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Summitry goes beyond the cocktail diplomacy

By Thom Woodroofe - posted Thursday, 7 April 2011

It is fashionable to dismiss the Commonwealth as insignificant. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once said privately its leaders' meeting should be renamed the "Compulsory Handouts Onto Greedy Mendicants" gathering.

Granted, on the surface it is largely a hangover of British imperialism and based on identification with a fairly loose set of principles, such as democracy and world peace. But the Commonwealth is the largest multilateral gathering Australia is a part of, besides the United Nations.

A grouping of 54 countries, five of whom are part of the powerful G20, it accounts for 2.1 billion people, or almost a third of the world's population. It covers every continent and every ocean of the world, holding true to the old saying that the sun never sets on the Commonwealth.


So playing host to its biennial leaders' meeting is a big deal for Australia. But one we almost missed out on.

This year's gathering was meant to be held in Sri Lanka but security fears prompted former prime minister Kevin Rudd to somewhat spontaneously offer Australia as host. It was thanks to the lobbying of former foreign minister and local boy Stephen Smith that it ended up in Perth.

October's CHOGM will be the biggest ever diplomatic gathering held in Australia - almost three times as big as the 2007 APEC summit held in Sydney - and the biggest event for Western Australia since the 1962 Commonwealth Games.

Premier Colin Barnett says that CHOGM will attract more than 4000 people to WA, resulting in a direct economic impact of $42.5 million additional expenditure in the State from visitor spending and by the Federal Government.

But the outcomes of these gatherings are never in the economics. They just provide the basis for a digestible reasoning to the public instead of the more ambiguous and nuanced foreign policy objectives.

The last gathering was held in the Caribbean hideaway of Trinidad and Tobago and its former Central Bank governor Winston Dookeran accurately predicted at the time, "I do not think it would have any immediate value but hopefully it will assist us by building better diplomatic relations".


Indeed, relying solely on the economic benefits of summitry at the expense of other objectives can be a dangerous game.

Trinidad and Tobago allocated $235 million to host the gathering but costs blew out when they were required to lease two opulent cruise ships as floating hotels to cope with the influx of cocktail-drinking diplomats.

Trinidad and Tobago's new Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, says this cost blowout was a major reason for her election.

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This article was first published The West Australian on April 4, 2011.

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About the Author

Thom Woodroofe, 21, is a foreign affairs analyst combining journalism, research, teaching and community work to advance an understanding of Australia's place in the world.

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