Consul General Nick McInnes gave a Commonwealth Day speech.
I am very honoured to have been asked to give the Commonwealth Day speech so soon after my arrival in Sydney. I am even more honoured to be giving this speech in the presence of Her Excellency, Marie Bashir, the Governor of New South Wales. I have been so struck – in the short time I have been the British Consul General in Sydney – by the affection and high regard in which Her Excellency is rightly held by everybody I have met. I had the privilege of calling on the Governor with my predecessor – shortly before taking up my Post – and was deeply touched by the warmth of her welcome and impressed by how knowledgeable she was on subjects ranging from opera in Prague to Kazakhstan and Mongolia and, of course, one of her heroes, Lachlan Macquarie, the fifth Governor of New South Wales.
I have to say that – for someone who is as fanatical about sport as myself – now is a good time to be the British Consul General in Sydney for at least two reasons : the first is that we have a number of epic sports encounters on the horizon with the British and Irish Lions tour, back-to-back Ashes series and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow next year. The second reason is that I suspect that many of my predecessors as Consul General will have had to endure much banter from our - otherwise hospitable – Australian hosts about the latest drubbing of the Poms. So it is rather nice – without obviously wanting to rub it in – to be able to look back with pride at the UK’s performance at last year’s Olympics and remember the fact that England are currently the holders of that little thing called the Ashes.
I do think – moving swiftly on – that there is still the sense amongst many people that the Commonwealth is a club of countries that play cricket and which puts on a good sports event – the Commonwealth Games – every four years but which is otherwise out of` tune with today’s world. And – whilst sport is clearly important – witness the current cricket tests between India and Australia and New Zealand and England – the Commonwealth is an organisation that is important to the national interests of all its member states.
I googled a speech given by Professor Don Markwell, Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Western Australia, a few years ago on ‘Why study the Commonwealth ?’ He started off by saying and I quote “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 !”. End quotes. Professor Markwell’s thesis was that rumours of the death of the Commonwealth had always been greatly exaggerated and that it was very much alive at the time of his speech. Certainly the Commonwealth has done much to modernise itself in recent years and make itself in tune with today’s world.
And I am, of course, giving this speech at a momentous time in the Commonwealth’s history with the launch this week of the Commonwealth Charter which has been adopted by all member countries and which sets out - for the first time in a single document - the Commonwealth’s core values and commits its leaders to upholding democracy and human rights, promoting tolerance and respect, protecting the environment, providing citizens with access to health, education and food and recognising the positive role of young people in promoting these and other values. It is now critical that we work collectively to raise the Charter’s profile and ensure that its values – which are clearly not at present being lived up to by every member state in every respect – are upheld across the Commonwealth.
I worked out – when preparing this speech - that I had lived in or visited about half of the Commonwealth’s 54 member states. I have spent a lot of time in South Africa – both working in Government and in the private sector – and have travelled extensively around the rest of Africa. I was responsible at one time for our trade relations with South Asia (visiting India 12 times in one nine month period). I have also spent a fair amount of time in Canada and the Caribbean. And I am, of course, now responsible in my current role, for our business relations with Australia and New Zealand. I can therefore vouch for the comment that has been made many times that the Commonwealth is an incredibly diverse group of countries. It ranges from some of the largest countries in the world like India, to some of the smallest island states, and from some of the richest like Britain and Australia to some of the poorest in sub-Saharan Africa. I have seen at first hand the sophistication of business in developed countries such as the UK, Canada and Australia and the fairly basic rural industries in countries like Bangladesh and many parts of Africa. It is this diversity – between different countries - which is one of the Commonwealth’s greatest strengths and which gives it a unique ability to contribute to solutions to many of the challenges of today’s world.
UK Government’s commitment to the Commonwealth
The current British Government has made very clear its commitment to strengthening the UK’s links with the Commonwealth. As William Hague, our Foreign Secretary, has said, “From our very first day in office I pledged to put the ‘C’ back into the FCO”. For it is a striking fact that even though the Commonwealth has its historical roots in the 19th century, and is 62 years old this year (when he made the comment), it is perhaps one of the international organisations or platforms that is most suited to the world of the 21st century”. The Government has backed up these words with a number of very practical steps to strengthen our engagement with the Commonwealth. This includes strengthening our diplomatic network in Commonwealth countries. We have opened a new Deputy High Commission in Hyderabad in India and will shortly be opening another one in Chandigarh. We are strengthening our commercial teams in countries like Canada, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, Guyana and here in Australia. We have trebled the number of staff working on the Commonwealth in London. We have re-focused British aid so that more than half the recipients are now Commonwealth countries, and we are dedicating more of our Chevening Scholarship programme to Commonwealth students.
Prosperity in the Commonwealth
The Commonwealth’s focus on the importance of democracy and the respect for core values creates the conditions in which businesses can prosper, by giving them confidence to invest and trade. This in turn creates more jobs and drives greater prosperity.
The Commonwealth Week Theme this year – ‘Opportunity through Enterprise’ – is particularly relevant at this time of global economic change given its focus on encouraging innovation. As Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, has said the theme “encourages us all to celebrate the ways in which talent and innovation can be supported and put to the best use possible”. The combination of an enterprise culture with a can-do attitude can create opportunities – particularly for key groups such as women, young people and people with disabilities – that can literally change lives.
The Commonwealth is a natural place for doing business. Over $3 trillion worth of trade happens every year within the Commonwealth.
Its combined GDP has more than doubled in the last twenty years. It contains some of the fastest growing economies that will shape the global economy of the future including India, South Africa, Malaysia, Nigeria and Singapore.
The Commonwealth network has influence in nearly every international country grouping, making it a key vehicle for promoting regional trade integration. India, South Africa, Canada, Australia and the UK make up a quarter of the G20 – the world’s premier global economic forum. Australia will chair the G20 next year. The middle class in the Commonwealth has expanded by nearly one billion people in the last two decades, and it contains more than 30% of the global population as a whole, representing a huge and growing consumer market. The relative importance of intra-Commonwealth trade has also increased significantly over time. Some studies have estimated that the ‘Commonwealth effect’ provides member states with a trade advantage of between 20 to 50 percent when trading with other Commonwealth countries. More than half of all Commonwealth countries now export over a quarter of their total exports to other Commonwealth states.
The Commonwealth also provides ready-made links to other networks which can benefit all its members. For example, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia link us to ASEAN and make up a quarter of its entire GDP, Canada is the third largest economy in the Commonwealth and an important gateway to the USA for many countries, Australia and New Zealand provide bases for Asia and Britain is a springboard into Europe. There is huge scope for our partnerships within the Commonwealth to help us all to compete in these markets.
So the Commonwealth’s connections, economic growth and commitment to free trade have the potential to contribute significantly to the prosperity of its members. But in order to maximise the potential for trade within the Commonwealth we need to encourage the right conditions for business by removing barriers to trade such as corruption, unnecessary red tape and incomprehensible procurement procedures.
Let me say a few more words about one of these barriers: corruption. Corruption is a global problem. It is estimated to cost the global economy $2.6 trillion each year, or 5 percent of global GDP. To maximise global economic potential, we have to address corruption. The Commonwealth is well-placed to do this through schemes to improve the transparency and accountability of public administration in Commonwealth countries. By addressing corruption, we can help create the conditions in which trade can flourish and therefore underpin the prosperity of the Commonwealth as a whole.
But trade is not the only way to increase prosperity within the Commonwealth. The needs of some Commonwealth partners are great. One third of the Commonwealth’s two billion people still live on less than one dollar a day. 70 million Commonwealth children have never seen the inside of a classroom. For many member countries, Commonwealth Development support is vital. A substantial part of the UK’s aid programme is dedicated to Commonwealth countries. Australia has shown great leadership in significantly expanding its aid to Commonwealth members. And India, formerly a large aid recipient itself, is now providing around £7 m to the 19 African members of the Commonwealth through its Special Commonwealth Assistance in Africa programme. We obviously welcome and support such actions.
Commonwealth Youth Programme
There is a particular focus on youth under this year’s theme ‘Opportunity through Enterprise’ – to emphasise to young people the importance of the values and institutions that underpin the Commonwealth. I dipped into the student debate this morning organised by the Commonwealth Day Council on the subject of whether ‘economic development should be prioritised over the demands of special interest groups’. All I can say is what an impressive bunch of students they were which augurs well for New South Wales’ and Australia’s futures.
I think there are few things more important than educational scholarships. Every year some 230 students from Commonwealth countries win scholarships to study in other Commonwealth countries. When they return they take back with them, not just the educational experience and qualifications, but a life-long network of contacts. I have already mentioned the FCO’s Chevening Scholarships which will be dedicated in Australia entirely to indigenous scholars over the next three years.
I would also like to pay tribute in this context to the work of the Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP) which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary. There is a real job to do to make the Commonwealth more visible to its people and, particularly to young people. Since its foundation in 1973, the CYP has worked hard to raise awareness of the Commonwealth amongst young people by focusing on youth empowerment through a series of initiatives such as the Commonwealth Diploma in Youth Development Work – which is now delivered by over 30 higher learning institutions – and the Commonwealth Youth Credit Initiative which offers loans, training, education and business development support to young entrepreneurs across the Commonwealth. Initiatives that are very much in line with this year’s Commonwealth theme of ‘Opportunity through Enterprise’.
This year offers many opportunities to drive forward the work of the Commonwealth. There are a range of activities taking place this week. HM The Queen will be delivering her Commonwealth Day Message – which we have heard read out by Her Excellency – at the Observance service in Westminster Abbey and will be presented with a copy of the Charter. Rickin Patel, co-founder and Executive Director of Avaaz, the global campaigning movement, will be giving the annual Commonwealth lecture tomorrow at the Guildhall. And later this week the Royal Commonwealth Society will be launching the Commonwealth Environmental Investment Platform (CEIP) which is designed to facilitate trade and investment in sustainable technologies, to improve international awareness of developments in green technology and sustainability issues, and to support low carbon economic growth across the Commonwealth. CEIP hubs have already been set up in Canada and South Africa.
Looking ahead: the Commonwealth Youth Ministers meeting in Papua New Guinea in April will give young people an opportunity to express their views on current issues and discuss the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals agenda.Sri Lanka will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November. No decisions have yet been made about UK attendance at the event. But ahead of that meeting we will, of course, be looking to Sri Lanka – as we would any host – to demonstrate its commitment to upholding Commonwealth values of good governance and respect for human rights.
And – of course as a sports fanatic – I need to end by mentioning the Commonwealth Games which the UK is looking forward to hosting in Glasgow next year and which will then be held here on the Gold Coast in 2018. I regret that I didn’t make it back to London for last year’s Olympic Games but hopefully will get back to see some of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. The Games will help us – in a very real way – put this year’s Commonwealth theme – ‘Opportunity through Enterprise’ – into practice. The games are as important for promoting the Commonwealth brand as they are for building prosperity, celebrating sport and deepening links between Commonwealth nations.
I hope that I have been able to demonstrate today that the Commonwealth now is as important as it has ever been and that the UK Government is fully committed to playing a positive and proactive role in the Commonwealth. Much has been achieved in recent years to modernise the Commonwealth and make it even more relevant to the 21st Century. This has culminated in the adoption of the Commonwealth Charter which is being launched this week. We hope that all member states will aspire to meet the ideals set out in the Charter in each and every respect. We are also keen that the Commonwealth should harness its trade and prosperity opportunities which make this year’s theme, ‘Opportunity through Enterprise’, so appropriate. The Commonwealth has an opportunity to go from strength-to-strength and be a real force for prosperity, stability and security in today’s changing world. Thank you.