This speech was delivered by David Haisell, our Chair, at the Royal Commonwealth Society of Canada’s Commonwealth Day flag-raising ceremony at the Ontario Legislative Building, Queen’s Park, Toronto, on 10 March 2014.
Mr. Chairman, fellow Commonwealth enthusiasts,
It is an honour and a privilege to be speaking to you on such an important day and in such an important place. When I was elected chair of the United Commonwealth Society just over a year ago, I did not imagine even for a moment that I would be speaking here today. I am grateful to Andrew McMurtry and the Royal Commonwealth Society, Toronto Branch, for their gracious invitation.
When looking back over the last few years, it is fair to say that the Commonwealth has not had it easy. The organization has been plagued by years of apathy and neglect, perhaps demonstrated most strongly by last year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka. Setting aside the differences of opinion that arose over the choice of host, only 27 heads of government or state attended the meeting. Excluding those nations who announced their decision not to attend, 23 heads of government or state simply did not show up, sending other government officials in their place.
This followed on the 2011 Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, where those in attendance failed to agree on or endorse most of the findings of the Eminent Persons Group tasked with reviving and reforming the institution. Former British Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a member of the group, decried the results, stating “The Commonwealth faces a very significant problem. It’s not a problem of hostility or antagonism, it’s more a problem of indifference. Its purpose is being questioned, its relevance is being questioned, and part of that is because its commitment to enforce the values for which it stands is becoming ambiguous in the eyes of many member states.”
Perhaps most symbolic of the Commonwealth’s decline was a BBC report this January announcing a threat to the Commonwealth’s most powerful ambassador: the Commonwealth Games. Bids for the 2022 Games were few and unenthusiastic, leading many to question whether the Games would even continue beyond 2018.
All that said, however, the future for the Commonwealth is not necessarily bleak. Although not all recommendations made by the Eminent Persons Group were officially endorsed in Perth, the discussion did result in the drafting of the Charter of the Commonwealth, signed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II a year ago. The debate surrounding last year’s meeting in Sri Lanka revived the Commonwealth as a topic of discussion, prompting observers in each member nation to ponder the organization’s future. We gathered around televisions and computers to celebrate the athletes of Team Commonwealth as they competed at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and will do so again this summer as they meet at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. We will come together and remember the courage and sacrifice of those who fought and died for King and Empire a hundred years ago in the First World War and 75 years ago in the Second World War, and honour those who continue to serve today.
With the Commonwealth’s profile rising among its citizens, the potential for a long-overdue rebirth is building. There is a sense, expressed by many members of the United Commonwealth Society, that no matter where we set foot within the Commonwealth, we are still “home”. A sense that our Commonwealth cousins are connected by an intangible web that other nations lack, that transcends geography and economics. It’s a kinship forged by centuries of shared history. And it is particularly true of the Commonwealth realms, the 16 nations who share Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.
The Commonwealth realms, in our opinion, share a unique and privileged position within the Commonwealth. In addition to their head of state, these nations share a common language, a common history, a common dedication to democratic values and multicultural demography, similar legal and political systems, similar economies, and broadly compatible national and international interests. This commonality will be key to the Commonwealth’s future.
We are already seeing the seeds of a new realm alliance being sown. Many of the larger realms already cooperate on matters of defence, demonstrated by the “Five Eyes” intelligence pact between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Trade between the realms is also growing; Canada is about to enact a new economic agreement governing trade with the European Union, nearly half of which takes place with the United Kingdom. Just last week, Britain’s Commonwealth Minister Hugo Swire reported that doing business with other Commonwealth members reduces costs by 20% compared to non-Commonwealth nations, a clear advantage that is begging for further recognition.
During the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, the heads of the Commonwealth realms held a special parallel meeting to discuss reform of their royal succession laws, demonstrating a shared commitment to resolving mutual concerns. We believe that more regular meetings between realm officials should take place, culminating in the establishment of a permanent forum for the Commonwealth realms to determine best practices and opportunities for cooperation. Together, the realms should advocate for stronger alliances between Commonwealth members, whether economic, defensive, or environmental in nature. Freer movement between the realms will allow us to learn more about our Commonwealth cousins and the worlds they inhabit. The realms can share opportunities in times of prosperity and stand together in times of crisis.
By speaking with a common voice on the world stage, the Commonwealth realms can maximize their collective and individual influence and opportunities, benefit from a better footing when interacting with other significant powers, and better ensure their shared values continue to be heard in a changing world. I thank you for your time and wish you a happy Commonwealth Day.
United Commonwealth Society