Before I went to Don McKinnon’s session this morning, I knew little about the Commonwealth or the man who was Secretary-General of the organisation from 2000 to 2008. Now I feel I have an insight into the complexity of dealing with the leaders of the 54 member countries and the tenacity it takes to affect positive political change.
Sir Donald McKinnon, ONZ, GCVO, or Don as he likes to be called, was in conversation with journalist Jane Clifton, discussing his memoir In the Ring and entertaining an appreciative audience with insights from his time with one of the world’s most revered diplomatic organisations.
The Commonwealth is the longest established organisation in the world. Times have changed since the days of the British Commonwealth. Today there are only 16 realms in the group, most of the member states are republics.
Don McKinnon spoke about the challenges of dealing with leaders from different cultures and the importance of forming strong personal relationships. He said we believe in transactional relationships in the west whereas in Asia, Africa and the Pacific, building relationships is key.
None of the countries in the Commonwealth are simplistic in their nature. They are complex and not always easy to deal with. Add to this the fact that ‘all leaders are in a permanent state of stress’ and you have a situation which would challenge even the most experienced politician.
Don recalled attending an African Leaders’ meeting and Colonel Gaddafi entered the room, kissed every person there three times, then gave them each a gold bar. To his disappointment, Gaddafi’s minders decided that Don didn’t qualify for a gold bar because he wasn’t actually an African leader.
Don McKinnon is a politician through and through and knows that success in politics centres around trust and making, and keeping, friends in all the right places. Don’t expect any gossip. The author is a career politician who knows his stuff. He is a captivating speaker and not afraid to state his opinion.
And as to the future of the Commonwealth? He says, as long as it sticks to its values, promotes itself strongly and makes sure people know what it’s doing, it will remain an important player in the world of international politics. “There are 180 million kids in the world who will never see a school in there life. There is no shortage of work to be done.”