Commonwealth Day
Written by Professor David Flint AM   
Monday, 02 March 2009

Commonwealth Day is celebrated throughout the Commonwealth on the second Monday in March. In Australia this normally is left to volunteer Commonwealth Day Councils.  In Sydney, there will be a luncheon at Parliament House in the presence of Her Excellency the Governor, Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO and members of the diplomatic and consular corps.

School children will parade the flags of all the 53 members of the Commonwealth, and a school band will play. The luncheon will be addressed by the chairman of the Australian Youth Trust, Sir Ian Turbott AO CMG CVO, who is prominent in business and academic circles, and who has been at different times the Governor of Antigua and the Governor of Grenada.

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Before the lunch, there will be a debate at 11:00am in the Legislative Assembly chamber between two student debating teams, one from the Combined High Schools and one from the Combined Associated Schools.

The  Commonwealth will this year celebrate the 60th anniversary of the London Declaration, when the British Commonwealth came to be known as the Commonwealth of Nations. The subject chosen for the debate is both timely and provocative: “That the Commonwealth at 60 needs a facelift.” 

The adjudicators will be the Hon. Max Willis, former President of the Legislative Council, Mr. Mike Munro, media personality, and Mr. Paresh Khandhar of the NSW Bar.

This is of course an issue which every association has to face. But the Commonwealth has been very successful in its many endeavours. It has a very small staff, and imposes high minimum standards on its members.

So in the august surroundings of the nation’s oldest Parliament House, it will be fascinating to hear how school children debate this.

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...and in London...


Meanwhile in London The Queen will attend an inter-denominational service in Westminster Abbey, followed by a reception hosted by the Commonwealth Secretary-General. Her Majesty will deliver her annual Commonwealth Day message.

 

In this, The Queen speaks as Head of the Commonwealth to the peoples of the Commonwealth as a whole. As with The Queen’s Christmas Day message, this is from The Queen, and is not drafted on the  advice of the ministers, British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand or of any of the Realms.  A video of her 2008 speech follows.






....the London Declaration, 1949...




As the British Empire uniquely evolved in to a community of self governing dominions closely linked to the United Kingdom, the term Commonwealth of Nations began to be used. The first recorded instance seems to be by the future British Prime Minister Lord Rosebery in 1884 while visiting Adelaide.

The central feature of British governance, at least since 1688, is that change is evolutionary, and made in the context of ensuring stable limited government with effective checks and balances against the abuse of power.

That has been Britain’s great gift not only to the English speaking countries but also to the world.

 

In the Balfour Declaration at the Imperial Conference in 1926, formal recognition was given to something which had already occurred.

This was that Britain and the dominions – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Eire or Southern Ireland - were 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 as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

This relationship was eventually given legal effect by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. At their request and because of their mistrust of any Federal government this was not intended to apply to the Australian States. It was not adopted at the Federal level until 1942. The position of the States was finally regularised in 1986 by the Australia Acts which involve a special arrangement unknown elsewhere in the Commonwealth. This allows the State Premiers direct access to The Queen.


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[ Commonwealth Conference, London, 1949 ]
 


 

In the meantime, in 1949 the eight members of the British Commonwealth - Australia, Britain, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, and South Africa met in London to discuss a request by India to remain in the Commonwealth as a republic.

Their final communiqué, the Declaration of London, stated that King George VI, as Head of the Commonwealth, would be recognised as the symbol of the Commonwealth association.  This was the beginning of the convention that should a Dominion, now referred to as a Realm, become a republic, its continued membership of the Commonwealth would need to be approved by a consensus among the members.

In the 1999 republic referendum campaign in Australia, it became obvious that the republicans were unaware of this rule and had taken no soundings on this. The Attorney-General had implied that continued membership was automatic.  At that time, the then Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir had shown himself to be hostile to Australian diplomatic ambitions. ACM never said that were Australia to become a republic we could not stay in the Commonwealth. We merely pointed out this convention and asked how the republicans proposed to deal with it.  

On this as on other matters, it became obvious that the Australian republicans had not undertaken a sufficiently thorough study concerning their proposal.  

In any event the Commonwealth is now a unique association of 53 independent states consulting and co-operating in the common interests of their peoples and in the promotion of international understanding. It comprises countries from all continents, rich and poor, small and large. There is a queue of countries seeking membership.

Of the nearly two billion people living in the Commonwealth, half are under 25. As the Commonwealth argues, the future belongs with these young people, and this is why the Commonwealth theme for 2009 is ‘[email protected] - serving a new generation’.