Perth was on the world stage last week. Well, almost the world, as the Heads of State in 54 countries met for mutual benefit and the rest of the city partied. What for?
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting or CHOGM (pronounced as a word, not a series of letters.) It is a biennial meeting of the British Commonwealth nations led by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. The voluntary congress talks about issues of mutual interest (trade, immigration, polio eradication, climate change) and individual gain (nuclear power/weapons, resource attainment, operating funds to keep the country going.) Two related forums immediately precede these foreign Heads of State meetings: the Business Conference [where the host country is likely to gain some benefit from all the hoopla] and the Young People’s Conference [where 21 year-olds tell themselves that they should be running countries and companies.]
So what does this mean to the citizens of Perth hosting this event this year? The added security (police brought in from all states and New Zealand) especially around the ministerial hotels guarding delegations and hovering like raptors seemed a bit much. Barricades, street closures, burly men with earwigs “magging and bagging” (magnetometer and bag check) everyone and rooftop snipers being vigilant every time the Queen surfaced gave this otherwise laidback city the look and feel of being occupied by a military force.
Even the people working the event got used to forever walking (or wheeling themselves) through ID doorways despite wearing identity tags and anti-designer shirts few felons would don to get access to third tier delegates and heavily guarded national leaders. Five hundred Perthians were needed to volunteer their time to move general citizenry and dignitaries on to where they needed to be with the least amount of disruption. Hard to believe but a thousand people applied to be goodwill ambassadors of the city for this event.
Not to be totally left out of the excitement the federal government was creating, the state of Western Australia sponsored a CHOGM Festival for its citizens and visitors. Concerts, community art , Speaker’s Corner, public movies, Exhibitions, performances, lectures and even international athletic competitions in netball and field hockey. Something for everyone. And most of it free.
I was one of the volunteer force — with a collective resume to match any in the corporate world. Doing two days work in the busport, I was moved up into the convention center on Saturday morning. A big press conference on the eradication of polio was being held. I had the distinct pleasure of escorting some of the participating Heads of State to the media room. First, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Gilani (not as warm and friendly as his delegate whom I found delightful) and then (drumroll, please) the Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard! The PM and I shared pleasantries about the weather and the exercise we were getting trotting from one event to another ["And still not enough." "I know what you mean."] PMs Gillard and Cameron (UK) were notable amongst the lucky few volunteers to get close to any VIPs for being warm to the insignificant people leading them around. Of course they wouldn’t remember us 15 seconds after we delivered them where they needed to be but their acknowledgment of our existence was as good as recognition for a job well done.
The world’s largest and smallest, richest and poorest countries make up the Commonwealth, which is home to two billion citizens of all faiths and ethnicities – over half of whom are 25 or under. Member countries span six continents and oceans from Africa (19) to Asia (8), the Americas (2), the Caribbean (12), Europe (3) and the South Pacific (10). Some island countries have 10,000 (or less!) inhabitants.
The Commonwealth has grown from just eight members in 1949, to 54 members in 2010.
The Commonwealth countries are: