Academics Jenny Hocking, Allan Gyngell and Graeme Smith join Julianne Schultz, editor of Griffith Review, to discuss the contemporary experience of Commonwealth citizens. Is the Commonwealth of Nations an outdated legacy, or is it poised to play a major role again as a values-based network that represents a third of the world’s population?
In association with Griffith Review
Speakers: Amelia Mckenzie (A), Julianne Schultz (J), Allan Gyngell (G), Jenny Hocking (H), Graeme Smith (S)
Location: National Library of Australia
Date: 13 March 2018
A: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, I think we’ll make a start. Welcome to the National Library, I’m Amelia Mckenzie, Assistant Director General of Collections Management here in the Library and I will be kicking us off tonight. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for the land we now are privileged to call home and where we meet tonight.
It’s terrific to see so many here for our first Griffith Review conversation this year. We’re very pleased to continue this collaboration with Griffith Review and with founding editor, Julianne Schultz, as we can always rely on these events to highlight current issues of great significance.
The Griffith Review began publication in 2003 and since then it has set the agenda for current affairs discussion through its themed editions which consistently surprise, stimulate and educate us. Tonight’s conversation will focus on edition number 59, The Commonwealth Now – I should say Commonwealth Now which explores the identities, challenges and future of the commonwealth of nations.
Now I have here to make an admission, I loved reading these essays and it wasn’t just because I was born in Britain, it was Commonwealth Day yesterday. Actually I only know that because Fran Kelly mentioned it this morning. The Gold Coast Commonwealth Games start next month and yes, I’ve been watching The Crown.
The reason I loved the essays was because it seemed to me that every essay contained a new, relevant and necessary perspective on Australia’s history and place in the world and they gave us an always interesting and sometimes startling view of what the world actually means in that context. So we’re very lucky tonight to be joined by Professor Schultz and contributing authors, Professor Jenny Hocking, Dr Graeme Smith as well as Professor Allan Gyngell.
I will now hand over to Julianne to steer from here so would you please join me in welcoming our guests to the National Library.
J: Thank you, Amelia, and it’s great to be here again for one of these sessions. I too really value doing – having these conversations here at the National Library. As I was saying to the panellists earlier there’s always a high calibre of audience in Canberra, I find so we can have a sort of more free-ranging conversation than sometimes happens in some of the events we do – not that they’re not good but they’re just always very special, the Canberra ones.
As Amelia mentioned we’re in that Commonwealth Day zone which is probably a day that has otherwise passed most of us by. I’d been reminded of Commonwealth Day partly because of one of the contributors in this collection is Selena Tusitala Marsh who’s the Poet Laureate in New Zealand and she was commissioned a few years ago to write a poem for Commonwealth Day and to present it in Westminster Abbey to the Queen and assembled dignitaries from all the Commonwealth countries. And the piece she’s written about, this challenge of writing a non-political poem which took in the whole Commonwealth was not more than three minutes long and was on the theme of unity, is itself a hilarious description of the process of this sort of Samoan you know New Zealand exchange with the British royals which in many ways sort of captured some of the tensions that are there in this strange thing that is the Commonwealth.
So joining us for this discussion today is Professor Allan Gyngell who I’m sure is known to most of you. Allan has had a most distinguished career in almost every job that’s possible in foreign affairs in this country and including setting up the Lowy Institute. His most recent book is called Fear of Abandonment and I’ll give a plug for that as well as for the Griffith Review, and we’re delighted that Allan’s been able to join us today.
Jenny Hocking, Professor Jenny Hocking is of course I’m sure known to most of you as a very distinguished historian, particularly of the Labor Party and Gough Whitlam and so on and her very active role in recent times which has had a very strong relationship with this issue has been her campaign – her legal battles, really - to get correspondence between the Palace and the Governor General released as part of her ongoing investigation into the process of the dismissal in 1975.
And our third speaker is Dr Graeme Davidson. Graeme is relatively younger and possibly less known to – Graeme Smith, sorry – less known to all of you but Graeme is a very erudite scholar of things Chinese and things in the Pacific and he works now at the Australian National University where he’s a research fellow in the Department of Pacific Affairs. And his essay in this collection is a wonderful evocation of the sort of rising Chinese empire in PNG and how the legacy of the Commonwealth plays out. So please welcome our speakers.
J: Now I’d like to start by quoting back to you, Allan, a thing you wrote a few years ago – a decade or more ago in which you said the Commonwealth and CHOGM is at any measure – by any measure the most useless international institution to which any Australian senior political leader must commit time and energy. You say you still stand by that assessment of the Commonwealth and I’m just wondering what you – what is the relevance, if there is any, of the Commonwealth these days?
G: Well I’m sort of slightly changing my mind on this for reasons I’ll come back to, not ‘cause you invited me - and thank you - to sit on this panel. At the time that I wrote that it was because - a decade and a half ago – it was certainly true. I began my life as an enthusiastic imperialist as a young school kid [used] 7:19 by the free bags of lollies that the mothers’ club used to give away at Ashburton State School on Empire Day which was of course Queen Victoria’s birthday, the 24th of May. But my sort of – the romance began to fade over time and by the time I came to Canberra in 1969 it – I was very conscious that even then the Commonwealth was taking up more of the time and attention of Australian Prime Ministers and governments than it should have done.
And the reason was one that will only be really appreciated I think by a Canberra audience and that was the bureaucratic fact that the only international meeting that the Australian Prime Minister went to through the 1950s and ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s were biennial meetings of Commonwealth heads of government. So there was inbuilt incentive in the bureaucracy to focus on this because the Prime Minister wanted you know success and he wanted initiatives and he wanted announcables and outcomes. And that used to just infuriate me and it continued to infuriate me right up until the 1990s when for a variety of reasons other institutions emerged like the G20 and the – and APEC and so on and Prime Ministers could begin to focus on other things.
We can come back later to why I'm slightly changing my mind about not the world’s most useless international institution to which Australian leaders have to spend time and effort but a slight feeling that there may be reasons for the Commonwealth that weren’t there five years ago.
J: We’ll come back to that. Jenny, what’s your sense about the relevance, the continuing relevance and legacy of the Commonwealth?
H: Well look, I think that at the very establishment of the Commonwealth there’s a really profound political oxymoron – I call it in the piece in Griffith Review – which is that on the one hand it’s an expression of a post-Empire reality and it’s purporting to create equal autonomous members, none subordinate to the other is the wording. And yet at the same time it says that its common link is that all are united by a common allegiance to the Crown and that to me sets up what becomes I think increasingly a problem in the way in which the Commonwealth sees itself and the way in which its constituent members parts see its relationship to the Commonwealth.
And although that wording did change a decade or so later nevertheless that sort of lingering sense of imperial expectation and cultural set of expectations of dominance of one over the sort of subordination of others, you can see reflected at particular points in the history of the Commonwealth. I mean there’s a wonderful example in a recent biography of Evatt by John Murphy, of Evatt being very determined in the 1940s in those early conferences that set the groundwork for the UN to have Australia have its own independent stand, its own independent voice. And Churchill later describing the Commonwealth as he saw it as a form of power bloc almost, the Commonwealth will be the third of the great powers and argued to Evatt and others that that could only be fulfilled if it spoke as one voice but of course the one voice it was expected to speak of was the British voice.
So there was always that built-in tension that I think muddled along for Australia without too much difficulty because of the simple fact that it intersected entirely with the long years of the Menzies and then post-Menzies coalition government. But we saw it really unsettled when the Whitlam Government came to office in 1972 and of course that’s my area of study and I have looked at this relationship with Britain of course and more specifically with the Crown in quite some detail over that period of time. I wouldn’t say that the Commonwealth is in and of itself an example of those sorts of pressures on government but it’s more that it created the means through which lingering connections – colonial relics, as Whitlam called them – were able to be maintained. And they’re certainly very similarly mirrored in the discussions in Whitehall in relation to the Whitlam Government, particularly the foreign and Commonwealth office and we can go into that in more detail if you like later but certainly I think the lingering sense of imperialism and the expectation and cultural expectations I think are very significant. And we can’t underestimate the way in which that has actually held us back from moving forward to full independence as a republic.
J: Okay well we’ll come back to that as we go along. Graeme, what’s your general take on this whole thing?
S: Well look, it has to be a general take ‘cause I'm far from an expert on the Commonwealth. I guess I’d probably throw in a personal reflection in that I was raised by my grandmother who despite being Scottish was an absolute lover of the royals and so as a very wee bairn I was taken to see the royals as they came to visit in Manly when I was a very, very small child. And we literally grew up in the Commonwealth so as a child I had this very emotional connection to the Commonwealth and almost an obliviousness to Asia if you like. So my mum had a copy of Woman’s Day – sorry, my grandmother had a copy of Woman’s Day always out and it was a very different publication back in the ‘70s to what it has sadly become now and there was this kind of visceral connection in a way that was expressed whenever the Commonwealth Games came around because as a young boy sport was what occupied 90% of my brain and the Commonwealth Games was actually bigger than the Olympics. And it’s sort of weird to think back now but that moment when Rob de Castella I think won the marathon in Brisbane, for me that was like the moment when the Commonwealth sort of exploded and then for some reason just gradually disappeared from Australian consciousness after that.
So I – but it still stays with me as a very strong emotional connection but you kind of wonder where it went and I think to a large extent for Australians of my generation it went the way of us discovering where we were in the globe, that we were an Asian nation and a Pacific nation and really you know what happens over in Britain isn’t of great concern to us.
J: That’s interesting, I mean I think that the other part of it is that Britain sort of lost interest –
J: - in us as well you know so – and – which sort of goes a bit to your fear of abandonment argument but I think one of the reasons – well actually you’ve touched on two of the reasons that we decided to do this edition, I mean the first being that the Commonwealth Games are about to happen on the Gold Coast and when – and Griffith University is one of the sponsors of those games and so my Vice Chancellor said well what are you going to do for Griffith Review you know as part of the you know as part of this thing? And I said well you know I could do a thing on the Gold Coast and he said maybe. What about doing something on the Commonwealth? And I said oh yeah, sure you know like there’s only 53 countries you know that means that I have to find writers from you know a large number of those countries which is what we have done, I mean we’ve got writers from 25 countries. But the other thing which happens concurrently with that of course is the Brexit vote and suddenly you’ve got this sort of change of British interest in reviving notions of empire in a way that would have been unimaginable at the time that you’re talking about so the whole empire 2.0 thing sort of popped up again.
H: But doesn’t that you know exactly show the sort of imperial mindset that is implicit in this notion of Commonwealth because you have that extraordinary situation as you mention where in 1973 Britain joins the European market, enormously detrimental to some particular pockets of our trade, particularly butter and dairy even though we had a long lead-in to know that that was coming but what I find fascinating is that we have a situation of Brexit 2 and the immediate expectation, a sort of instantaneous response is to turn to the old trading partners as we have can just pick up where it left off, well we’ll start again with opening up things to Australia.
And this sense of being taken for granted by what is meant to be a post-imperial body I think highlights just how that – it really can never move past that because that’s the very essence of its creation and so when it’s described as having as much relevance now as it did when it was formed I think yes, that’s precisely the problem, there has never been a coherent rationale for its establishment other than that all nations are joined for their form – or were until relatively recently formed by their post-colonial status. And it’s not enough to sustain either a set of institutions, a set of decision-making structures that take up such a vast amount of time and resources as you’ve written about, Allan, and I found your piece so persuasive you know I’m completely sold just as you’re moving away from it.
J: So are you surprised by the Brexit – by that harking back to empire that happened in the washup to the Brexit vote?
G: Me? Nothing surprised me after Brexit, it was the most damaging decision taken by a western government in the past you know 30 years, I think it weakens Europe, it weakens the United Kingdom and it weakens the transatlantic relationship simultaneously so they had to look around for something. The fascinating thing for me harking back to what Jenny said, I worked in the early 1990s for Paul Keating as his foreign policy advisor and Paul was a reluctant attender of Commonwealth meetings as you might suspect and he tried to persuade John Major that the best thing that the Brits could do would be to offer to host CHOGM every two years in London, that would be a you know place and people would come there and it would be easier to manage and everyone could you know rather than having to traipse over to Cyprus or wherever it was that he didn’t want to go that year.
So – and Major was totally uninterested because the Commonwealth at that stage was sort of marginal to Britain’s interests. Suddenly as they search around again for a global role they’ve identified it but I think the rest of us have moved along.
J: It is interesting so this year the CHOGM meeting is happening in London and it’s really the first time of an outing of the sort of – the current new Commonwealth iteration which is very much about a multilateral organisation that is engaged with sustainability, equality, education you know a whole bunch of really you know good things. I think Michael Wesley described them as fashionable fads but – in his essay. But it is interesting that that’s happening back in London and at the same time the sort of question about the succession of leadership is up for grabs in a sense. I mean it’s not because the Queen is still alive but she inevitably won’t live forever and there’s no automatic process that that leadership of the – or the head of the Commonwealth is a member of the royal family.
G: Short of that there’s nothing which binds those particular countries, I mean the problem with the Commonwealth – or one of the problems with the Commonwealth is that you have all the problems of large multilateral organisations, a lack of focus, incoherence but without the universalism which gives the United Nations some legitimacy. So you got all the problems of the UN and none of the residual advantages.
J: So Graeme, in your piece you write about the Chinese and PNG sort of blaming the Commonwealth for the problems that they encountered in that sort of growing trade and economic activities there, I mean how do you see it in that sort of Pacific space? I mean is there a legacy that is of any value or is it just something that’s sort of – another bit of the sort of arcane architecture of this?
S: When they would get upset about the Commonwealth it would generally be about things that you probably couldn’t blame the Commonwealth for at all and then in essence they were conflating the Commonwealth with empire which is a perfectly natural mistake. And particularly what would get them riled up is that as an imperial power they hadn’t done more to make these countries if – to borrow a catchphrase of these days – open for business so institutions such as traditional land ownership were left in place in Papua New Guinea and throughout the Pacific. And the Chinese were simply nonplussed about well you know surely you have you know well defined property rights in Britain and America and – which they often threw into the Commonwealth as well – and Australia you know why didn’t you just enforce them here and then it would be much easier to come here and do business?
But they saw the Commonwealth if you like as something weak as well in that they would look at the lawlessness and say well this is what happens when you are you know you create a rule of law and you don’t have kind of a strong system to kind of keep the natives in check. And again they would blame that on the Commonwealth and say well look, you gave them this legal system and it’s not working so you know what were you thinking?
J: So Jenny, I mean that process that you write about about Whitlam extracting this from the Privy Council and so on, I mean that sort of – that legacy of rule of law, I mean it’s been complicated, hasn’t it?
H: Oh it’s been enormously complicated and it’s in my view still incomplete, not in the sort of substantive ways that it was at the time that Whitlam was in office but there’s no doubt that there was real resistance from the UK for the sort of final extrication if you like of Australian independence. And what is really staggering in the records that I’ve looked at in relation to Whitlam’s efforts in particular to end the few remaining state appeals to the Privy Council which you know I always have to sort of remind myself that whilst it’s still the case in some – several other Commonwealth countries, it is extraordinary for us with a fully functioning legal system that in 1970 – up until 1986 there were still some states that could appeal the decisions of their state supreme courts to as Gough Whitlam said a court made up of judges in place in another country ruling on our law.
And it’s you know it’s really a stark reminder of just how incomplete that process of severance was but nothing but obstruction from the British authorities over that time period. It was still on the agenda when Whitlam was dismissed of course by the Queen’s representative in Australia three years later but – so you know I do look at the fact of the Commonwealth and the related fact of these sort of ongoing tentacles if you like of post-imperial soft power you might call it, that there are really significant things that still are there and that affect us as a result of those lingering relics of colonialism. I mean we’ve talked a lot already tonight about almost what seems to be a benign ineffectual body in the Commonwealth and the related sense in which imperial power continues throughout our aspects of our governance and yet I would say that there are pockets of that that actually are not benign and that have had very significant impact on us. The major one of course is the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975 by the Queen’s representative on the basis of something called reserve powers which many legal authorities dispute even exists, certainly the Solicitor General and the Attorney General at the time disputed that it either existed or was relevant to the circumstance that Kerr and Whitlam were facing at the time.
But I think the way I look at the existence of Commonwealth but also the same mindset playing through the bureaucracy in Britain at the time was that it gave – it breathed life into something that many thought was – had fallen into disuse - desuetude is the legal term - no longer viable, no longer applicable to Australia, that is the use of the reserve powers. So where these things are not completely severed, and I’ve come more to this view in recent years, that we do need a final point of severance because whilst ever that’s not complete these pockets of unknown residual power remain and we might come later to one of the other aspects of this which you mention which is the federal court case I have at the moment, trying to get access to letters between the Queen and the Governor General at the time of the dismissal which are embargoed on the instructions of the Queen. So even to this day we have some small areas but I think important areas that are still beholden to that relationship even though we see that relationship as pretty much gone.
G: Can I just test something there? Is your concern about the Australian relationship with Britain or the Commonwealth and how do you distinguish between that? Would you see us getting out of the Commonwealth as a way of helping that or is it an entirely different strand of decisions that have to be made?
H: I think they’re obviously related but different and I take your point because I was contemplating this very question earlier today and I think that what troubles me about the continuation of a notion of Commonwealth are all of the if you like imperial mindset that goes with that and I think it’s impossible to do away with that. As you said also this is the only thing that on one level binds the varied member states, is the sense in which we have come from an imperial past but so long as we’re in that body it’s not entirely an imperial past and I think that has dangers in the way in which it continues the lingering imperial relationship. So it’s related to that. The more immediate things I think that we need to do are different and they are to do with the structural relationship of us with Britain so yes, they’re different things but I think they reflect a similar area that I do find increasingly troubling.
And I’ve never really pitched myself as quite strongly republican but I have to say in the last – that might sound strange knowing what I’ve written about, it just hasn’t been something that’s been at the forefront of my mind but I am more and more coming to the view that you can’t have a complete severance until we reach that step and it’s a mature step. It’s what as an autonomous sovereign nation we should embrace and we should seize an opportunity and it’s what most Australians have wanted easily for the last 30 years so I do hope we get there.
J: I mean it’s interesting that you know like the foreign – I mean I think you’re quite right, I mean there is a distinction that needs to be teased out between the Commonwealth as the sort of self-regulating body of countries that have some connection to an imperial past or not all of them to a British past even. And then Britain itself but you know it is called the Foreign and Commonwealth Office you know it is still there as part of the sort of architecture of the way things are done in the UK. So it’s embedded in a very practical sense as well which I think does set up another series of sorts of issues. Yeah.
S: One thing I was very puzzled about reading your book is that the Queen has the embargo until 20 –
S: - but her private secretary gets an indefinite embargo. How does that work?
J: So Jenny, you might need to take people through the bit of the sort of background of this.
H: The book to which Graeme’s referring is the Dismissal Dossier, Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975 which I believe is for sale outside. But yes, these – this is the embargo that’s been placed on the letters between the Queen or the Palace we say more generally because most of them of course are to her private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, but some apparently are to the Queen. The correspondence between the Palace and the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, they are embargoed on the instructions of the Queen but this is the embargo that – or the conditions with which Kerr himself placed on these letters. The difficulty for us as researchers and there’s many researchers obviously who have wanted to have access to these letters which are in our own archives here in Canberra but which we can’t see because they’re called personal records, not Commonwealth records. So because of the description by Kerr and the archives as – of them as personal records, they don’t come under the Archives Act which only applies to Commonwealth records so it’s a catch 22 where we can’t access them and the conditions are set, the conditions are set.
Interestingly originally the conditions set were that they’re embargoed on the instructions of the Queen ‘til 2037 so even though it’s Kerr’s conditions, in terms of the Queen, after Kerr’s death the Queen reduced that term to 2027 and the embar – the continuing embargo that you speak of is actually her – our official secretary, the Governor General’s official secretary and the Queen’s private sectary both have an ongoing veto over publication after that date. In other words they can’t be released until as early as 2027 but after that date the Queen’s private secretary or our Governor General’s official secretary who usually takes the advice of the Palace on such matters can continue to exercise a veto so yes, the – potentially that veto is indefinite. So the court case was completed last September. It was a relatively short court case and we’re waiting now for that decision to come down from the federal court. With great interest.
J: Any indication of when that might be?
H: Well no except that you know it could be any day and given the length of time, it’s come from last September, yes, we would expect it in the near future, I hope.
J: That very particular case is interesting but there’s been lots of – or other significant cases in the UK where archival records of British behaviour as part of the sort of empire have been destroyed or not been available through the archives or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that sort of recordkeeping, that ability to reconcile what actually went on as part of both the sort of – the empire and then its dissolution is actually quite difficult for scholars you know all over the world and for interested citizens of other countries.
H: Oh it’s enormously significant, I mean the knowledge that we can have of our history and our imperial and post-imperial relationships is of course bound up in what we can access as scholars and historians. And the situation that I’m facing here in terms of the Palace letters pales utterly into insignificance when you look at what the situation is in the UK, what’s being called their royal secrecy because it’s so profound and unchallengeable is all pervasive so their relationship, that is the royal family’s relationship with the archives, is quite different. The royal secrecy provisions extend to even going into archives and taking materials that have already been released and determining that they should in fact be part of the royal archives which is almost impenetrable. And some of you will have seen for example Julia Baird’s recent book on Queen Victoria, the struggles she faced to get records of you know over a hundred years old because they’re still part of this royal archive which is so difficult to penetrate.
And there’s a wonderful example that you sent me, Julianne, about a really frightening example - you can fill in the bits because I can’t remember the specifics – of a post-colonial experience of records being actively doctored and files being removed and replaced by dummy files in order to hide atrocities that had been committed in the lead-up to full independence –
J: In Kenya.
H: - and this is a shocking – sorry?
J: In Kenya.
H: Yes, in Kenya. And this is a shocking part of that colonial history and yet it’s one that had been really vigorously hidden from public view effectively through a doctored set of files. And so this is where our knowledge, our understanding of our post-colonial and historical reality is really at the mercy of those who have control of the records so it’s very much a related aspect to the question of how we function as a Commonwealth and what sorts of rights and knowledge and having a knowledge base that is fair and proper and equal. And it’s very disturbing, that piece really disturbed me remarkably because it’s taking the sort of very small steps that we’ve taken here to another level altogether.
J: So Allan, you write in your book about you know the breaking of those ties with Britain and that discovering of a place here or discovering – or the building of a closer relationship with the US and then the discovering of the closer ties in this region. I’m just wondering whether you agree with Jenny about the need for a more substantial break in a sense with those British ties as part of a sort of national formation?
G: Look, Jenny has a particular and persuasive set of reasons why she thinks that. From my perspective which is one dealing with Australian foreign policy the reasons are diminished, I think, that it was striking, wasn’t it, that if you read the 2017 foreign policy white paper which came out in November, was it? Not a single reference to the – to Commonwealth in it but if you took any speech by any Australian Prime Minister or foreign minister from the ‘50s or ‘60s or ‘70s the Commonwealth would have had – there would always have been a big <inaudible> 35:48 so I don’t think it matters so much in Australian foreign policy now. It’s you know it’s an irritation in some ways but I don’t think it matters enough for us to worry about it.
The reason I’m sort of slightly changing my view on the Commonwealth is that as the white foreign policy white paper revealed I think the international order in which Australia has lived since the second world war is now over, it’s not changing, it’s not challenged, it’s gone. And in this new environment Australia is going to be able to rely much less heavily on traditional friends and relationships including Britain which will be weaker after Brexit and the United States which whatever follows Donald Trump is going to be more removed from the world, more concerned with its own internal issues than with the outside world. So in this new environment Australia’s going to have to work a hell of a lot harder to build relationships, to form coalitions to ensure that the rules-based order which we have been able to support easily because the rules have been set by us and our mates but they’re not going to do that anymore so it’s going to be a much more complex world.
And so in this world I wouldn’t give away easily any particular avenue for dealing with other parts of the world and the Commonwealth does remain for Australia an easy point of entrée to Africa, to the Caribbean, to bits of the world which have not been the preoccupation of sort of mainstream policy but may well be more useful now. So I don’t think we should really wait on the Commonwealth itself suddenly becoming a vital international institution but the links that we have there are – should not be easily thrown away.
J: Which is a good segue to you, Graeme, because I mean one of the things we’re starting to see in these former Commonwealth countries is a much greater Chinese presence you know the whole Chinese movement into many of these countries which were former colonies and formerly associated with the British empire, there is the Chinese in very great numbers doing a lot of stuff, spending a lot of money you know being involved in you know in one project or another so you see that in PNG, you see it in the Pacific. I mean we have people in the edition writing about the Chinese involvement in Africa as well you know it’s a global phenomenon. I’m just interested in how you – you know taking Allan’s point about you know the changing world order and that’s obviously a code in some ways for the rise of China, I mean how do you see that playing out in those former Commonwealth countries?
S: It’s interesting on a number of levels, I mean one – as I’ve been listening to the discussion one thing that’s been coming back to me is that the Commonwealth isn’t the only if you like amalgamation of countries bound by language and legal system and shared history and China has been very active for example in cultivating the Lusophone countries, the Portuguese-speaking countries and in many ways we talk a similar language now when we talk Australian diplomacy or Chinese diplomacy. DFAT has now set up a – I’m not exactly sure what the structural – the final structure will be but soft power is now there on the organisational charts in DFAT, we now have agencies that have soft power as their main mission. And over the last two weeks in China we’ve had this amazing literally on the go reconstruction of China’s engagement with the world so as of today - some of you may know but as of today China now has an international aid agency, just popped up in the last few hours. So literally this engagement with the world is forming in front of our eyes and it’s quite fascinating.
What I’ve observed in the Pacific and to tie it back to the Commonwealth is that one of the Commonwealth’s greatest problems or the empire’s greatest problems was that its foot soldiers didn’t necessarily share the lofty ideals that you’re - now see in Commonwealth documents. Its foot soldiers were there to make a buck and this is one problem that China will have to address, is that there is a great deal of migration to Pacific countries. In Tonga for example 4% of the population are recent arrivals from mainland China. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot but in a population of 100,000 people 4,000 Chinese shopkeepers makes a hell of an impact and it does not align with any of China’s national strategic goals so how they bring those two things together, the natural if you like impact of their economic power but having a high level foreign policy strategy that in no way matches up with the consequences of their growth.
J: I mean one of the things that I'm intrigued with with China, and I know there is some scholars have written in this area, which is the lessons learnt from Chinese humiliation by the British essentially and then how that’s being reinterpreted in the way it’s behaving now you know so that there are lessons in a way that have been learnt from effective empire-building, of not you know necessarily going in with guns and soldiers blazing but other ways of exercising power and influence which to some degree there are templates taken from the way the British empire operated for a long period.
S: I guess it would always come back to your theories of parenthood you know does an abused child you know go out and behave responsibly or do they repeat the mistakes that were inflicted upon them? And that’s a whole realm of things you can look at because it wasn’t just the British that humiliated them, of course, it was pretty well everyone, even we get a footnote in the Boxer Rebellion as having been present for that. But generally we’re not viewed as a colonial force so that – not that the relationship is in great shape at the moment but that at least is not an irritant.
I mean to give it a concrete example I recommend if you have a free $18 to go out and see a movie called Operation Red Sea and that will leave you with the impression that the mistakes of empire have not been learnt. It is described by the South China Morning Post as not a terribly bellicose representation of Chinese nationalism. It is said to depict the evacuation of 250 Chinese citizens from Yemen. That is I think a realistic thing for the first 15 minutes of the movie and the rest of it is body count of however many Islamic-looking people you can kill in the space of two hours rounded off with a finishing scene of a Chinese flotilla blaring in Chinese and English this is the South China Sea, turn around. And literally you go home going oh my god you know it’s a you know it’s coming for us.
J: What was interesting that you know at the end of – well 20 years ago when the British left Hong Kong you know that the sort of one – what was the catchphrase? It was one country, two systems which is now very much becoming one country, one system.
S: Or 1.5 maybe.
J: Pardon? Or one-and-a-half systems.
S: Watching it go down.
J: Yeah. So it’s sort of – it is interesting to see that that transfer of power, I mean it’s obviously something that you’ve been watching for a long time, Allan. What are your thoughts on that transfer occurring?
G: The transfer occurring?
J: Of power you know of relative power and how that might play out.
G: In the Commonwealth?
J: No, not in the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth – pushing the Commonwealth to a side of how that – that move to a more Chinese-centric sort of power –
G: Look, I don’t – can I just make an aside?
G: Isn’t it interesting how hard it is to have a conversation about the Commonwealth because there’s actually nothing there so you end up talking about China which I’m happy to do. I don’t see us moving into a Sinocentric world. Nick [Isley] 45:13 from Latrobe University I think makes a very useful distinction between a China-centred region which he thinks this will be and a Sinocentric region, a sort of middle kingdom. There are just too many other big players around including India and Japan and the United States in some form or another. I think that will prevent whatever ambitions Chinese filmmakers have of coming to pass so I don’t see us moving now into a sort of you know imperial Chinese region as the European imperial powers moved out.
J: Can I just pick you up on that kind about it’s difficult to talk about the Commonwealth because it’s – what are we talking about? And I think that really gets to this very issue here, I mean you mention how the Commonwealth can play a positive role and there are obviously areas that can play a positive role and you mention – and we talked about you know the range of things that it can do in terms of connections and networks and so on. However it’s in its makeup and the way in which it has structured itself that it actually can’t do anything you know it doesn’t have binding obligations, it doesn’t have binding agreements that are required of members and so what can it do as we move forward in its current guise or does it actually need to completely recast itself as a form of power bloc in order to have any real influence other than over the broadest possible as you said yourself in your piece, motherhood statements, Allan, which I thought was such a powerful description of how difficult it is for the Commonwealth to come out with anything concrete partly because – well in particular because of the almost accidental nature of the groupings within it? And I had another point I was going to make about that but it’s now completely passed me by.
H: I think to be fair to the Commonwealth organisation that there has been a lot of work that’s been done over the last few years, I mean there’ve been a series of expert groups that have been put in to examine how the Commonwealth works, whether it was relevant and the evidence was pretty much that people thought it was non – you know it was a sort of an idea that lacked meaning in a sense. So I think that the work that’s been done as a result of the most recent expert working group has really been to try and adjust that so that it actually has got very – a very clear set of goals around sort of development and equity and climate and you know the sort of – those sorts of issues that are affecting the world but don’t get talked about in a sort of really active sense. So I think they have very active programs around that which is a difference from the old thing of it being power plays of you know the Africans versus the Carribeans versus the Asians. So I think that there’s something quite interesting happening in that space –
G: No, there’s not, it’s the triumph of hope over experience, I mean if you go back and look at the number of times that –
J: That have done this exercise, yeah.
G: - people have said something that can be done with the Commonwealth and we’re going to do it and senior officials’ group and eminent persons’ groups have been set up to do it and –
H: The laboratory of the new I think is the phrase –
J: Yeah, an inordinate amount of time trying to justify its existence but - I remembered what I was going to – which is that the two - it seems to me that two of the most significant moments – we’ve mentioned one which is Brexit and the other, depending on how it plays out and it may in fact be the usual Trump grandiose statements wound back fairly quickly, but the tariff decision he’s just made is really significant for world trade and yet the Commonwealth it seems to me is powerless to actually do anything about either of them. So that’s where I look at where the world is going at the moment with the need for very particular decisions to be made and we’re looking now at Europe is going to be making a stand against Trump’s tariff decision. And we are left there unable to really make a stand –
H: And one –
J: - that’s Commonwealth.
H: And one of the things that’s interesting you know the hard heads who are in the Commonwealth groups, and I take your point about you know expert groups and working parties and all the rest is that the you know the – those who see a real value in it, say you’ve got a third of the world’s population you know you have a potential trading network between that third of the world’s population in the former Commonwealth exercising some counterbalance. I mean I'm not arguing, I’m just telling you what is said as part of –
S: So can I phrase it maybe another way? I guess my question is how is it so useless? So why can you have the Lusophone countries actually forming a very effective bloc and being a group you can court as one and that have shared identities and yet this larger entity that in theory should be more powerful than Lusophone group is actually less useful and it is not something that a country like China would look to engage with ‘cause they’d be just asking well what’s the point of engaging with the Commonwealth, you know?
J: And is partly about the relative – I mean the hanging on of the power relatively at the centre? I mean -
S: Or being reluctant to colonise –
J: - you know Lisbon you know you don’t think of as a global centre of any consequence, I mean notwithstanding the head of the UN being Portuguese but it’s not – whereas London still you know represents itself as a major global centre, I mean is that –
S: I’m really not sure, I mean maybe it is because they were reluctant you know or they talked themselves out of the colonial project if you like and so by the end the colonial project was meaningless whereas other countries still look very fondly and indeed quite covetously upon their former colonies. I mean France for example, we don’t need to go far in the Pacific to find bits of the Pacific that are still terribly French.
J: I wonder – yeah, I wonder, Jenny, whether - I mean whether part of it is that in Britain the deconstructing of the colonial experience has not happened so just as you talk about the reserve powers and the tendrils of empire here I mean I get the sense that – and the reason that you have foreign secretaries and others walking around talking about empire 2.0 is that that work hasn’t been done in the UK itself.
H: It’s the converse of what we’re saying about our own incomplete severance, is that there needs to be severance from the other end and I think you know you’ve probably all seen the Commonwealth described as Britain’s consolation prize for losing empire but it has to be more than that and it do – you know I think there’s a lot of sense in what you say, that there does have to be a moment where there is a willing and desired shift from an empire mindset and I don’t think that’s happened in Britain. And I think that part of the reason why it can be – life can be breathed back into that so quickly and you will have seen Boris Johnson describe you know wanting to be an empire of minds and this notion of empire is so central to so much British established thinking in terms of governance that I think it still has a long way to go to complete that project and I do wonder if that’s why we’re still seeing a Commonwealth that actually can’t yet actually refashion itself.
But also because it’s just an amorphous group. The only reason for that group is that connection with Britain, there is nothing in that group that holds it together other than that and I'm not saying that’s not an important reason to exist as a group and to acknowledge its history and so on but also to recognise the really profound limitations over what it can then do. So it seems to me the only way we can move forward into the really constructive realm that Allan was suggesting it could play is to remake it completely.
J: We’ve got five minutes or so for questions, is there anyone who’d like to ask a question? Yes, Bill. Oh sorry, yes, please.
Au: Just like to pick up on the point that <inaudible> 53:25 which was until the ‘70s probably the most conservative you know pro-empire, pro-UK part of Australia but – and I go back frequently, the day that they went to the common market and the day they destroyed by doing so the Tasmanian apple industry is something that was just absolutely pivotal in my childhood but turned that state and those people forever against the perfidious nature of the – of perfidious <inaudible> 51:10. And the idea that Tasmanian – Tasmanians still remember that as a very great portrayal of what might have been seen as implicitly involved in British leadership of the post-imperial situation.
The withdrawal from east of Suez was the other thing that happened in the 60s and it was signed off by the dismissal when it could have been argued that if there was any meaning or moral purpose of the Commonwealth that the arrangements then would have prevailed and it would have been reversed or wouldn’t have happened or something like that. But that was the end of it in my view and it is just nonsensical for the British government as presently constructed to believe that these arrangements could be put back together in that state. Or that would be supported by the people you know 20 and two generations later. It’s over.
H: That’s really interesting. And it does show - all the examples you raise do show the – that on the ground, even though we have believed no doubt that we’ve shifted into an autonomous, independent sovereign state, in terms of that relationship that there are some really powerful residual connections that have great impact on ordinary people through the decisions made and that particular decision – and there were many others during the ‘70s when Whitlam was trying to unravel some of the immigration for example, the privileges that actually applied to British people coming here and you know the shorter period before they could get a permanent residency and so on, trying to close them down and leave it an equal footing created enormous upheaval in Britain and the files are staggering in terms of the utter disrespect with which the government was treated.
But I think you know you raise a really interesting question there about the response to the dismissal and where we talk about the – what are the core values of the Commonwealth? It’s often referred to as a group that has key values at heart and one of them is responsible government and democratic process. Well this was a moment as you say where responsible government was denied, where the vote of a House of Representatives on the afternoon of the 11th of November was denied by the Governor General. If ever there’s a moment as you say where somebody is a figurehead of democratic governance might have pointed to the Governor General and said no, your Prime Minister is determined not by you but by the House of Representatives, it would have been that.
J: Is there any other question? No? So we’re spot on 7:00 – or sorry, there is one, okay, sorry.
Au: Thanks. So Allan, I was thinking very carefully about your shift from thinking that the Commonwealth was completely and utterly useless from an Australian point of view to something that might in current circumstances potentially have a net positive effect although I don’t think you’re giving it a very high value there, I think. So what might Australia do through the Commonwealth realistically in this kind of post-Brexit you know and thinking about its member you know I mean this highly problematic membership of the Commonwealth. It either consists of a large number of its membership that is very small and/or remote you know Saint Lucia, Cyprus, Gambia you know or a handful of countries which are extremely important to us, New Zealand, India, Canada but they’re so important to us that we wouldn’t bother mediating our relationship with them through the Commonwealth. The ones that we can mediate a relationship with the Commonwealth are very small states we don’t really need a relationship with and so what feasibly could we do? Climate change, maybe.
G: Well yeah, you just gave the only answer that I could possibly think of to the question you asked me. My point is that there are parts of the world with which Australia does not have intimate – sort of intimate contacts that we have with the Commonwealth members in the Pacific and south Asia and so on. Africa is the biggest and most important of those, Africa is going to loom larger in Australia’s future and the world’s future than it has in the past and it’s a part of the world that we are – we deal with ineffectively for the most part. And the simple fact that there are ties through the Commonwealth to a number of the important Africans. And Australia has paid a not inconsiderable you know part in Africa through the Commonwealth. My other sort of defence of the Commonwealth and I note that the – DFAT is about to release the latest series of documents in Australian foreign policy in a couple of weeks, I think. It’s going to be on Rhodesia in the – Australia and Rhodesia in the 1960s and ‘70s. That period was a genuine Australian contribution by Whitlam, by Fraser and by Hawke to those colonial developments so there are links there and we’re – my only point really is that this is an opening gambit for discussions with countries that we don’t otherwise have much in common with.
Au: Just a comment. Thank you very much for the <inaudible> 0:23. I just wonder whether you have <inaudible> legacy of <inaudible>.
G: I think there’s a different discussion to have, Carl, about the legacy of empire and the role of the Commonwealth, I think you’re absolutely right about English and so on, the cultural issue is – when you're looking at the Commonwealth as a whole rather than a couple of the countries in the Commonwealth.
J: And certainly that was my experience as well in talking to writers about contributing to this you know that there was – there were shared issues, there were shared bits of history, there were shared ways of seeing the world which were in opposition and in alignment with that legacy, that cultural legacy which was quite tangible, I mean – and it was – I must say that as I was putting it together it was sort of surprising that I would be speaking to somebody you know in the Caribbean and they would have something which was you know echoing very much with what somebody was saying from other parts of the world where you wouldn’t have otherwise thought that there were those sorts of connections and issues so – yeah.
S: Yeah and it’s a fascinating point because one of the first stumbling blocks the [Belton Road] 3:00 initiative has faced is well what if something goes wrong? Which court hears it? And as soon as they set up these things called Belton Road Courts that were of course based in China and would be held in Chinese, immediately people’s if you like trust in the venture nosedived because like well you know we know who’s going to win in those court cases. So yeah, I think there’s a lot to what you say even if it doesn’t apply directly to the Commonwealth as it is now but that may just be a reflection of the uselessness of the Commonwealth.
J: Was there somebody else? No.
A: If there are no more questions I hope Julianne and our speakers will allow me to close the session and to thank you once again for coming along tonight and to thank again Julianne, Allan, Jenny and Graeme for a really interesting and wide-ranging discussion on the issues raised in Commonwealth Now. And I think the note on which we’ve ended really suggests that you must go and buy a copy and there is a copy available in the National Library bookshop which is open tonight and I think we’ve also heard several other titles mentioned which might be worth acquiring while you're there. And in case you need any further persuading the bookshop is offering a 10% discount tonight so you’re in the right place at the right time.
With that I will wish you all a very good evening and hope we’ll see you back at the Library again very soon and a final thank you to our speakers tonight.
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