This week Commonwealth leaders are meeting in Malta for their biennial heads of government meeting. One of the first items of business will be the selection of the next Secretary General and with the field wide open, Pacific islands countries could be the king (or queen) maker.
The appointment process is rather opaque, with an unwritten convention that the post will be rotated through the regions. It’s the Caribbean’s turn, but their vote is split between two candidates. Africa has also put forward a candidate, so the field is wide open.
It is an interesting time for the Commonwealth, teetering as it does on the brink of irrelevance or renewal. Its main value has been as a force of liberal democracy and a platform for small states, but it has never really lived up to its potential, leading some commentators to write it off completely.
Lack of strong leadership is one of the reasons that the Commonwealth has struggled to fulfil its charter and the selection of a new Secretary General is an opportunity remedy this.
Among this group, both of the female candidates stand out.
Dominica’s candidate, Baroness Scotland, has a personal narrative that resonates and inspires.
Born in Dominica, Baroness Scotland migrated to the UK as a child, worked hard, became a QC, and then rose to be Britain’s first female Attorney General, having previously served as a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Her politics are progressive, and she seems to be genuinely passionate about winning the post of Secretary General.
As Secretary General, I would immediately seek to build consensus on a revitalised Commonwealth that is focused on tangible and expanded delivery on its twin goals of democracy and development. Recognising that the Commonwealth isn’t simply about member States, but the people of those States, its work will always be deeply rooted on delivering cost-effective and measurable positive impact on the lives of the people of the Commonwealth.
Baroness Scotland’s main rival is Sir Ronald Sanders, currently Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador ‘Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary’ to the United States. He has the backing of a handful of Caribbean countries and was part of an eminent persons group in 2010 that reviewed the Commonwealth. However his campaign has been tainted by a report that he received $1.4m from an alleged fraud against Antigua’s government.
Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, the third candidate, may be able to capitalise of the split in the Caribbean, by building on a base of support from African countries. She has served at the ministerial level and did two terms as Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Secretariat from 2008-2014, so would bring relevant experience to the job.
How will the selection play out?
Caribbean countries are conscious that they have a golden opportunity to win the selection. However their failure so far to unite behind a single candidate has compromised their campaign. In the final hours, they will also need to secure support from other member countries, and this is where the Pacific could play a critical role. The pragmatic approach for the Caribbean would be to unite behind the candidate that can attract sufficient support from other regions. The pragmatic approach for the Pacific would be to support the candidate that best reflects the interests of small island states.
In the event that there is no consensus, the process allows for last minute candidates to be put forward. In recent weeks Australia’s ex Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has been touted by the right-wing press as a ‘compromise’ candidate. Whether he is suitable and would garner sufficient support is debatable. He has a mixed record when it comes to the Pacific, and is not without his controversies. There are of course opportunities for further candidates to emerge.
From a Pacific perspective, Baroness Scotland would be a good Secretary General. She understands the needs and issues facing small island states – recently calling for a 1.5 degree target on climate change. Moreover she has the ability to lobby on our behalf, and would be a welcome and capable first female Secretary General of the Commonwealth.
Whoever emerges as Secretary General, they will face the challenging job of rebuilding the organisation’s relevance in our region and across the world.
Photo caption: Baroness Scotland – a contender for Secretary General of the Commonwealth