57th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference – looking to the future

A Royal opening, a Prime Ministerial visit, a rousing speech from the Foreign Minister – and a new chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association International Executive Committee.

The 57th annual conference of the CPA – in its centennial year – ended on an optimistic note with Prime Minister, Rt Hon. David Cameron MP, and Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, Rt Hon. William Hague MP, not only paying tribute to the past but shining a spotlight on a vigorous, active future for the Commonwealth network of nations as the organisation moves to re-position itself on the global stage.

The Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary addressed the 600 assembled parliamentarians after a lively two-stage election to elect a new chair for the CPA Executive Committee.

Rt Hon. Sir Alan Haselhurst MP, who won the contest by 118 votes to 97, said he was honored and humbled by his colleague’s vote of faith and pledged an era of greater unity, communications and good governance under his leadership.

He said that at the time of its 100th anniversary, despite many reasons to celebrate, it was important to acknowledge also that “things are not entirely happy” and more must be done to raise the CPA’s international profile.

He said he would devote himself to working to increase the participation of women and providing swift responses at times when human rights issues or abuses are identified.

“I pledge I will listen, I will consult, I will be accessible and strive at all times for a consensual experience. . .it is frequently said we are a family. This is a family I want to strengthen and see expand,” he said.

“The bonds that we cherish keep us united always in friendship. I take great pride in the parliamentary democratic standards we have set and we stand for. Let us see if we strengthen ourselves even more and work to inspire the world.”

During the election, Hon. Ms Fiamé Mata’afa, Minster for Justice and a veteran politician from Samoa delivered a strong speech seeking a greater role and voice for the smaller nations and island states within the Commonwealth.

Ms Mata’afa received an ovation from fellow members as she argued for equal representation and leadership opportunities for tiny or remote member states which are not as close to Europe.

She said that the Samoan people, named the Navigator Islands by European explorers, had been traversing the Pacific for hundreds of years: “The Pacific Ocean is our world; though many see us as a big expanse of water dotted with islands, we do not see the sea as a barrier but our road to the world…voyaging is a serious business, it must involve the whole community – there is no room for superficiality, but honest commitment and courage and resolve.”

Ms Mata’afa, who has been an MP for 26 years and a Cabinet Minister for much of that period, said good oversight and leadership of the CPA Secretariat would not be dependent on proximity with London but would come from ensuring appropriate governance structures, not proximity.“When governance is right, good management will follow” she said.

Ms Mata’afa’s speech also highlighted the difficulties and unique problems faced by smaller nations who are working to create a new system of parliamentary democracy, legislation and regulation but are working within societal cultures for which such forms of government are alien.

The complexities are shared by many others who are in remote parts of the world, whether it be in the Pacific or the Atlantic, as well as young nations in Africa states for example who are emerging from decades of internal conflict and are moving toward stability and democracy.

The extraordinary expanse of the Commonwealth’s reach could be seen in the stories of the delegates: some had traveled just a few hours to reach London, others from the South Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand had spent more than 24 hours on an aircraft flying to travel half across the globe while others had an even more difficult journey.

Hon. Derek Thomas MLC, a delegate from the island of St Helena, took a week to get from one of the most remote places on earth to attend the conference.

Mr Thomas left St Helena, 1200 miles from the west coast of Africa, on July 15 aboard a cargo and passenger vessel which is the only regular supply lifeline to an island with no airport. It took two days for Mr Thomas to reach Ascension Island and another five days to reach Cape Town in South Africa, the third point in the triangle. The flight to the UK was another fourteen hours.

It was the 18th such trip for the island’s former police chief but may soon be a thing of the past. Negotiations are almost finalized with the British Government to build the island’s first airstrip, with plans to target tourism and boost the local economy. The main attraction? Napolean Bonaparte died in exile here in 1821.

The conference heard that Rwanda and Uganda for example – despite the war and bloodshed suffered for decades – have established parliaments in which women now take a leading role both in numbers and seniority.

The smallest CPA member, Norfolk Island, lies in the Pacific ocean between Australia, New Caledonia and New Zealand and while its people regard themselves as Australian, they also enjoy a large degree of self governance.

The nine member parliament is elected by just 1,800 constituents and has just elected its first woman speaker, Hon. Robin Adams MP.
Like many islands, Norfolk’s economy relies on tourism but the economic recession has had a serious impact on visitor numbers, forcing new arrangements about the management of the ferociously independent island’s financial affairs with mainland Australia and the Commonwealth Federal Government.

Ms Adams said that for many smaller nations and island states, what happened behind the scenes, through informal networking, was “almost as important” as CPA seminars and speeches.

“The CPA is just the most wonderful place for a small place like us. It’s wonderful to see so many faces that you start to get to know...it is a fraternity and it is my fervent wish that we continue on into the future.”

The Speaker of the Maldives Parliament, Hon. Abdulla Shahid, whose unicameral parliament represents people living on 350,000 tiny atolls and islands, studied in Australia as a Commonwealth student.

He was one of eight appointed members of the Parliament in 1995 before the nation moved to contested elections. He won his seat as an elected an MP in 2000 and has since been re-elected in a fully elected Parliament.

He described the unique difficulties and battles experienced by a small nation which is still working to create the infrastructure of a fully functioning democracy – from courts to legislative codes and taxation laws – while facing enormous threats to a tourist driven economy in the face of increasing tides and global warming.

His parliament also does not have a ruling, political majority and its parliamentary system is more similar to the American than the Westminster model.

Mr Shahid said the long cultural traditions of the Sultanate, being more authoritative, had made it very difficult for the people of the Maldives to understand and embrace debate, consensus decision-making and compromise.

“What we are going through, even though we have had the parliament for many years is the creation of the institution . . .we don’t have traditions, we don’t have a memory… everything has to be invented within the Maldives but while it exists elsewhere it is foreign culturally,” he said.

“To be part of a family of nations like the Commonwealth or the IPU allows us to benefit from the experience of others. We are very young and sometimes it is scary watching this process. We have been entrusted with this huge responsibility in making sure democracy is consolidated in the country. If we fail, we not only fail ourselves we fail an entire generation and a country.”

The young nations’ importance to the fabric of the Commonwealth was highlighted by Mr Cameron and Mr Hague, who said that it occupied a special place in the British nation’s history and its future foreign policy, as important as the UK’s role within the EU, its membership of NATO and the special relationship with the United States.

The British leaders said that the Commonwealth – and the parliamentarians who, together, represent and carry its values and goals – would be key players in the push to understand and respond to the world’s new geo-political landscape and the rise of the emerging economic titans of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

While celebrating its 62nd birthday this year, they said, it is probably one of the international organisations or platforms that is most suited to the world of the 21st century.

“In a world that is dominated by networks and not by the power blocs of old, the Commonwealth is the ultimate network. It has extraordinary reach – across 54 countries, six continents and oceans and two billion citizens…” Mr Hague said.

“Crucially, more want to join…South Sudan has declared independence and one of its first actions as a new nation is its aspiration and application to become part of the Commonwealth. At a time when some organisations feel the strain of their years, we are a group bursting with potential for the future…”