The Commonwealth turns 60 this year. Yet, in the midst of nostalgic celebrations, questions of relevance and reform are beginning to look increasingly urgent. There is little doubt that the Commonwealth’s profile has slipped and many of its people are no longer convinced of its value or purpose.
In early 2009, the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) commissioned nationally representative opinion polls in seven different countries. The polls tested people’s knowledge, awareness and opinion of the Commonwealth. Their results displayed a worrying mix of indifference, ignorance and imbalance and the Australian results, in particular, offered a stark warning.
Globally, only a third of people polled could name any activity carried out by the Commonwealth and the majority of those could cite only the Commonwealth Games. Support for the association among developed countries is particularly low and in countries such as Australia, the UK and Canada only about one third of people would be sorry if their country left the Commonwealth.
Australia has traditionally been a big supporter of the Commonwealth, from the Commonwealth Games, to funding development projects, to leading political campaigns. Yet Australians seem divided about its relevance.
One in five say they would be happy if Australia left the Commonwealth, more than double the average of the other countries polled. And, just to complicate things, Australia was the only country polled where Prince Charles was the most popular choice for the next head of the Commonwealth. The clear winner everywhere else was a headship that rotated between members.
The obvious explanation for Australia's response is how divided the country remains on the issue of a republic. Presumably a hard core of people love the Commonwealth because of its ties to royalty, while a similarly sized group hate it for the same reasons. The problem is that both groups are equally out of touch with the reality of what the modern Commonwealth is.
Despite the Queen being one of the most powerful symbols of the association, monarchy can obscure what the modern Commonwealth represents. The Commonwealth, with 53 countries and 2 billion people, should be the most diverse and interesting club of nations, not just an anachronistic vehicle to promote Anglo-Australian relations or to celebrate Britishness.
In the immediate aftermath of Empire, the Commonwealth was a neat way of retaining and fostering links between governments and peoples in the former colonies. The strong historical ties that bind members to each other - and to Britain - are an undeniable part of what makes the Commonwealth work. Yet history alone is not going to be enough to convince a new generation of people that the association is worth bothering about, or indeed to convince cash-strapped governments to invest in it.
An insidious malaise of indifference seems to have permeated an organisation which once stood at the forefront of international affairs. At 60, the Commonwealth is in need of a good makeover.
To kick start this process, my organisation launched a unique global public consultation - the largest of its kind ever undertaken. “The Commonwealth Conversation” is seeking to gather the opinions of thousands of Commonwealth citizens across the globe on the future of their association.
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be held in Trinidad and Tobago in November 2009, the RCS will publicly present the findings of the “Conversation” to the world’s leaders. This process represents a rare opportunity for ordinary citizens to shape the future of an international organisation. And, there is little doubt that the Commonwealth must alter its course.
If, as they take their seat at the CHOGM negotiating table in eight weeks time, the world’s leaders allow the recommendations of their people to pass by unheeded; if they allow the opportunity for reform to slip through their fingers, then I suspect that there will be few who can halt the Commonwealth’s quiet decline.
Yet strong, clear recommendations from its people - a vision for the future - could be just what the Commonwealth needs to strike out afresh, emboldened and re-energised by a brave new agenda and a purpose imbued with a new sense of clarity and cause.
When 2 billion people speak, they are very difficult to ignore. I urge the people of Australia to add their voices to the debate and to play their part in achieving lasting and radical change. Please join in by visiting www.thecommonwealthconversation.org. If the Commonwealth cannot win back the affection of many more Australians, it may not see its 70th birthday.