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Monday, 7 February 2022
NSW Parliament House
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC

Thank you, Mr President and Mr Speaker.

Bujari gamarruwa

Diyn Babana Gamarada Gadigal Ngura.

Thank you for the opportunity to mark this important occasion, the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty, Queen of Australia, in this, the home of the first Parliament of the former colonies of Australia.    

This location is particularly auspicious for today’s commemoration as it was from the verandah of State Parliament House that Governor Sir John Northcott, at 5 pm, Friday, 8 February 1952 read the Proclamation of the Accession to the Throne of Queen Elizabeth II, two days after the unexpected death of her father King George VI.  

The Proclamation formally announced that: 

“The High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary is become QUEEN ELIZABETH THE SECOND, by the Grace of God, Queen of this Realm, and of all her Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.”

The Proclamation was followed by a 25-gun salute from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair.

NSW Parliament House was draped in black to mark the death of the King and in purple to mark both the accession of the new sovereign.  Last night, Parliament House, along with the Opera House glowed royal purple to celebrate the Jubilee.

Today seemed an appropriate occasion to remember Her Majesty’s special connection with this Parliament and very, very briefly consider the history and contemporary relevance of the Commonwealth of which Her Majesty became Head upon her accession. 

There have been two separate occasions on which Her Majesty has presided for the Opening of the New South Parliament, the first in 1954 and again in 1992. 

In her speech to the Opening of Parliament, during her 1954 Royal visit, Her Majesty, with a keen appreciation of the history of the moment noted that: “This is the first occasion on which the Sovereign has been able to open a Session of an Australian Parliament. It is most fitting that this should take place in the Mother Parliament of Australia, … Nowhere else has Parliamentary democracy demonstrated more effectively its soundness and its adaptability to changing times and needs than in this young and rapidly advancing country.”

The second occasion was on 20 February 1992, during the 40th year of her reign when her Majesty opened the 50th Parliament since ‘responsible government’ was achieved in NSW in 1856.   Her Majesty observed on that occasion: “The best guardian of freedom is democracy, and this Parliament, like all other Parliaments in Australia, stands in [that] proud tradition.”

At the time of her accession, the Commonwealth comprised eight nations.  It now comprises 54 Member States, approximately 25% of the world’s nation states; 2.5-2.6 billion people, about 30% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s land mass. The UK, India, Canada, Australia and Nigeria have the largest GDPs, although it is expected that India will overtake the UK in the near future.  

Those figures give us an overview of the Commonwealth, but it doesn’t tell us what the Commonwealth is.  One thing it is not, is the old British Empire, although there is a close historical connection.  Neither is it a trade block or a military alliance.

The Commonwealth of Nations, as we know it today, was formed in 1949, shortly after India gained Independence with the making of the London Declaration by the eight states who were the initial members.  The Declaration provided that the British crown was to be regarded as ‘the symbol of the Commonwealth association’, thus facilitating the membership of the newly created Republic of India and permitting the future membership of other republics.

Unlike the position with the United Nations, Commonwealth members have no contractual obligations with the organisation or inter se.  Rather, as described in the 2012 Commonwealth Charter, the Commonwealth is a ‘voluntary association of independent and sovereign states.’ 

The Charter affirms in a statement, which in some respects is contestable, that the ‘special strength of the Commonwealth lies in the combination of our diversity and our shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law’, bound together by shared history and tradition’.   

Having said that, the underlying principle is undoubtedly found in the preamble where the Charter expresses ‘the commitment of member states to the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and posterity to improve the lives of all the people of the Commonwealth.’    

As the Commonwealth is comprised today, the Queen is Head of State of 15 countries, including Australia, there are 34 republics and five countries have their own monarch: Lesotho, Swaziland, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Tonga. Member countries span across every Continent, except South America and Antarctica, and have a littoral relationship with every ocean and every major sea.

Mozambique and Rwanda, neither of which were British colonies, have become members.  Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, became a member in 1995, after Nelson Mandela nominated it as an ‘exceptional case’ and advocated for its inclusion, notwithstanding the absence of any historical constitutional connection with the Commonwealth.  Its membership was the impetus for a changing focus on membership criteria away from historical and constitutional ties, to include sovereign states that adhered to the basic principles of democracy and the rule of law.

Rwanda joined in 2009.  Rwanda had become a member of the East African Community in 2007 but was one of only two countries in that Community which was not a Commonwealth country.  It saw its membership as a means of forging stronger political and economic ties with Commonwealth countries, which it considered would require ‘a stronger and more formal type of co-operation’.[2]  Its membership, although not a foregone conclusion given concern around its human rights record, was ultimately successful.  It has been a fully functional democratic member now for over a decade. 

This brings me to the question of whether the Commonwealth does have continuing relevance or is it, as is sometimes contended, no more than an old Colonial Club of good lunches (and I am not complaining).

There are many possible responses to the question, but I wish to refer to two which I suggest are of real and practical importance. 

First, the Commonwealth has taken action when a member state or an applicant for membership has breached the basic principles of democracy and racial equality and freedom for which the Commonwealth stands. 

In 1961, following strenuous opposition from black African member states including Tanganyika, newly independent apartheid South Africa withdrew its application to join the Commonwealth. As it moved towards the dismantling of apartheid and its first free elections, it was invited and did join in October 1993.

Fiji was suspended in 1987 after the race-based military coup.  It rejoined in 1997.  Pakistan was suspended in 1999 after the installation of a military government but rejoined 4 ½ years later. 

The fact that these countries sought re-entry to the Commonwealth demonstrates that recognition as a democratic country with functioning institutions is important to a country and that membership of the Commonwealth provides an avenue to that recognition.  I would suggest that that is a valuable purpose of the Commonwealth, particularly in an era of fracturing democracy and institutional fragility. 

The second matter related to Australia’s geographic position in the Pacific.  Of the 14 countries in the Pacific, 11 are Commonwealth countries.  Nine of those countries are ‘small countries’ as defined by the World Bank.  Small countries are particularly vulnerable to economic, social and ecological disadvantage in respect of which the Commonwealth secretariat provides valuable support by way of research and facilitation in accessing development finance. 

From Australia’s immediate perspective, membership of the Commonwealth provides a common bond with these near neighbours, sharing the underlying principles of democracy and the rule of law.  These principles cannot be taken for granted and, for that reason, also underscore the contemporary relevance of the Commonwealth.  They are the principles enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter and a prerequisite for ongoing membership.

Let me finish on this occasion of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee by honouring her Majesty’s extraordinary service to the Commonwealth.

[1]The Hon. Matthew Mason-Cox MLC: President of the Legislative Council and Joint President, CPA NSW Branch

The Hon. Jonathan O’Dea MP: Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and Joint President, CPA NSW - as Hosts      

[2]; W. David McIntyre, ‘The Expansion of the Commonwealth and the Criteria for Membership’ (2008) 97(295) The Round Table 273, 274.

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