Speech by Professor Don Markwell,
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education), The University of Western Australia,
at the Association for Commonwealth Studies conference on 'Educating the Commonwealth about the Commonwealth',
Sunday 20 May 2007
Professor Tom Symons and Mrs Christine Symons, distinguished guests and colleagues all –
What a remarkable achievement it is on the part of Tom Symons that we are all here!
I would therefore like to begin by thanking and congratulating Tom on his leadership in the Association for Commonwealth Studies, which has made this conference possible. And I would like to acknowledge and thank all those others whose insights, labours, and generosity have made it possible for us all to be here.
An ideal after-dinner speech is often said to be short, simple, and funny - based on jokes or an amusing anecdote. But this seems strangely irrelevant to the opening dinner of a conference on 'Educating the Commonwealth about the Commonwealth'. I know of no jokes about the Commonwealth - other than perhaps Mark Twain's line about himself: 'rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated!'
Rumours of the death of the Commonwealth have been greatly exaggerated for a very long time. Indeed, they have accompanied almost every important step in its development. For example, they certainly accompanied the re-admission of India as a republic in 1949, while acknowledging the King as Head of the Commonwealth. From our current perspective, had this not happened the development of a modern Commonwealth would have been impossible. Certainly also predictions of the death of the Commonwealth accompanied many steps in the long and painful struggle against apartheid - which also now seems to us, or at least to me, to show the importance, and not the impotence or the impending death, of the Commonwealth.
In 1959, the Australian scholar of International Relations, Hedley Bull, wrote an article entitled 'What is the Commonwealth?', to which question his answer was, in effect, 'not much'. Yet very nearly half a century later, in March this year, the current Australian Prime Minister, John Howard - no less a political realist than Hedley Bull - could issue a Commonwealth Day message which said:
Commonwealth Day is an opportunity to reflect on the shared commitment of Commonwealth nations to democratic principles, the rule of law, freedom of expression and the protection of human rights.
The Commonwealth of Nations has strong historical connections, but is a contemporary body. Its decision in December 2006 to suspend the membership of Fiji from the Councils of the Commonwealth after the unlawful takeover of government in that country, demonstrates in our own region that it continues to speak strongly and with credibility on issues of democracy and openness in political affairs.
This year, Commonwealth Day takes the theme of "The Commonwealth: respecting difference, promoting understanding." Australia supports this theme through our long-standing and highly successful migration programme [not everyone would agree, including in those countries who fear they are losing skilled and highly trained people to Australia], our relations with other nations, and through our overseas aid.
The Government looks forward to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be held in Kampala, Uganda, at the end of the November 2007. This is the 37th such meeting of Commonwealth leaders.
Today, we are proud to reaffirm Australia's commitment to this unique association, and celebrate our common heritage and values.
Messages by heads of government around the Commonwealth have attested to its importance in such areas as governance and democracy, including public sector capacity-building; sustainable development in its many aspects, including trade, health, education, and programs for youth and to enhance the position of women; and culture and diversity. One area, of which we have not heard the last, is drawing attention to the need for action on climate change; it may be that the unique composition of the Commonwealth - including many island micro-states and other territories at risk through rising sea levels - helped to focus Commonwealth attention on climate change relatively sharply and early.
Canada's Stephen Harper has said:
The international organisation of the Commonwealth exemplifies our commitment [to] collective action to address complex global challenges. As such, we welcome the opportunity to recognise the Commonwealth for the role it plays in facilitating dialogue and fostering consensus amongst the international community.
Who could doubt the importance today of encouraging just that?
Although you will have heard this many times before, it is worth reminding ourselves at the beginning of this conference that, in the words of the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Don McKinnon:
The Commonwealth has become a truly global, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-cultural, multi-national agglomeration of vastly-differing economies, societies and political realities; of equal member states. We have strength not only in our numbers but in our great diversity as well: 53 countries, 1.8 billion people, all the world's main religions, endless ethnicities, all the continents, from an enormous state like India, to tiny Tuvalu.
Cumberland Lodge, where we are meeting in this conference, has long played a special role in facilitating discussion within and about the Commonwealth. Speaking personally, having helped to organise conferences of The Round Table here in the early 1990s, I was last here in 1995, for early meetings of the Commission on Commonwealth Studies. This group, commissioned by the then Secretary-General, Emeka Anyaoku, and chaired by Tom Symons, produced the report Learning from Each Other: Commonwealth Studies for the 21st Century which recommended the creation of an Association of Commonwealth Studies as a central element of encouraging the study of the Commonwealth.
That report bears re-reading today, and what I want to say draws from it. While it specifically focussed on Commonwealth Studies in higher education, it has much to say that is relevant to broader education about the Commonwealth - including in schools, and for the general public. Learning from Each Other helps us both to consider what 'Commonwealth studies' is, and to consider why it is important.
The Commission conceived of Commonwealth Studies as 'the study of the Commonwealth as an association, and of the relationships and shared experience - present, future, and past - of its member states and peoples'. Embracing and drawing from many different disciplines, the Commission also argued that 'the designation of "Commonwealth Studies" should generally be reserved for those studies which have a Commonwealth context, which involve comparative study between Commonwealth countries, or which concern the relationship between the society under study and other Commonwealth countries, whether in a bilateral or multilateral Commonwealth framework or in a thematic context of issues'.
The topic of this conference is 'Educating the Commonwealth about the Commonwealth'. One of the points made by the Symons Commission is that the 'legitimacy and importance of Commonwealth studies has often been better understood in countries outside the Commonwealth than at universities in its member states'. Similarly, of course, while some member states within the Commonwealth seem at times complacent about their membership, one measure of the Commonwealth's continuing importance as an association is those sometimes surprising aspirants that express interest in joining. In recent years, Don McKinnon has said, these have included Palestine, Rwanda, Yemen, Algeria, and Israel.
There are many reasons for studying the Commonwealth, and I would like to suggest five.
The first is historical. 'The history of no Commonwealth country can be understood without knowledge and understanding of the history of the Commonwealth.' (Learning from Each Other) You cannot understand the modern world - say, the pattern of democracy, the end of apartheid, or the rise of India, or much else besides - without some understanding of the history of the Commonwealth and of the Empire - more accurately, empires - from which it evolved.
The second reason is the continuing contemporary importance of the Commonwealth as an association, an actor in the world. In urging study of the Commonwealth, of course, no one is suggesting studying only the Commonwealth, or that the Commonwealth is more important than, say, American power, or the European Union, or the United Nations, or the emergence of China. But we are saying that the Commonwealth is of sufficient importance as an association to merit study alongside these and other phenomena.
Studying the Commonwealth not only enables us to understand an important association of states and peoples, but - and this is my third reason for studying it - the wider the knowledge and understanding of it, the greater its capacity for good will be. In the words of the Commission on Commonwealth Studies:
…the Commonwealth's capacity for service to the global community, through multi-lateral consensus-building, and to its own members, depends on a shared identity among the citizens and governments of member states. Commonwealth studies assist in creating a more informed understanding and recognition of the Commonwealth's role and potential.
In today's world, certainly no less than ever before, the existence both of the 'benign trans-national organisation' that is the Commonwealth and of some sense of solidarity between peoples of different Commonwealth countries can be useful elements promoting harmony and order in the face of all the age-old and resurgent forces of conflict and disorder. It is a force for internationalism in an over-nationalistic world.
Idealistic visions in earlier generations of the Commonwealth as a promoter, even guarantor, of global peace may now seem to have been exaggerated and proved to be illusory, and were political rather than purely academic projects. But this does not seem to me to be good reason for not encouraging understanding of the Commonwealth today, with all its diversity and limitations, as an element - one, perhaps modest, element - of order in what Hedley Bull described as 'the anarchical society' of states.
The Commonwealth experience of course includes instances of inter-faith hostility and violence, but - I think more importantly - it shows models of the promotion of inter-faith understanding, tolerance, and harmony - something for which the Commonwealth as an association has long stood. The importance of such understanding to the world's prospects for peace has arguably never been greater. This is a particularly acute instance of how the Commonwealth as a model for the celebration of diversity promotes - however imperfectly - values which the world desperately needs.
Even if greater understanding of the Commonwealth simply encourages countries and regions to look out from their local preoccupations, and serves as a gateway from one region to another, it will do something worthwhile. I think, for example, that over some decades the Commonwealth has served this role through ensuring greater international attention to, or perhaps simply somewhat less neglect of, the problems of Africa than there would otherwise have been. If today this seems difficult, even hopeless, in regard to Zimbabwe, we have surely in recent years seen that it can make a positive difference on issues of debt and aid.
Some of the sense of solidarity between Commonwealth countries relates, of course, to the role of non-government organisations and to the notion of 'the people's Commonwealth'. NGOs play an important, if in some cases contentious, role in the promotion of Commonwealth values.
My fourth reason for studying the Commonwealth is that the Commonwealth is a useful context within which to study - an important context within which to understand - many important phenomena. Learning from Each Other gave two examples, and they remain relevant instances a decade later: the Commonwealth is a useful and appropriate context within which to study parliamentary systems of government in states old and new, and an important context for understanding diverse literatures in English. These words from the Commission's report continue to resonate for me - and not only because I have recently enjoyed reading the powerful novel The Secret River, for which Kate Grenville won last year's Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Quote:
Contemporary writing is so vibrant in so many Commonwealth countries that the study of English literature would be incomplete without attention to the work of authors in different continents and regions. It is evident from study of the literary output of Commonwealth writers in different countries how they are drawing to a considerable extent on a store of common experiences and shared cultural forms.
It is good that publishing and literature will be important themes in this conference - just as the work of ACLALS, the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, featured prominently in our report on Commonwealth Studies a decade ago.
Literature is one element of what has been called the 'cultural Commonwealth'. 'Creative writing and literature, fine arts, performing arts including music, drama and dance, museums and conservation, and a variety of recreational pursuits [perhaps the most obvious is cricket] are important threads in the fabric of the modern Commonwealth, and are in many cases subjects of study and research in universities and colleges.' (Learning from Each Other)
Kate Grenville's novel, The Secret River, to which I referred, is a harrowing and haunting account of convict settlement and the sometimes peaceful but too often violent encounter of settlers with Indigenous people. Today, the Commonwealth remains a useful and appropriate context within which to compare, not only the history of such encounters in different countries, but also policies for seeking to advance the legitimate interests of Indigenous peoples, including the recognition of past wrongs and continuing to journey towards reconciliation.
This leads naturally to the fifth reason I want to urge for studying the Commonwealth - and this was perhaps the most powerful theme of Learning from Each Other. Please forgive me again for quoting from it. The Commission wrote:
What has struck us most forcefully is the extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity that exists today for Commonwealth countries to learn from the rich experience of their Commonwealth partners in many fields.
A significant degree of common heritage means that Commonwealth countries have important similarities (as well as instructive differences) in institutions, values and cultures, and to a large extent a shared language. The contemporary Commonwealth contains some of the most significant and creative societies and some of the most dynamic economies, as well as some of the most challenging and important problems, in the world community. Recent years have witnessed far-reaching innovations in many areas of public policy and in institutional forms. Commonwealth countries have been tackling, frequently in imaginative ways, what are often very similar challenges.
The Commission cited many instances - from economic liberalisation, democratisation and constitutional design, and many other fields of public administration and public policy, to environmental protection, greater opportunities for women, issues of national identity, conflict avoidance and resolution, and much else. The report continued:
Because of the common heritage and the similar problems and experiences of Commonwealth countries in so many fields, comparative and co-operative studies of these experiences can yield insights of great practical and academic value. Such studies are in our view a legitimate, distinctive and important frame of reference for intellectual enquiry and policy analysis. By showing how institutions derived from a shared origin can adapt to different circumstances, they can provide policy-makers with options and object lessons which they may find it useful to consider. Whilst we warmly acknowledge the value of comparative studies with countries outside the Commonwealth, we believe that the value of comparative studies in a Commonwealth context has not been fully recognised. Practitioners and scholars will often find that more can be learnt from comparing Commonwealth countries with each other than can be learnt from studying other, more different systems, even when these other countries are geographically closer.
In the field of higher education, for example, with which I am personally most familiar, the extent and the ease of sharing ideas - both for government policy and for institutional practice - between Commonwealth countries is remarkable, and the impact of this sharing is profound.
The Commission on Commonwealth Studies cited the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which has since inspired a Nobel Prize, political reconciliation in Southern Africa, some of which has sadly since soured but some of which remains strong, and social and public service reform in New Zealand as among instances of how Commonwealth studies can be 'a vehicle for enabling policy-makers in Commonwealth countries to extend the range of options they may wish to explore and to gain insights into the possible consequences of particular choices. In such ways such studies can contribute to the better management of social, economic, and political change.'
So, why study the Commonwealth?
There is, of course, much more that could be said, and some of it, I hope, will be said over the three days ahead of us.
I began by quoting Mark Twain. Let me also end with him. Twain and US Senator Chauncey M. Depew once went abroad on the same ship.
When the ship was a few days out they were both invited to a dinner. Speech-making time came. Mark Twain had the first chance. He spoke [for] twenty minutes and made a great hit. Then it was [Senator] Depew's turn.
"Mr. Toastmaster and Ladies and Gentlemen," said [this] famous raconteur as he arose, "Before this dinner Mark Twain and [I] made an agreement to trade speeches. He has just delivered my speech, and I thank you for the pleasant manner in which you received it. I regret to say that I have lost the notes of his speech and cannot remember anything he was to say."
Then he sat down. There was much laughter. Next day an Englishman who had been in the party came across Mark Twain in the smoking-room. ["Sir"], he said, "I consider you were much imposed upon last night. I have always heard that [Senator] Depew is a clever man, but, really, that speech of his you made last night struck me as being the most infernal rot."
Mr Chairman, this speech - though drawing deliberately on the Symons Report on Commonwealth Studies - is mine, and I hope that you will consider it a useful prompt to thinking about studying the Commonwealth, and not as 'the most infernal rot'.
Why study the Commonwealth? - Professor Don Markwell.