff are in corporate services? The Secretariat could benefit from having fewer but better paid core staff, with other staff linked to programs. These organizational issues are not necessarily matters for the heads of government themselves, but can be taken forward by officials.

2. Focusing on strengths
There will be a focus at the Perth CHOGM on the strengths of the Commonwealth, on democracy building, election observing and good offices, on small states and on aligning and strengthening the Commonwealth non-government network. Developing a serious engagement with youth will also be an important institutional issue.

In relation to good offices, it was often said that this is the developed members' agenda - but at the last Commonwealth Foreign Ministers Meeting in New York in September it was the developing members who spoke with most enthusiasm about the Commonwealth's role on good offices, because countries like Maldives and Guyana had benefited very directly.

A key element in recent years - following the establishment of the Secretariat's Good Offices Unit after the 2002 Coolum CHOGM to address emerging conflict - had been good offices missions and Special Envoys in Guyana, The Gambia, Cameroon, Swaziland, Zanzibar (Tanzania), Kenya, Lesotho, Maldives, Fiji and Tonga.

Some of this work has proved very successful in assisting member states in the process of change - for example, a new government and constitution in the Maldives, new parliamentary processes in Guyana, the change to a constitutional monarchy in Swaziland and new democratic political processes in Tonga. Very senior Commonwealth figures - Sir Paul Reeves, Datuk Musa Hitam and Joe Clark had been involved. However, this level of commitment and activity has declined in recent times and needed to be reinvigorated.

Over 30 of the 54 member states of the Commonwealth are small states. But attention to their interests was felt to have declined. One idea might be to restore a dedicated small states ministerial meeting at CHOGM. There was also action on a small states office in Geneva, to match the one set up in New York at Australia's initiative after the 1981 Melbourne CHOGM, helping small states engage and benefit from the multilateral system.

Technical assistance and development are key reform issues. A larger Commonwealth Development Fund could arguably replace the CFTC, whose funding of 20 million Pounds is derisory, and whose mandate has progressively narrowed as the Commonwealth's overall agenda had widened.

Aligning and strengthening the Commonwealth network is also important if the greatest possible use is to be made of existing Commonwealth institutions. This should include maximizing the roles of the Commonwealth Business Forum, the Commonwealth Youth Forum and the Peoples Forum. A Commonwealth Business Forum which strengthens business links between Australia and the Pacific and Asia (particularly India) and Africa, and stresses the importance of good governance approaches for economic development, would be performing a key Commonwealth role. And Commonwealth organizations should address the importance of aligning their own values with wider Commonwealth values: we should see the values of the Commonwealth "cascading" through all Commonwealth organizations.

Not least, we should be working strongly towards a serious engagement with youth.

3. Global issues
The Commonwealth's broader role in global issues such as climate change and food security would also be matters for attention. An important example is the problem of HIV/AIDS, which affects a disproportionate number of Commonwealth countries (60 per cent of cases, in countries comprising a quarter of the world's population).

Alignment of the Commonwealth with the developing global agenda - on climate change, sustainability and food security - would make a contribution reflecting the Commonwealth's special experience and capacities. We need to be realistic about this and not assume a role we cannot play, but as former Secretary-General Ramphal once observed, while the Commonwealth cannot negotiate for the world, it can help the world to negotiate.

Not least, the Commonwealth can develop its connections with other countries which, while not members, would be useful interlocutors, for example, China, Japan and Indonesia.

In conclusion, Mr Neuhaus remarked that international relations tends to be about either about economics, security or values. The Commonwealth's contribution is as a values organization - at its best when dealing with challenges to fundamental human values, such as apartheid in South Africa. Without values the Commonwealth has no future, and it will be for Commonwealth members in Perth to re-formulate them for a new generation in a way which helps the organisation to play a strengthened role internationally.

Discussion about Mr Neuhaus' paper covered the wide range of contemporary issues likely to be raised at the Perth CHOGM, including Pakistan, whether it would be useful to reinstate Commonwealth regional meetings of leaders, improving the Commonwealth's media profile and engagement, and the issue of Fiji. In the context of this wide agenda, and reflecting on Mr Neuhaus' opening remarks, a participant recalled that when he went to work for the Commonwealth Secretariat in the early 1970s, the then Australian Prime Minister had expressed surprise, saying "You know…it has no future".