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Julia Gillard speaks on the Future of the Commonwealth in London

By GOffice Speeches 6/10/2016

Tonight, I stand before you as a daughter of Wales, who grew up in Adelaide, and served as Australia’s Prime Minister, in order to give a speech in the Great Hall of this historic and prestigious place of learning, now led by a man, Ed Byrne, who was born in South Shields, but migrated as a teenager to Australia and began his career as a neuroscientist in Adelaide.

I am unsure what lesson one can draw from all of that. My fellow South Australians, I am sure, would say that the moral of the story is that Adelaide is at the centre of everything. But, to be entirely frank, I don’t think I can confidently make that claim here tonight!

Perhaps in a more lofty vein we could conclude that migration and globalisation, which both receive so much bad press today, deliver opportunity and fascinating interconnections.

Or you may be more prepared to conclude that however far UK migrants roam they all have a disturbing tendency to turn back up again, like proverbial bad pennies.

My sincere thanks go to those who have enabled me to turn back up. I acknowledge and thank the Policy Institute of Kings College, led by Professor Jonathan Grant, for hosting my visit and for co-hosting tonight’s event.  I thank the Strand Group and Hewlett Packard for sponsoring it.

The Australian connections keep on coming. I acknowledge the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, named after our longest serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, and thank the Centre for also co-hosting tonight’s event. I am sure it will be of interest to many that a major television series on Menzies, hosted by former Prime Minister John Howard, has just had its debut on our equivalent of the BBC.

I never lived in Robert Menzies’ Australia. My family arrived in Adelaide in 1966, a few months after he stepped down as Prime Minister. Yet, the Australia we started to make our new lives in had been shaped in many ways by his vision.  Indeed, our ability to migrate was shaped by Menzies’ support for the assisted migration program.

While Sir Robert was not from my side of politics, I honour him as a man who believed in the power of education, particularly university education, to change lives.

The Australia I grew up in was conscious in every way of its connections to the United Kingdom and its status as a Commonwealth country.

I am of the generation that sang ‘God Save the Queen’ at school. In our outdoor assemblies, standing rigid in straight lines, we would recite: ‘I am an Australian. I love my country. I salute her flag. I honour her Queen. I promise to obey her laws.’ On hot Adelaide days, where the temperature can easily exceed 40 degrees Celsius, the number of children fainting during this tradition was truly terrifying.

History classes were largely the study of British history, with a focus on Captain Cook and the ‘discovery’ of Australia. In geography lessons the world was divided into the pink countries – the Commonwealth countries – and the rest of them.

During my coming of age, as I was more and more involved in student unionism and political causes, the Commonwealth was playing a visible and honorable role in seeking the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

In 1977, my second last year at school, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, CHOGM, collectively endorsed the first international move in the global campaign to isolate South Africa from world sport. The United Nations boycott followed six months later.

In 1979, my first year at university, the Commonwealth Heads of Government issued the Lusaka Declaration on Racism and Racial Prejudice, the central statement of the Commonwealth’s abhorrence of all forms of racism, including in members’ own societies.

In 1986, the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group visited Nelson Mandela in prison and ‘set out the negotiating concept to end apartheid in South Africa peacefully.’

As my student political activism reached its peak in the early 1980s, I presided over the first ever Commonwealth Students Conference, which brought together delegates from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Canada and the United Kingdom in Melbourne, Australia. Our stated aim was to discuss educational and social issues in developing Commonwealth countries, but of course our focus inevitably honed in on South Africa, which was represented by an exiled ANC delegate. Our conference condemned apartheid and called on all Commonwealth countries to sever diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with the South African regime, as well as to enforce multilateral trade embargoes.

Amongst all these lofty ambitions, we also managed another first: a meeting of international students that wasn’t defined by the rivalry between the USA and the Soviet Union for favourable alignment with other countries across the globe.

The Cold War played out in international student politics as an intense competition between American auspiced and Communist auspiced international student bodies.

Not for the first time – nor the last – the Commonwealth was able to find a way through for meaningful dialogue in a bipolar world!

By the time I was Prime Minister and chaired the CHOGM Summit in 2011, it was not the Cold War but Asia’s rise, especially China’s, that was defining the global order of power.

Of the global multilateral events I attended as Prime Minister, CHOGM was the most unusual. It was long – held over three days, including a leaders-only session that lasted an extraordinary day and a half. And it is large, a gathering of more than 50 nations.

In such an organisation, which is driven by consensus, the risk is drift, particularly if issues are hard to confront. In Perth, I was determined not to allow paralysis to take hold even though the meeting needed to deal with some controversial changes, which were recommended for adoption by an Eminent Persons Group.

Progress was made with the adoption of the Group’s proposal for a new Commonwealth Charter. This document now brings together the Commonwealth’s shared values on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

It expresses members’ commitment to free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace, and acknowledges the role of civil society in supporting the goals and values of the Commonwealth’s work.

In total, thirty recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group were adopted outright without reservation, including a recommendation to develop a strategy for capacity development in small states and another that focused the Commonwealth’s work in respect of climate change on developing island nations.

Importantly too, the role of the Ministerial Action Group, – a kind of persuasive police officer- which gets involved when a Commonwealth nation is engaged in breaches of democratic norms, was strengthened.

The meeting will also be remembered for an advance in gender equality. Many were already debating what would happen if William and Kate’s first child was a daughter. Could it really be possible that in the decades to come she would be passed over as monarch in favour of a later-born son? Prime Minister David Cameron had decided to fix this for all time, so the eldest child, irrespective of gender, would succeed to the throne.

Notwithstanding the quirkiness of debating equal opportunity within the context of a hereditary monarchy without debating the anachronism of inherited title itself, I appreciated David’s intentions. When we met to discuss his proposal, I joked with him about equal rights for ‘sheilas’.

In a speech back in the UK, driven by his sense of humour, David repeated this exchange and tried to mimic my very Australian accent. My view is whatever David decides to do next we are not likely to see him become a stand-up comic.

What was undiscussed at the meeting was the impact on the Commonwealth of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II coming to an end or, at the very least, her choosing to travel less.

I felt though that this was much on her mind at the formal CHOGM dinner. To this occasion, the Queen always brings gold goblets, one engraved for each country, from which the formal toast is drunk. Inevitably there is much banter about popping a goblet in your pocket.

As the dinner came to an end, I walked the Queen to her car to farewell her. She looked back towards the gathering and her eyes moistened. I wondered if the emotion stemmed from her belief that this might be her last tour of Australia.

Later, I discovered another possibility.

In early 2013, I was advised that Sir Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s private secretary, wanted half an hour of my time in my capacity as Chair of the Commonwealth, an office the host holds until the next meeting. He would fly to Australia to anywhere I was in order to get it.

The upshot of our meeting, which took place in Adelaide (the centre of everything, you’ll remember) on 21 February 2013, was a clearly worded statement for the public record about how succession works for the role of the Head of Commonwealth. In the Australian Parliament on 20 March, I duly gave the statement and sent it to all Commonwealth countries. I would not want you to think this was some simple act of colonial subservience.  I did see wisdom in it. However, the purpose of the statement would have been a mystery to many until Prince Charles attended the next CHOGM in Sri Lanka in the Queen’s place.

In the 2014 British New Year’s Honours List, Sir Christopher was named a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. A snippet of the citation caught my eye: ‘preparation for the transition to a change of reign and relations with the commonwealth’.

Having had that personal experience with the Commonwealth, from school days to the present day, I feel a sense of connection. As a feminist, I am also delighted to see the election of the first woman to the office of Secretary-General. I had the pleasure of meeting Baroness Scotland of Asthal in New York just over a week ago and am delighted she intends to focus on women and girls.

But, as a very rational global citizen, inevitably my mind turns to the question of whether there is a real role for the Commonwealth today and if so, what it should be. The historic comparative advantages of the Commonwealth have been in reinforcing democratic norms, including by observing elections, anti-racism work and education exchanges.

Certainly the work of democracy building within Commonwealth countries is not yet done. Of current member nations, troubling records on compliance with democratic norms have forced the suspension from Commonwealth Councils of three: Pakistan, Fiji and Zimbabwe. Indeed, Fiji was fully suspended from the Commonwealth for a period as was Nigeria.

Neither is the work of combatting racism and intolerance.  Indeed, the challenge of building peaceful, multicultural societies seems as hard now as it has ever been with terrorist attacks inspired by the so-called Islamic State taking lives and heightening fear at the same time as community tolerance is being challenged by record numbers of asylum seekers.

In a world where change happens at warp speed, the educational collaborations sponsored by the Commonwealth are necessary now more than ever.

But to be intellectually rigorous we need to ask ourselves the question whether this vital work would continue even if the Commonwealth ceased to exist. After all, the pattern of country connections today in our highly globalised world is no longer defined by the pink parts on the map.

Surely more encompassing global institutions like the United Nations are better placed to act?

My answer to this question is a respectful ‘no’.

Put simply, the challenges of our world are so many and multi-faceted that it would be unwise to repudiate an institution that has a capacity to influence our world for the better. However effective the United Nations is in any particular era, there will always be more problems and issues in our world than it can hope to address.

And there will be choices, too, on its focus and breadth.

Let us take the issue of election observing, for instance, where the Commonwealth has played such an important historical role. Whilst the United Nations once played a key global role in observing elections, with global demand for assistance increasing, it now focuses its role on providing technical assistance. In contrast, the Commonwealth continues to mobilise observation teams of various size, having observed 130 elections in 36 countries since 1980.

In addition, there is always an attraction to fostering international diplomatic space, which can enable the voices of smaller nations to be amplified. As a proud advocate of small states, particularly those that are island states, the Commonwealth has been able to give a louder voice to many who may otherwise get lost on the global stage.

Given the Commonwealth includes 31 small states, it does provide a needed forum for them to engage with their more prominent cousins.

And, from time to time, there is still a need for leaders to find some quiet place for collaboration without the immediate presence of any tensions between the world’s two super-powers, just as I did at our student conference back in 1983.

But, whilst I believe the Commonwealth has a future, there is a need for savvy and strategic thinking about its role. The Secretariat is thinly resourced, operating on a budget of just UK£16.14 million in 2012-13, compared to the United Nation’s regular budget that same year being more than US$5 billion, and it holds leaders’ direct attention only once every two or so years.  So what should its value add be?

First, I believe that value add lies in doubling down on one of the Commonwealth’s key traditions: fostering democratic values.

Consider the following words from The Economist magazine: ‘According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s measure of democracy, one-half of the world’s population now lives in a democracy of some sort. However, in recent years, there has been backsliding on previously attained progress and there has also been a burgeoning of popular disappointment with the fruits of democracy.’

Clearly, the work of the Commonwealth that aims to ensure citizens live in democracies with free and fair elections, stable governing institutions and recourse to the rule of law must continue in order to arrest the backsliding.

But another complex tranche of work beckons for the Commonwealth, namely analyzing why people in democracies feel let down and finding ways to rebuild trust and faith.

I use the words trust and faith deliberately because the fault lines in today’s mature democracies tend to be much more explained by trust in institutions and faith in the future than by class or education levels.

Consequently, disadvantaged and working class people can be drawn to the siren song of conservative populism because it seems to promise a return to a past, a time before globalization, technological disruption, visible ethnic diversity within communities and the gender revolution.

The depth of feeling, even rage, driving this politics is understandable. It absolutely makes sense that in a world of constant change, those hit and hurt by it want to lash out. Think of the circumstances of unskilled or semi-skilled Western white men. Challenged by economic change, the gender revolution and the migration of people, culture and ideas, every reality they thought they could rely on has given way under them. Anger is an understandable response.

An easy target for that rage is the mainstream political class, who preach about the inevitability of globalisation, the need for more modernisation, the requirement to respect diversity, all while leading seemingly pampered lives. How easy is it to conclude that these besuited men and women are out of touch?

Yet the conservative populism, which stokes these fires and feeds the distrust of politics, often exists side by side within the one political party with advocates of globalization and business interests, who whilst not without critical skepticism, have trust in the institutions to deliver for them. This internal conflict makes for tension, even trauma.

The schisms within the Tories over Brexit are the clearest contemporary global example of the phenomenon I am seeking to describe.

In truth, the Tory’s support base fractured over Brexit because it is fractured over both this question of trust and the promise of tomorrow.

Part of its constituency is experiencing globalization and integration with Europe as a benefit – think particularly of London’s business community. Whereas another part of its constituency sees and feels it as a burden, and believes it causes loss of jobs and community disruption.

These constituencies have different views of the future, with those embracing change likely to see the future as one of opportunity and those hurt by it hankering for a romanticized view of the past.

Age demographics matter here. Unsurprisingly the young are more likely to be embracers of change and were disproportionately inclined to stay with the integration and opportunities of the European Union. Put simply, they were more likely to imagine themselves taking advantage of the EU’s labour mobility than being challenged by it.

But we should note that today’s older generation, which disproportionately voted Leave, at an earlier period in their lives were more prepared to support the EU. The result of the referendum in 1975, where 67% of people voted to remain, cannot be explained otherwise.  It seems that the ever increasing pace of change, the tepid recovery from the Global Financial Crisis and identity questions arising because of the free movement of labour and record numbers of asylum seekers have changed their minds.

There is nothing party political about this kind of analysis. The supporters of progressive parties are similarly divided between the educated and outward looking, who view themselves as global citizens and working people, some who still hold dearly on to their trade union membership, who have seen too much down side from change.

Nor is it there anything country specific about it. The UK is assuredly not alone in feeling these trends. I have come to the UK after a fortnight in New York and Washington. Even the most casual observer of the US Presidential elections would see these factors at work.

Indeed, Donald Trump became the Republican candidate because of his ability to harness as well as stoke the anger of those who feel dispossessed by change.

In mature democracies, the impact of the existence of these community attitudes is turbo-charged by the speed and shrillness of today’s media environment.

Consider the words of Bill Keller, who edited The New York Times, a voice of experience who says, ‘The hyperactive news world we live in cuts a couple of ways. You have to scream louder to be heard above the crowd. The idea that you would slow down a story, report against your assumptions, dig a little deeper from that source who might have a different take on things, that runs against the metabolism of the Internet age.’

The vast majority of voters, who find their sensibility assailed by the speed and the shrieking of the news media, turn away and inwards, using the new social-media tools available to them to lead a more connected personal life. There is both less space in their lives and less desire on their part to engage, even just as an informed consumer of political information, in the reform debates of their democracy. What breaks through into their bubble is more likely to be media that is funny, cute or has cleverly knitted itself into their personal domain.

But the sustained discourse required to facilitate understanding of big reform debates does not get through. What episodically makes it is the shrill stuff, the cutting grab, the words of abuse in Question Time, a disconnected story of complaint.

Around the world the media knows all this only too well, so in the fight for eyeballs, politics tends to be delivered as the subject of parody or over-hyped yelling.

This is an environment in which the views of experts are as likely to be trashed in a social media frenzy as accepted. Think of how long the struggle has been and how hard it continues to be to get full popular acceptance of the science of climate change.

Disturbingly, this is also an environment in which rubbish claims can be disseminated so widely and quickly that the truth never manages to catch up.

All this brutally undermines democratic reform conversations.

There is no one in the world today who is the custodian of a compelling and comprehensive answer about how to mature and strengthen democracy in the face of these challenges. How to govern so that deep reforms get made constantly and well with community acceptance and without backlash.

My suggestion is the Commonwealth could burnish its contemporary relevance by fostering a search for the answers, a thorough debate about governing while globalising and democracy strengthening in today’s world.

It could be, in this time of global change, an ideas exchange, a power house capable of collecting, furthering and disseminating the best of thinking available globally on how democracies can best prosper in today’s worlds.

This would capture the attention of political leaders, including those in mature democracies who are very likely to question whether CHOGM is worth three days of their time. But the work would have broad and powerful implications for our world.

Second, the Commonwealth could build on its traditional strength of combatting racism by focusing its convening, research and education dialogue on the vexed question of countering radicalisation.

In Australia, just like here, there is a sense of fear and puzzlement as we witness the spectacle of young people becoming radicalised and as a result joining the fighting in Syria or Iraq or planning attacks at home.

What seems truly beyond comprehension is that some of these young people grew up in Australia, surfing and skate boarding, with no strong attachment to religion.

It sends shudders down my spine to read stories about every day children who go on to embrace unspeakable violence.

I’m thinking here of the 18 year old Australian teenager from Melbourne who became a suicide bomber in Iraq. A shy and lonely student who had been the victim of schoolyard bullying, his recruitment to Islamic radicalism shocked all that knew him.

I’m thinking, also, of the two Australian brothers, aged just 16 and 17, who were stopped at Sydney airport headed to a war zone. Their traumatised parents had no idea what they were planning.

And I’m thinking, in the United Kingdom, of those three teenage school girls who left the future offered by Bethnal Green Academy to become ‘Jihadi brides’ in Syria.

In the search for answers to the profoundly troubling phenomenon of radicalization, the Commonwealth is already employing its convening power. At its last meeting in Malta in 2015, CHOGM specifically discussed the fight against radicalization, violent extremism and terrorism, and condemned the terrorism and violence of extremist groups.

CHOGM agreed that these threats need to be countered though national, regional and international action, and that it was “imperative to counter the use of the internet by extremist groups to radicalize and recruit fighters”.

Real, practical steps have ensued. CHOGM 2015 welcomed the newly established Commonwealth Countering Violent Extremism Unit, which has been given a mandate to ‘advance the Commonwealth’s role in international efforts to counter extremism, especially through civil society networks and education”. The new Unit will do so, in part, by seeking to tackle the online dissemination of materials that promote extremist ideologies and by countering the narratives contained in such propaganda if it does get into circulation.

I am very pleased that the Australian Government committed $2.5 million towards funding this unit and that your own government will be contributing 5 million pounds.

But as great as this progress is, there is so much more to do in an area where currently, as a global community, we are only just scratching the surface.

What’s needed now is better research, so that we can better understand what we do not yet know about radicalization and violent extremism.

As radicalization expert, and newly elected Australian MP, Anne Aly explains: “there is no singular profile to explain who becomes a violent extremist and why. Most theories or models of radicalisation concur that it is a process, not necessarily linear, by which an individual progresses through a mild interest in a political, social or ideological cause to accepting the use of violence as a valid means of furthering that cause.”

Fully understanding the process of radicalization requires a better understanding of the complex and varied factors that cause it. To Aly, these factors include “individual psychology, personal and group identity, demographics, individual circumstances and contact with radicalising settings or influences, including personal contact with recruiters or influential people.”

Education, which is my primary focus, also plays an important role. We know that for each additional year of school a teenage boy undertakes, his risk of becoming involved in conflict reduces by 20 percent. This is partly because of the economic benefits of education, and partly because of the role education can play in social cohesion and national identity. A lack of education can lead to “political disempowerment and regression to group allegiances”.  Yet, when education is combined with a curriculum that promotes tolerance and social cohesion, as well as an environment where there are opportunities for youth employment, the risks of young people becoming involved in extremist activities may be reduced.

Of course, education can be used to manipulate – to promote conflict and extremism, and to exacerbate differences. But the reverse also stands true. If done well, education can play an important role in countering radical influences and promoting peace building.

As my esteemed colleague at Brookings in Washington DC, Rebecca Winthrop, has explained, “education systems that mitigate grievances, promote tolerant worldviews, instill good citizenship skills, broadly expand access to youth and transition them successfully to the world of work, are […] all reducing a society’s risk of violent conflict.”

Yet whilst this is all valuable information, there is still a need for better research that will help us understand why radicalisation occurs amongst young people, and what role schools, teachers and broader education systems can play in countering these factors.

Further, we must fully digest and acknowledge the impact a lack of education can have on an individual’s capacity for tolerance and susceptibility to extremist ideologies.   One of the things I am doing during my time as a Visiting Professor with the Policy Institute at King’s College is looking at ways to marry up the research in both education and countering violent extremism, as well as connecting with researchers, practitioners and policy makers working independently in these spaces.

It is in this critical area of further research that I believe the Commonwealth has a considerable contribution to make. The Commonwealth embraces people from all faiths, from the Anglicans of the United Kingdom, to the Muslims of Malaysia and the Hindis of India. That is a strength that can be leveraged in order to enable deeper analysis and a search for solutions.

Many of its member countries have already felt the harsh realities of failing to counter extremist ideologies before they lead to violent acts. They know what is at stake and have direct experience we can learn from.

The Commonwealth is a proven forum for tackling extreme ideologies: just look at how influential it was in promoting the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.

And given that 60 percent of the Commonwealth Countries’ combined population of more than 2 billion people is made up of those under 30 years of age, the Commonwealth is uniquely placed to collate and assess heart of the data on this issue

Standing here before you tonight, as a child of Wales but a citizen of Australia, a supporter of my nation becoming a Republic and as someone who led a progressive Government, my optimism about the future of the Commonwealth may have surprised you.

Yet whatever we hope for our future, we cannot disentangle ourselves from the rich woven history of our past. In this modern era, the Commonwealth faces new challenges in breadth and relevance. But it also has an impressive legacy that we should preserve and honour.

The Commonwealth can and should play a powerful role on the global stage, and there are a number of states – particularly small states – that will depend on its advocacy.

As an ideas exchange and intellectual powerhouse on globalization, governing and democracy strengthening, the Commonwealth can both build on its traditional role as a champion of democratic ideals whilst preserving these values in times of change, fear and division.

As a thought leader on issues of countering violent extremism, the Commonwealth could play an essential role in tackling the dissemination of information and ideologies that challenge our community safety, that create a more instable world and that can take our children from us and radicalize them for the most evil of purposes.

These are my hopes for our Commonwealth. I welcome continuing this discussion with you all tonight.