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Thursday, 10 March 1977
Page: 107


Mr E G Whitlam (WERRIWA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Leader of the Opposition) - On behalf of the Australian Labor Party I wholeheartedly support the motion that the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) has moved. The declaration of a Commonwealth Day flows from a decision of the second Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting which I attended, that at Jamaica in May 1975. We know it used to be said not many years ago that the Commonwealth was a debating society or a vestige of a bygone empire. It used to be doubted whether there was any purpose in Australia's continuing to attend meetings of the Commonwealth. At neither of the meetings which I attended- the one I have just mentioned at Jamaica or the one at Ottawa in August 1973- did the members in attendance regret their attendance. No member of the Commonwealth has to remain in it. No Head of a Commonwealth country has to attend the Commonwealth summit. The fact is that nearly all members of what used to be called the British Empire on obtaining independence have chosen to remain in the Commonwealth. The fact is that most Heads of Commonwealth members choose to attend its summit meetings.

It is, as the Prime Minister has pointed out, an association of independent nations. It is perhaps ironical that the earliest members of the CommonwealthCanada and Australia- are the only member countries which are not yet absolutely independent of Britain. Features of their Federal systems- amendments of the Constitution in Canada's case and gubernatorial appointments and Privy Council appeals in Austrafia *s - still involve the British Government and the British Parliament. The Statute of Westminster is no longer an instrument of Canadian and Australian independence but an impediment to it. All other members of the Commonwealth, however, are absolutely independent. They choose to attend its meetings. They proceed over the course of about 7 days of working sessions with an intervening weekend. However diverse the Commonwealth is in traditions, cultures, institutions and creeds, however unequal in literacy, health, personal opportunities and national development, it is a meaningful forum for 3 dozen independent nations of which one dozen have the Queen as their Head of State.

When the Queen became Head of the Commonwealth there were only 8 members. Six of them are still in the Commonwealth. There has been a great increase in the numbers of the Commonwealth right up to the present time and not least in our own region. There is still the very great advantage for members of the Commonwealth in that their Heads of Government can still effectively and willingly use English as their means of communication. They can in the quite long session every 2 years of their summit have a free and equal consultation. It is a meaningful body for a very great number of nations and for a quarter of the world 's people.

I trust I will be forgiven for making an aside about the use of the term 'Commonwealth' in this connection. It is not that I have any inhibitions at all about the use of the word 'Commonwealth'. I have thought it has a very honourable history. It was the term applied to the British State under Oliver and Richard Cromwell. Nevertheless there has, I regret to say, been in the course of a reaction last year, some reversion in Australia to the use of the word 'Commonwealth' as referring to the Federal entity in Australia. I think it ought to be understood that the word 'Commonwealth' in Britain and in the Commonwealth of Nations has the significance which we use in debating this motion today. In the United States it has a particular connotation- formerly applied to the Philippines then later and still to the Marianas and Puerto Rico- of a state which does not have independent international status. Accordingly, I welcome the use of the word 'Commonwealth' in this sense in the way that it is known by most people who belong to what used to be the old British Empire and most people whose nations still choose to remain in this Commonwealth of Nations. I will be forgiven, I am sure, for recalling once again the statement that Sir Robert Menzies made in October 1965 in this House:

I myself have been in the habit of referring to the 'Australian Government' wherever I go. This is something I commend to all honourable members.

There are 3 particular points for Australia in continuing membership of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is composed, with one exception, of nations which used to be ruled by Britain and were part of the British Empire. The exception is Papua New Guinea, which was an Australian colony, an Australian mandate and later trust territory. It was under Australian auspices that Papua New Guinea was brought to independence and nationhood. It was on Australian sponsorship that Papua New Guinea joined the Commonwealth.

There is a second point for Australia, and that is the regional significance of the Commonwealth. More than half the members of the Commonwealth are situated in and around the Indian Ocean or in the South Pacific. It is really the only significant regional association to which Australia belongs. One asks: Where is ANZAM and where is SEATO today? What is their relevance now? But the Commonwealth is more varied, more relevant, for Australia in a regional sense than ever before. At the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at Jamaica, for instance, there were resolutions of particular concern to Australia. Every nation at Ottawa confirmed the Commonwealth's total support for the African people of Zimbabwe and assistance for the people of Mozambique insofar as they were damaged economically by supporting international sanctions against the Rhodesian regime. Again every member at Ottawa reaffirmed the need for the Indian Ocean to remain an area of peace and stability, and expressed concern about military bases in the region. These 2 matters in a regional forum are of continuing relevance to Australia.

Thirdly, there is the fact that 3 members of the Commonwealth are a very large source of migrants for Australia- Britain, as always, and since the war, Malta and Cyprus. It is a happy circumstance that the Head of the Commonwealth in her jubilee year is in Australia. The Commonwealth has continuing- I believe, growing- significance for all its members and not least for Australia.







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