The future of the Commonwealth: Sir Anand Satyanand reviews the relevance of the unique, respected world-wide organisation to New Zealand.

AuthorSatyanand, Anand

A grouping of 52 states, the Commonwealth has deep roots in the British Empire. As a form of association, it grew out of meetings of heads of government as the constitutional framework evolved during the 20th century. Pivotal decisions in 1965 provided the basis of today's institution. The Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation, established then, have played key roles in the last half-century. Much of value has been achieved, but there is a need, in present conditions of the world, to review the relevance of the Commonwealth with a view to both taking advantage of opportunities and resetting compasses.


Why should now be especially important in reviewing the future of the Commonwealth and its relevance to New Zealand? In her role as administrator of the UN Development Programme, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark delivered a notable Commonwealth lecture in London in 2015. She said that the present time offered great opportunities to reset compasses. She was speaking of work being done in the United Nations on recalibrating the Millennium Development Goals and on climate change. Each of those matters led to major conferences and decisions. A similar debate had occurred within the remit of the Commonwealth; the then present year for that institution, she said, was also one of great change, including the installation at its end of a new secretary-general, Baroness Patricia Scotland.

In modern-day terms, the Commonwealth can be defined as 'a voluntary association of 52 countries that support each other and work together towards shared goals in democracy and development'. Previously there had been no Commonwealth but rather an empire led from London. So far as New Zealand is concerned, there was from 1769 onwards a relationship forged with the British crown, notably in 1840, when New Zealand became a colony. At the beginning of the 20th century that relationship matured into New Zealand becoming a Dominion. Later, at an Imperial Conference in 1926, the United Kingdom and its Dominions agreed they were to be from then on 'equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated'. Following the British Parliament's Statute of Westminster in 1931, the die was cast for each of the former colonies to function independently. Nothing legislated in the United Kingdom would be part of the law in New Zealand unless expressly asked for and consented to. In colonial times, New Zealand was described as part of the British Empire and some of us remember atlases from school time when a significant part of the world on a map was coloured red.

Many may think that the term Commonwealth is a modern term, particularly in relation to the post-Second World War period. That may be so in formal terms, but in as early as 1884 a British statesman, Foreign Secretary Lord Rosebery, spoke of the Empire being a 'Commonwealth of Nations'. The former empire had many connotations of a family, but it had a definite head, and the colonial governments did not gain their independence and right of individual action until well into the 20th century. One of the Second World War's many effects was to foreshadow the end of the former arrangements and those with countries like India, Ceylon, Malaya and South Africa.

The London Declaration of 1949 is said to be an important waypoint because it marked the beginning of a time when it was agreed that Commonwealth members...

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