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Secretaries General say Australia will stay in Commonwealth

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by Lewis Holden

Yesterday, David Flint again claimed that Australia risked being kicked out of the Commonwealth after becoming a republic. This is despite successive Secretaries General of the Commonwealth dismissing this possibility outright. Lewis Holden reviews the facts, minus the scaremongering.


THE Commonwealth Games were a marvellous spectacle confounding the critics (including prominent New Zealand royalist, Paul Henry, who was sacked for racist comments about the New Delhi Chief Minister's name, and Melbourne's Radical Royalist). The host nation is also the world's largest parliamentary republic. India, showed its growing economic and social influence by hosting the games. But right on cue, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy have responding by pushing obfuscation on the issue of Australia's membership of the Commonwealth. The monarchists keep scaremongering on the issue of Commonwealth membership because they know the Commonwealth is much more popular than the monarchy. Australians love sport, and the games medal tally shows why.

The head of the ACM, Professor David Flint, is pushing the argument that Australia's continued membership of the Commonwealth of Nations could be at risk when an Australian republic becomes a reality. Laughably, he asks "Why won't republicans check the facts?". This isn't a question of fact checking - it's a question of interpretation, and the rather loose interpretation of the facts applied by monarchists. For example, Monarchy New Zealand claims "The monarchy is central to the Commonwealth grouping of nations." when this is clearly not the case.

As George Williams and David Hume noted in the Sydney Morning Herald, Flint claims that when Australia becomes a republic, any other Commonwealth member could veto its membership. Flint relies on a letter he received (curiously not linked to in his article) from the then Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, Chief Emeka Anaouku, in 18 May 1999, stating:
“Thank you for your letter of 11 May 1999 which I saw on my return from overseas travel. You are right in your understanding of the procedures within the Commonwealth when a country changes its constitutional status to that of a republic. On being notified of the change by the government concerned and in the light of an express wish to continue Commonwealth membership, I would then contact all other Commonwealth countries seeking their concurrence for the change. In the normal course of events, this process is not more than a formality, and was most recently followed when Mauritius became a republic on 12 March 1992.”

As you can see from the letter, Flint is scaremongering. The Secretary-General was clear: the process is "not more than a formality". However, the potency of Flint's manipulation of the Secretary-General's letter was such that Malcolm Turnbull wrote to the Commonwealth secretariat seeking clarification. In a statement issued on 3 November 1999 , the Secretary-General said:
"Let me make it absolutely clear that, whatever the outcome of the referendum, there is no question of Australia's membership of the Commonwealth being in doubt."

Former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Sir Don McKinnon: "a country’s position as a member of the Commonwealth is unaffected by a constitutional change in its status to become a republic"


Now, if the monarchists want to claim that the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth is wrong I will be very surprised. This wasn't just the position of the cheif, either. In the lead up to the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games the ARM approached the most recent former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Sir Don McKinnon, to confirm the precise situation of republics within the Commonwealth. His letter of 9 November 2005 states:
"Let me confirm that a country’s position as a member of the Commonwealth is unaffected by a constitutional change in its status to become a republic - ever since the London Agreement of 1949, republican forms of government have been entirely compatible with Commonwealth membership - any constitutional change in Australia to become a republic would not affect its membership in the Commonwealth."

To further clarify matters, at the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) the issue of membership was considered (following meetings of the Commonwealth Committee on Membership), mainly in response to an application by Rwanda (a country that was never a British colony) to join the Commonwealth. The committee recommended changes to constitutional status would not change Commonwealth membership. The Kampala communiqué on was issued 25 November 2007 stating:
"88. Heads of Government also agreed that, where an existing member changes its formal constitutional status, it should not have to reapply for Commonwealth membership provided that it continues to meet all the criteria for membership."

Flint's response to this was that "CHOGM tried to change this in 2007; I suspect the change is ineffective to stop a veto." In other words, Professor Flint knows better than CHOGM and the committees linked to above. However it's clear that the CHOGM will apply the above communiqué to the letter, as was the case with Rwanda's application, finally accepted in November 2009. On that basis it's difficult to see how any informal veto, as outlined by the Commonwealth secretariat, would remove Australia's membership of the Commonwealth. In fact, it seems the rules were already tested: Commonwealth member the Independent State of Samoa underwent a significant constitutional change in June 2007.  It started to elect its own head of state in 2007, after the last Maletoa (one of the two hereditary chiefs appointed as Samoa's head of state) passed away. This change of constitutional status from monarchy to parliamentary republic isn't even mentioned in the 2009 CHOGM communiqué.

But still the monarchists persist. Aside from ridiculous assertions about Malaysia's former Prime Minister (he's moved off centre stage now, and anyway, criticism of Malaysia's human rights record means it's more likely that country is suspended from the Commonwealth than Australia). They rely on the examples of the Republic of Ireland, Apartheid South Africa and Rabuka's Fiji to make the case. Yet there are plenty of examples of Commonwealth realms and British territories becoming republics and remaining in the Commonwealth of Nations. Here's a list of countries that remained in the Commonwealth once they became republics:

  • Ceylon (Sri Lanka) 1972

  • The Gambia 1970

  • Ghana 1960

  • Guyana 1970

  • India 1950

  • Kenya 1964

  • Malawi 1966

  • Malta 1974

  • Mauritius 1992

  • Nigeria 1963

  • Pakistan 1956

  • Sierra Leone 1971

  • Tanganyika Tanganyika (Tanzania) 1962

  • Trinidad and Tobago 1976

  • Uganda 1963

  • It's clear that the majority of countries that have become republics have remained in the Commonwealth. Here's the list of Commonwealth members that left the organisation shortly after becoming republics:

    • Republic of Ireland 1949

    • Fiji 1987

    • South Africa 1961

    • The Republic of Ireland is not a relevant example, as that country declared itself a republic shortly before the 1949 London Declaration, that allowed republics into the Commonwealth. From time to time Irish politicians suggest rejoining the Commonwealth, although it isn't a high priority, largely because the Irish have access to Commonwealth citizenship. Apartheid South Africa is another example that commonly comes up, largely because the campaigners for a South African republic at their 1960 referendum had promised to keep South Africa in the Commonwealth. Flint complains that the vote was racist and exclusive. Well of course it was - that was what Apartheid South Africa was. It was also a state headed by the Queen, a fact that kept the British Government from putting too much pressure on the country. The Republic of South Africa was declared on 31 May 1961, and applied for re-admission to the Commonwealth. Shortly afterwards a Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference (the precursor to regular CHOGM meetings) met in London and declared that race relations could no longer be considered an internal affair - vetoing South Africa's membership and putting Southern Rhodesia on notice.

      And then there's Rabuka's Fiji. As with Apartheid South Africa, it's not hard to see why Fiji was kicked out of the Commonwealth - but, just like South Africa, Fiji was re-admitted to the Commonwealth after sorting itself out. Nonetheless, I'm sure the monarchists will continue to use this spurious example and others as "proof" that Australia could be excluded from that organisation.  
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