Date: 5 Aug 2008
Speaker: Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma
Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
I am delighted to take part in the 54th annual conference of one of the oldest, largest and most respected of Commonwealth bodies – the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. 97 not out; some 40 years older than the inter-governmental Commonwealth itself; and with 16,000 members. I applaud you all, both Parliamentarians and London-based CPA staff under Secretary-General William Shija.
I also warmly thank the Honourable Speaker of the House of Representatives of Malaysia, the CPA’s President and all our hosts from the Malaysian Parliament. Malaysia has always had a close relationship with the Commonwealth. This country hosted a CHOGM in 1989 that saw the Commonwealth establish itself firmly in the vanguard of international efforts to protect our environment. It works closely with us in the training of public servants. It is home to the Commonwealth Tourism Centre; and next year it will host the 17th Commonwealth Conference of Education Ministers – testimony, not least, to its passionate commitment to - and high standards in - educating its young people to take on the world.
This is, of course, my first CPA conference, four months into my new role. I have been given the warmest of welcomes to the Commonwealth, and feel enormously energised by the challenge to serve what I have called this ‘great global good’.
So I am delighted to be here at the CPA Conference. Thank you for inviting me.
Let me begin by sharing with you some of the things that have happened in my first four months, before reflecting on those things we would wish to see happen over the next four years.
Perhaps I can highlight three mid-month happenings in London that have been of great significance.
In mid-May, six weeks into my tenure, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group lifted the suspension of Pakistan, which had been applied in late-November at the time of our last Heads of Government Meeting. Suspension need not imply censure: we accept that all of our member states are permanently journeying towards stronger democracy which reflects the fundamentals and reflects local needs and circumstances. Pakistan’s derogations at the time of the State of Emergency were removed with parliamentary elections of February. Our commitment is to walk with that country now to support the Government’s stated aim to make Parliament the ultimate authority in Pakistan. We are keen to work with the CPA towards that goal – strengthening parliamentary processes like the work of committees, drafting legislation, and more. And Commonwealth help can go further, for instance in strengthening an independent election commission, and local government structures where another of our associate bodies – the Commonwealth Local Government Forum – is also active.
In mid-May, our Board of Governors approved our new four-year strategic plan for the Commonwealth Secretariat, which continues to place promoting democracy as one of its two pillars, alongside fostering development, both economic and human.
In mid-June, we convened 11 Heads of Government in London, to develop a Commonwealth position on rethinking and reforming global institutions. Our leaders committed themselves to reform when they met for their CHOGM in Kampala. This London meeting was aimed at fleshing out some of the details and shared levels of ambition for reform. First, we seek a UN, World Bank and IMF which are equal to the expectations of a speedily transforming world. Second, we seek a new system of global governance for the environment and development. When all Heads of Government meet again next month in September, the weight of the 11 in arguing for specific global change, should become the weight of 53.
For almost a third of my time to date, I have been on the road, or more accurately in the air. An early visit to Uganda was a chance to share with President Museveni, the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office, the progress made to date on some of the political mandates we were given last November. A trip to Kenya bolstered practical Commonwealth support being given in the aftermath of the violence of early January and the subsequent formation of a national government. A visit to Mauritius introduced me to Southern African leaders, and was a chance to recalibrate and reaffirm our Commonwealth concern, not only in meeting the persistent challenge of poverty, but also over the situation in Zimbabwe, and our wish to support African initiatives to help find a solution there.
Three Ministerial Meetings have shown me the Commonwealth in action – debating both policy and best practice. Youth Ministers met in Colombo; Health Ministers in Geneva; Law Ministers in Edinburgh. I was able to tell the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Summit in Rome how the Commonwealth can mobilize its networks of farmers to boost agricultural production. Last month I discussed at first hand the ways in which the Commonwealth brings its expertise to the small states of the Caribbean at the CARICOM Summit in Antigua – and next week, I shall be doing the same with those of the Pacific.
It has been a rich and intense baptism into the Commonwealth – its political reach, its practical impact, its role as a trusted partner. Our vision for it continues to develop. It will build upon the existing pillars of Democracy and Development, which alliterate just as well to Governance and Growth. Governance continues to be a core Commonwealth strength, with our superb track record in strengthening democratic processes and institutions. Growth will be the biggest determinant of success, and where we judge it evident in two particular groups of society – women, and young people – then we will know that it is for real.
But we envisage a third ‘G’ as part of our vision for the Commonwealth, and that is Globalism. Globalisation is a phenomenon; globalism is a positive orientation towards this compressing world.
We are part of a compacting world, in which change is unstoppable, and so, too, is the imperative of integration. The good effects of trade, culture and technology now cross borders as easily as the ill effects of disease, climate change and environmental degradation or terrorism. Global economic phenomena embrace all, whether they are rising energy or food prices, or financial turbulence. The Commonwealth belongs to that world – indeed, it straddles it. It must believe that it can help influence and shape it.
I have the trust that this organisation will become ever more globalist in its outlook, in keeping with the globalization of our collective lives. We can pursue our enlightened goals in alliance with more people who recognize our credibility, reach, global commitment and exceptional pedigree. We can find new partners in governments beyond our membership, in different inter-governmental bodies, in Foundations or the private sector. We can see our models of best practice used far beyond our own confines. Everything about the world that we live in, and the attributes that we ourselves bring to it, decree that we should continue to look outwards, and to invest our huge access and our authority, for even greater causes.
It is this word “Globalism” that brings me to the theme of this meeting, ‘Expanding the role of Parliament in Global Society: Environment, Development, Security’, the component parts of which merit unpacking.
Let me begin with ‘global society’. The interconnectedness of things is not in doubt. The click of a mouse secures a global audience. Whether it is avian flu or SARS travelling by airplane; 4 billion people watching a World Cup final; polluted rivers, oceans and air currents traversing countries, regions, even continents; goods produced cheaply in one continent becoming ubiquitous in another; financiers buying and selling millions around the globe in seconds; the reach of civil society, just as the reach of the uncivil society – whatever it is, our society is a global one, for better and for worse.
The challenges of global society require global scrutiny and responses. Hence the importance of the global bodies we mentioned – how, for instance, can we safeguard the future of our natural world of lands and seas by doing anything other than agreeing amongst ourselves, in global forums, how to do so? How can we expect regional and bilateral trade deals to protect and promote trade in the way that a global rule-based arrangement ought to? Does it not make sense to debate desired global trading outcomes – particularly the development dividend – collectively but fairly?
The nation state is alive and well, but its power is receding. You as nation state parliamentarians may face constituents who want to lobby you about their local roads and schools, but increasingly many of the issues that people want solved will be lodged not only in your national assemblies, but also far away in global convocation. Again, trade and the environment are good examples.
‘Global society’ for the Commonwealth embraces in particular, the small and fragile and vulnerable states. We believe in an equal right to national salvation for all states, irrespective of size and endowment.
Let me turn to another clause in this conference’s theme title: ‘the role of Parliament’.
Parliaments and parliamentarians are at the heart of the democratic process. In a sense, the parliament as an institution is the embodiment of democracy in a country. It is where the heart of the democracy beats, nourishing the entire polity of a nation.
In a system where legitimacy is predicated upon the will of the people, national parliaments, state assemblies and local councils are where the people’s elected representatives gather, serving the people and holding governments accountable.
However, one of the great problems we face in so many places is how to get the animosity, the antagonism and the conflict out of politics. How can we help governments and opposition parties work together in a constructive and collaborative way, for the benefit of the nation? Political competitors, yes, but respecting the rule of law, and the rules of the game.
Parliament is where governments and opposition come together face-to-face to debate national issues, to disagree, to find compromise, to win some political battles, lose others, but take democratically derived public policy forward. One might say, when parliaments work, by providing the opposition with a voice and a fair chance to influence the policies and events of the day, then the democratic process works.
When parliaments do not work, by not allowing real debate and scrutiny of government business, then the democratic process does not work, and often conflict is not far away.
So it is imperative that we help to create strong and enduring democratic institutions. Visionary leaders play a vital role, but we should stress the importance of institutions, not individuals. Ultimately it is strong, credible and independent institutions which will prevail and ensure that the fruits of democracy are there for the many, and not just the few. And these institutions have to be nurtured, supported and strengthened in the right spirit. The invisible is as much a pillar of the democratic state as the visible.
Let me turn briefly to the final clause in the conference theme title: ‘Environment, Development, Security’.
Here, of course, the abiding point is that Parliaments have to look at these as more than just national challenges.
Climate change, poverty, terrorism: they have little respect for national borders. The value of the Commonwealth response is that it helps to bring global solutions to global problems.
Take climate change, where we are unfolding a Commonwealth action plan with regional and global dimensions. We are helping individual and groups of countries in their international negotiations in the run-up to Copenhagen and in the search for a post-Kyoto deal. We are mobilising the Commonwealth civil society network of statisticians, geographers, foresters, and meteorologists. We are examining best models for land management and forestation, and conducting studies on the export of agricultural produce. We are also taking initiatives in natural disaster preparedness and management.
Responses to poverty, and the quest for development, are also universal. There are different routes to economic growth, but economic transformation is a house built on weak foundations without the corollary of political and social transformation. Transformation is of limited lasting value if it’s not democratic. We are currently doing some work on Public Private Partnerships around the Commonwealth, to contribute to the discourse on quality transformation. And we will share this with our Heads of Government when they meet in New York next month.
Also in New York, we will be presenting the best of our communal responses to the challenges which are born of fractures within society. Some of you will be familiar with the hugely important Commonwealth report last year, called Civil Paths to Peace. It came out of a mandate given us by Heads of Government – in the wake of 9/11 and an increasing sense of division in our societies – to examine what it is that holds societies together, and what it is that undermines them. Amartya Sen led a Commission which made us think anew about our multiple identities as human beings. The report looked at the fault-lines not just of different faiths, ethnicities and languages, but of young and old, urban and rural, rich and poor. As importantly, it also advised us as to how to do it better, giving examples of where we have successfully done so. In a melding and inter-connected world in which a triumph or a failure is not for one but for all, we are committed to sharing what we know.
In the face of the challenges of Environment, Development and Security, how can Parliaments transfer their inherent nation-ality to a region-ality, and beyond? That is the crux of this conference: we will know more of the answers in two days’ time. No doubt you will examine the role of regional Parliaments. You may try to look at the work of the European Parliament – with its cross-party committees on ‘Environment, Development, Security’ and more – and its capacity to affect policy and budget expenditure. You may also look at the role of provincial assemblies and local government – because international commitments have to be implemented on a national scale, and down to the local level.
But no doubt you will find, too, that challenges remain national, and remain in your national parliamentary domain. This is especially the case with security. The painful truth is that all societies have many potential sources of conflict, with domestic to national and regional concerns. Sometimes these can create a volatile mix of cultural, economic, and political divisions.
A democratically elected – and performing – parliament, in which candidates representing all shades of political opinion are free to be fairly elected through the ballot box, is the best means of securing convergence, preventing conflict and ensuring an enduring peace.
Before I finish, let me just offer a view of recent parliamentary news in the Commonwealth.
In recent times we have had difficulties in Kenya and Pakistan, both of which I have already mentioned. I have also referred to the Commonwealth’s readiness to help both countries find parliamentary solutions to their problems. In both cases, parties from across the respective divides are coming together in parliament, to discuss, argue, and differ, but also find common ground and help their countries find a way forward. We confer the same hopes on Fiji – again, sadly suspended from the Commonwealth – that all parties will move swiftly towards elections by March 2009 to restore democratic legitimacy to that country.
In Sierra Leone at this time last year we saw a peaceful handover of power following an election victory by the Opposition. Of course, tensions and disagreements remain, and of course – given the chronic unemployment and illiteracy in the country – serious long-term challenges remain. However, how encouraging it is to reflect on this story, as the incumbent vacated office following a credible election.
Belize is another interesting example. A very different country, with a very different history. In the elections of February this year, the government went into the election holding 22 of the 31 seats. On polling day, the “opposition” won 25 and the incumbent just six. A peaceful, orderly exchange of power followed.
This is the type of model we need to emulate and support everywhere, through developing parliamentary procedures, respecting constitutional governance, developing a culture of participation. And this should be firmly supported by institutions such as election commissions respected for their integrity, transparency and even-handedness by the people, who are sovereign.
I have spoken of the pursuit of ideal, and I have spoken of the challenge of the reality. It’s up to you as Parliamentarians – and us in the CPA and Commonwealth Secretariat – to close the space between the two.
It’s happening all the time. This year, for instance, we jointly sponsored a strategic plan for the development of the parliament in Guyana. The CPA and the Commonwealth Secretariat ran a workshop in Nigeria in June, on the subject of ‘Government and Opposition in West Africa’. It was a resounding success, bringing together governments and oppositions and making them partners in the development of the democratic process, and not adversaries. Participants highlighted what in their view were some of the key elements that can strengthen a parliament, and ensure that it is a place where both government and opposition alike can play a constructive role. These included ensuring that there is an adequate committee system, providing for freedom of information, and building up a professional and impartial parliamentary staff.
At the risk of making a less popular remark, I want to end by sharing another important conclusion of that Abuja event. It relates directly to the issue of parliamentary integrity and relevance for the people. MPs spoke at length about their responsibilities in maintaining the spirit of the office. They concluded that MPs need to remember that they are in service of the people. Also, that their behaviour reflects on the integrity of the office and the institution, and that salaries must reflect national circumstances and not appear as a wealth accumulation exercise whilst the people are going through hardship.
I share these points because, as I am sure you will agree, they clearly affect the public perception of the parliament as an institution. And, as we all know: in politics, perception can be all!
Society is global, as are so many of the challenges we will be looking at, in environment, development and security. Following the trend, national Parliaments increasingly see that business needs to be settled far beyond their own debating chambers. But their first constituency is always at home, and their first principles are these that I have described. Parliaments and parliamentarians are the guardians of their countries’ democracies. That is the weight of your responsibility – I urge you to carry it well. That is also the weight of our responsibility in the Commonwealth Secretariat, to continue to make ourselves available as dedicated strategic partners. We shall endeavour to carry it out to the best of our ability.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I spoke a few moments ago about one of our major publications. Let me conclude, before the next part of the programme, with a very short book launch.
We have spoken about globalization and globalism. But we must also not lose sight of the trend at the end of the spectrum in recent decades. I speak of the trend towards enhanced local government – strengthening democracy as close as possible to individuals themselves in their daily lives. We have been doing quite a lot of work to support this, and I am very pleased to commend to you our latest publication – “Financing Local Government”. Copies are available for you, but let me observe all ‘launching’ honours by presenting this copy to Dr Shija on your behalf.
Download the speech: Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Annual Conference