At Large

In Perth With the Queen

Do CHOGM meetings advance the cause of the English-speaking world?

By 10.31.11

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Here in Perth, Western Australia, we have just had the Queen and a number of Commonwealth leaders assembled for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, or CHOGM (which, as has been irreverently pointed out, also stands for "Cannibals Holidaying On Government Money").

My daughter received an invitation to the Royal Garden Party at Government House and kindly took me as her escort. The weather was perfect, and there was plenty to eat and the champagne and punch were flowing freely. It was a good chance to do a bit of networking. The Labor Party politicians, whose party is bound to a republican platform and the abolition of the monarchy, aroused some amusement as they clambered over each other like alligators in a pit hoping for a Royal handshake, and the females asked one another if they intended to curtsy to Her Majesty.

The garden party was pleasant and fun and the Queen's visit was greeted as always with great enthusiasm by the local people, who turned out in thousands to catch a glimpse of her, but what, apart from that, is the purpose of these Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings? These bean-feasts are held about every two years in a different Commonwealth Country. This one cost the Australian taxpayer about $55 million. There have been more than 20 so far, and I would be interested to know if any readers can name a single achievement arising from any of them.

Armed police clamped a lock-down on much of the city, while the Wesley Methodist church hoisted banners sporting possibly the most wet and ineffectual political slogan I have ever encountered: "Pray for CHOGM!" I wondered, not for the first time, what some of people can take CHOGM seriously enough to sit up making such a banner.

Can any among the students of international politics who read this, tell me anything any of the previous CHOGMs have achieved, apart from luxurious holidays for those of the political class who get international trips with all the trimmings and a few glasses of champagne for me?

The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, blathered away to the effect that it was the purpose of the meeting to come to a joint position on a range of issues, and then to take these positions forward to other international bodies. In fact, on major and important matters such as control of carbon-dioxide emissions, some Commonwealth countries have wildly differing positions and there is not the slightest chance of them reaching agreement.

The Commonwealth remains as a sort of ghost of the British Empire, although Britain has no special measure of control over its members and some of these, such as India, are republics which do not even recognize the Queen as their head. True, it can bring disapproval to bear on lunatocracies such as Mugabe's Zimbabwe, and even invoke the dread sanction of suspending their membership, but this is a very feeble stick to wave at tyrants, even when agreement to do as much as that can be reached. But it was all amiable enough this time apparently. If the Commonwealth is the ghost of the British Empire, in Perth it was a sort of Casper the Friendly Ghost, decaying away in a peaceful if rather sad and quite futile half-life.

The old British Commonwealth of Nations arguably made some sense: In the two world wars and the Korean War, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, plus a few smaller players, lined up on the same side. They didn't need Heads of Government Conferences to tell them that when the chips were down they were kin. In 1939 Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies said: "Britain is at war. Therefore Australia is at war." The bare, Spartan simplicity of the words was moving in itself. Other former Imperial colonies have also kept British institutions to varying degrees.

The great problem of the Commonwealth, however, is that it became so large and diverse as to be impotent and purposeless. It may do some good work round the fringes of international life, such as providing scholarships, but if so, hardly any one hears about them.

As it grew larger it became more and more impossible for it to speak with a single voice on any issue, while shibboleths of "equality" meant that gimcrack dictatorships which no one really took seriously were treated on an equal footing with the major Angloform democracies, replicating one of the most inane features of the United Nations. Some of its members -- including two if the biggest, India and Pakistan -- have fought full-scale wars with each other. The appointment, during the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe crisis of a so-called "Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group" to solve the situation never lost its comic-opera air and "Eminent Person" became a term of political ridicule.

Meanwhile, it seemed the biggest piece of business the Perth conference had to deal with was whether the first-born child of the British monarch, whether male or female, could succeed to the throne (until now a woman has only come to the throne when there has not been a male heir) and whether the British Monarch could marry a Catholic. One wonders how the situation could possibly have arisen in which African dictators are voting on these vital subjects, for which unanimity is necessary.

I did not get a chance to put my views to Her Majesty, but if I been invited to had I would have suggested that a small, tight Commonwealth could be formed out of the real democracies. If this group had some strong formalized political link with America, in addition to the various existing treaties and defense links, such as ANZUS, that too might be no bad thing.

The Queen, at 85, and the Duke of Edinburgh, at 90, looked cool and marvelous on the hot West Australian afternoon.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.