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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 21021

Address to the Commonwealth Round Table in Australia Parliament House, Canberra

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 27/11/2003

Release Type: Speech

Transcript ID: 21021

Thank you very much Professor, parliamentary colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. I do very much welcome this opportunity on the eve of the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Abuja to address the Round Table and I thank it for the opportunity that this forum affords.

My term as the first Chairman-in-Office of the Commonwealth will come to an end in Nigeria next week, and the responsibility will transfer to President Obasanjo of Nigeria. The position does not, and nor should it, imply any authority, other than that mandated by meetings of the Commonwealth Heads of Government. There are, however, very important responsibilities, the major one of which is to continue to advocate and propound the relevance and benefits of the Commonwealth and ensure that it remains relevant and credible in the 21st century.

The Commonwealth, with all its inevitable shortcomings, remains in many ways a unique international institution. The diversity of its membership is quite astounding and unlike many other groupings it does not exist to promote the interests of a particular region – members span the globe, they hail from both hemispheres and from all continents. It embraces a multiplicity of religions, ethnicity and culture. The richest and the poorest, some of the largest and indeed many of the smallest countries in the world belong to the Commonwealth.

What does draw and continue to keep us together is the history and the strength of our common democratic institutions. Shared political values lie at the heart of our association. When the Commonwealth Heads of Government met in Coolum in Australia in March of last year, we reaffirmed our commitment to those values – to democracy, to the rule of law, to good governance, to freedom of expression and the protection of human rights. Protecting and advancing these values is central to our Commonwealth heritage and when we unite in pursuit of these values, the Commonwealth family has been able to achieve quite momentous change.

And as we reflect upon those successes, we recognise the enormous debt we owe to the fountainhead of the rule of law as we understand it, and that is the Common Law of England. For the nations of the Commonwealth, that legal framework represents a great bond and we celebrate the values and institutions that we hold in common as a result.

The three great institutions that prevail against all assaults on political freedom are easily identified. A vigorous, robust, party political system typified by open free elections and a parliamentary system that expresses the will and the character of the people. The maintenance of a legal system exemplified by an incorruptible judiciary. And finally, the existence of an open, free and usually highly critical media. Shared understanding of the importance of these fundamental elements of democracy, and the common inheritance of the rule of law, form the basis of the Commonwealth';s ability to communicate and to reach consensus.

The emphasis on reaching consensus through discussion and debate may, as it is, seem slow but it is effective. It is a demonstration of the respect that we have for each other. It ensures that the voice of even the smallest state is heard and their views considered. This is especially important given that of the 54 states that form the Commonwealth 32 are small, only having populations of fewer than 1.5 million people.

The commitment to Commonwealth values also has practical benefits. Democratic values and good governance are essential prerequisites for peace, development and prosperity. Too often we have seen political instability, corruption and maladministration wipe out hard won national and regional advances. In this era of global terrorism, institutions which promote stability and prosperity are more important than ever. We now know that there are those all too ready to take advantage of any break down in law and order. Too often we have seen failed states become the base for terrorists and other transnational criminals.

The Commonwealth has played an important role in supporting and nurturing the institutions that underpin democracy – helping to build the skills and infrastructure necessary for good governance. Australia sees this as one of the principal functions of the modern Commonwealth. Effective state administration is necessary for the provision of public services, effective public expenditure management, efficient judiciaries and a determined effort against corruption – for what we might term the essential building blocks of development.

Australia and the other nations of the Pacific recognised this when, at the request of its government, we provided an assistance mission to the Solomon Islands. Like many other Pacific nations, the Solomon Islands faces many obstacles to its development. It is small and geographically isolated. Given the long-standing strong ties between our nations and our peoples, it is no surprise that the Solomon Islands should turn to Australia for assistance. Australia has provided support and aid to the Solomon Islands over many years. Like so many Pacific nations, Australia and the Solomon Islands are members of the Commonwealth. We therefore share an understanding of the benefits of democracy and the rule of law.

Australia takes its responsibilities for development assistance in our region very seriously. We know that aid plays a significant role in restoring stability. But aid can only ever be a part of the solution. So like other members of the Commonwealth, we are looking to use our aid programme to encourage and strengthen the framework for good governance in the Pacific. Developing nations must strive for the highest standards of governance. The future of their peoples depends upon their willingness and their ability to do so.

The Commonwealth';s political role however, important though it is, is only part of its agenda. We don';t just focus as a group of nations on political institutions. We understand that hunger, homelessness and poverty inhibit democracy. The theme for next week';s CHOGM meeting in Abuja – ‘Democracy and Development'; - reminds us that if we are to be successful in promoting democracy, we must also concentrate on development. It is clear that the greatest antidote to the gaps between developing and developed nations is a freer trading system. The facts are well known. OECD countries spend US$1 billion a day on trade subsidies – six times more than they spend on aid to poor countries.

Trade and investment are of crucial importance in overcoming poverty. The removal of barriers to exports and the elimination of the wealthy nations'; trade-distorting subsidies would do more than anything else to ensure the future of the people who live in developing countries. I hope that the Commonwealth will send a strong message that the Doha round, the so-called ‘development round';, must live up to its name. We must find a way to ensure that trade is fair as well as free.

Australia is working on every available front to support trade liberalisation, especially in relation to agriculture. We understand the importance of market access for developing countries. In 2002, Australia abolished all tariffs and quotas for goods produced in those countries defined by the United Nations as being the least developed. Fifteen of the countries which could benefit from this decision are members of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is working to ensure that developing nations have a voice at international trade negotiations. It provides technical assistance and training to help developing countries participate in the negotiations. It is also working to build members'; capacity to implement more robust domestic trade policy so that they can better adjust to changes in the global trading environment.

Over the last two years, we have also sought to ensure that the Commonwealth';s own institutional structures and procedures are effective and efficient. At Coolum, the leaders of the Commonwealth adopted the report of the High Level Review Group, which provides a blue-print for focusing the Commonwealth on its core objectives, streamlining bureaucratic arrangements and working more effectively with other international organisations and aid donors.

Part of my responsibility as Chairman-in-Office has been to work with the Secretary- General, Don McKinnon, to ensure that the necessary reforms are implemented. Of course, national governments are ultimately responsible for their own democracy and development but the Commonwealth can pool resources and expertise that can be used to promote and support democratic understanding and administrative infrastructure.

Through the Secretary-General';s ‘good offices'; work the Commonwealth has, and will continue, to play an active role in resolving political problems and conflicts - informally, peacefully and efficiently. The Commonwealth also provides invaluable advice and assistance on electoral processes and fearlessly monitors voting to ensure elections are both free and fair.

But most importantly, the Commonwealth has created a mechanism to take action when its principles are flouted. At Coolum we clarified the conditions under which the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group will, in future, address serious or persistent violations of the Harare Principles on democracy.

The Commonwealth has demonstrated that it is not only capable of identifying unacceptable behaviour but also of taking action, providing assistance and, when the problem has been addressed, readmitting the offenders back into the Commonwealth family. It has in the past been willing to make strong and difficult decisions – and those actions have strengthened its standing and thereby its capacity to act. It played a crucial role in dismantling apartheid in South Africa and more recently in the return of civilian government in Nigeria and the restoration of democracy in Fiji. It has been successfully working with Pakistan to see a return to democracy in that country. By maintaining its focus on democracy and human rights, it has made a real difference to the lives of citizens in many Commonwealth countries.

As we face the challenges of today, we should not forget the Commonwealth';s solid, indeed proud record of achievement in these areas. Reflecting on those successes will, I hope, give us the courage of our convictions and ensure that we maintain a consistent approach to those who violate Commonwealth principles.

At the meeting in Abuja the Commonwealth will have to determine a course of action to respond to the continued flagrant disregard of its principles by the Government of Zimbabwe. This will be a significant test of the Commonwealth';s relevance and credibility. Australia has been a firm supporter of democratic freedoms and liberty in Zimbabwe from the time of its struggle towards independence and majority rule. Australia is a long-standing friend of Zimbabwe. We have great affection for its people and we are very concerned about what is currently occurring inside that country.

Conditions in Zimbabwe have continued to worsen both politically and economically. Human rights are routinely violated as President Mugabe';s regime seeks to silence all opposition. Freedom of expression is suppressed by violence. Freedom of the press to report objectively or criticise the Government has been eliminated with restrictive regulations covering media operations.

Inflation is currently running at 455 per cent. The cash economy has virtually halted due to an acute shortage of cash and foreign exchange. Agricultural production has disintegrated – in 1998 Zimbabwe had over five million head of cattle, in 2003 there are only 250,000. There is not enough fuel or spare parts to keep farm equipment operational and there are no funds to buy or import seed and fertiliser. Some five and a half million people now require food aid. The health care system is on its knees – hospitals are closing because they cannot feed patients, doctors and nurses are striking or simply leaving, drug treatments are unaffordable compounding the health problems created by malnutrition, poverty, and HIV/AIDs.

Australia has tried very hard to bring about change in Zimbabwe. As Chairman-in-Office, I have regularly urged the Mugabe regime to return to Commonwealth principles – ironically those principles are known as the Harare Declaration, as they were drawn up in Zimbabwe';s capital in 1991. But President Mugabe';s regime continues to encourage systematic harassment and torture of the opposition, electoral malpractice and corrupted legal processes. It continues to resist the transparent, equitable and sustainable land reform programme its citizens so desperately need.

The regime of President Mugabe is only in power because, through a campaign of violence and rorting, it stole the presidential elections in March 2002. The Commonwealth Observer Group, led by General Abdulsalami Abubakar of Nigeria, monitored those elections. It concluded that they were marred by a high level of politically motivated violence and that, I quote: “the conditions in Zimbabwe did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors.”

As chairman in office, I joined with the previous and future chairmen, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and President Obasanjo of Nigeria, to form a committee – a troika – that was tasked by the Coolum CHOGM to respond to that report to which I have just referred. Guided by the Commonwealth';s Harare and Millbrook principles, the troika determined the appropriate course of action was to suspend Zimbabwe from the Councils of the Commonwealth from March of 2002. The continuation of this suspension was confirmed by the Secretary-General in March of this year, and will hold until the issue is considered by CHOGM in December in Nigeria.

In deciding on suspension the troika also expressed our determination to promote reconciliation in Zimbabwe between the main political parties. We were very conscious of the parlous state of the Zimbabwean economy and considered reconciliation to be essential to address the issues of food shortages, economic recovery, the restoration of political stability, the rule of law and the conduct of future elections. But President Mugabe has steadfastly refused to respond to the calls of Commonwealth leaders to rectify the problems or even to engage in any way with the Commonwealth';s Secretary General.

I think it is useful and indeed salutary to contrast this behaviour with that of Fiji or Pakistan. In response to its suspension, Fiji cooperated fully with the Commonwealth . It took the opportunity and the assistance offered. Fiji now has a proper constitutional process and is once more a full Commonwealth member. Pakistan is still suspended from the Commonwealth, but it has made significant progress, culminating in what Commonwealth electoral observers last year described as a ‘credible election';. And once the outstanding constitutional issues are resolved we expect that Pakistan';s suspension from the Councils of the Commonwealth will, and indeed should, be lifted.

Zimbabwe';s record and response and attitude sadly is in direct contrast. President Mugabe refuses even to acknowledge the legitimacy of Commonwealth concerns. The Government of Zimbabwe remains in serious and persistent breach of the Commonwealth';s basic democratic principles.

In advance of CHOGM let me reiterate Australia';s position - Zimbabwe must demonstrate a fundamental change in attitude and approach before it regains its place in the Commonwealth. Re-admitting Zimbabwe without concrete progress towards meeting the Commonwealth';s benchmarks will not only undermine the organisation';s credibility, it is also plainly unfair to those countries that have taken the necessary steps to live up to Commonwealth values. Even worse it will set a dangerous precedent for other errant states, inhibiting the potential of the Commonwealth to be an effective influence for democracy and the rule of law.

Australia, under successive governments of both political persuasions, has taken pride in being part of the global community of Commonwealth nations, and in their own ways, different prime ministers of this country have contributed to the activities, the affairs and the deliberations of the Commonwealth. It is a forum for building bridges between the poorest and the most disadvantaged nations and developed countries and for encouraging democracy and good economic governance. Its very name – the Commonwealth - reflects our shared commitment to a future where all our members are able alike to enjoy prosperity and contribute positively and constructively to world affairs.

The principles of the Commonwealth, enshrined in the Harare declarations of ten years ago, are universal principles which apply across every continent of the world, without qualification, and Australia wants to see the Commonwealth stand by those principles without qualification or equivocation.

Professor, I thank you most warmly for the opportunity that you have given me this morning and I wish the deliberations of the Round Table every success. Thank you.



Prime Minister, Jane Drake-Brockman, one of the founding members of the Commonwealth Round Table. You focused on the critical contribution that trade and investment liberalisation makes to poverty reduction and the efforts the Commonwealth has been making in trade policy capacity building, and I guess some of that';s paying some dividends. We see the African countries increasingly engaged in WTO affairs, even the smaller, land-locked, least developed ones. How do you see Commonwealth heads of government working together now to try and kickstart the stalled negotiations, and can we expect that the Commonwealth';s new focus on trade policy capacity building will continue?


One has to always be realistic about what can be achieved, certainly in a short period of time in this area, but the Commonwealth is one of those gatherings of heads of government where there should be a remarkable commonality of interest and the purpose in seeing the removal of the trade distorting subsidies and a restoration of some momentum for a more successful Doha round. Although our interests and those of some of other Commonwealth members on some economic and trade issues differ, they certainly don';t differ when it comes to trade access for agricultural exporters. Clearly, Britain';s membership of the European Union represents an association by that country with a group of nations whose trade policies perhaps go in the other direction, but I';m also aware of the views of the British Government towards greater liberalisation in that area. I would hope that the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting provides a real opportunity for a spectrum of nations, many poorly developed, some developing, some very well developed, to express a common view about the desirability of further progress. But I think there are some encouraging signs, although the Cancun gathering was very disappointing and we do need to assemble all of the pressure that we can and the Commonwealth meeting does provide such an opportunity. I hope we can get a strong statement out of the Commonwealth meeting about the need for addressing that issue that I alluded to in my speech, that the developed… the OECD countries spend six times more per day on their trade distorting subsidies than they do on overseas aid.


Transcript 21021