Commonwealth bloc could reach $1.5 trillion value and fill gap left by trade wars, says Secretary-General
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Commonwealth bloc could reach $1.5 trillion value and fill gap left by trade wars, says Secretary-General

London: Australia will be asked to endorse plans to build the Commonwealth into a $US1.5 trillion trading bloc by expanding commerce between its 53 member nations, in a bid to defy Donald Trump’s attempts to impose new trade barriers.

The trade agenda is central to a Commonwealth summit in London that seeks to turn the group into a more powerful voice in global trade, starting with a strong statement that will challenge the US President’s latest tariffs.

The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Baroness Patricia Scotland, wants Australia and other members to commit to removing barriers across the vast group in the hope of reaching the $US1.5 trillion goal by 2020.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland with Prince Charles in London last year.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland with Prince Charles in London last year.

Photo: AP

Baroness Scotland told Fairfax Media the summit could turn the Commonwealth into a leading force on free trade at a time of growing concern about global trade wars.

“With the rising protectionism around the world and the backlash against globalisation in many countries, the Commonwealth remains a beacon of stability,” she said.

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“Our trade research shows that Commonwealth countries, overall, are less protectionist and are less likely to apply harmful measures against their fellow Commonwealth members.”

The statement on trade is being negotiated in the hope of making it one of the strongest outcomes at this week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, while leaders also prepare to discuss stronger co-operation against terrorism.

En route to CHOGM, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will leave a day early, taking annual leave to visit his newly born fourth grandchild in Singapore.

Booked to fly on a commercial airline at his own cost, Mr Turnbull said he is thrilled to be able meet Ronan, and spend time with his son Alex and other family members.

Mr Turnbull arrives in London on Wednesday for a formal reception, followed by a ceremonial welcome from Queen Elizabeth and a private retreat with fellow leaders at Windsor Castle on Friday.

He is due to hold private talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is also urging the Commonwealth meeting to take a strong position on open trade.

Baroness Scotland, a British cabinet minister and Labour MP before being elected to run the Commonwealth, said member countries from Africa to Asia were making stronger commitments to open trade.

A report prepared for this week’s summit estimates the Commonwealth members have a 19 per cent cost advantage on trade between each other because of their common laws, established rules and often a common language.

“It’s just been there – like a diamond at the bottom of your grandmother’s cupboard, which you’ve just discovered,” she said of this trade advantage.

“How do we burnish it, how do we make it into something more than 19 per cent? How do we increase it to 30 per cent?”

Trade among Commonwealth countries was worth $US600 billion in 2016 and investment was worth another $US700 billion, according to the estimates prepared for the Commonwealth secretariat.

Baroness Scotland said the growth target of $US1.5 trillion was “likely to be quite conservative” given that trade could reach $US700 billion and investment could reach $US870 billion in investment by 2020.

“I think the Commonwealth is pointing in the opposite direction to many countries, in the sense that it is not pointing towards a protectionist approach,” she said.

“It’s remaining open and far less protectionist, while applying fewer harmful measures against our fellow Commonwealth members.

“That may be because of the respect and trust we have, but it may also be because of the similarities between us in terms of how we do business.”

Baroness Scotland is a key figure in building support for an outcome on trade from all 53 member countries.

Born in Dominica with a heritage that combines Scottish, French, African and American Indian, she became a QC before being made a minister under Prime Minister Tony Blair and rising to Attorney-General under his successor, Gordon Brown.

Baroness Scotland, who was given a life peerage in 1997, praised Australia for giving the Commonwealth strong funding support in recent years and said she hoped for commitments from others at this summit or soon afterwards. Australia is one of the big three “ABC” funders of the Commonwealth alongside Britain and Canada.

“I certainly think financing is a big issue. What I’m really warmed by is that in the last two years people have been saying that what we are doing in the Commonwealth is so relevant to what they need day-to-day,” she said.

“The figures have got down but we hope they will go back up again.”

“I’m so grateful to all of those who do support the Commonwealth.

“Australia has really stepped up. Whether it’s the climate change finance hub or the support for Commonwealth young people, Australia has been great and I’m so grateful.”

On the succession plan for the head of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland said it was not her position to comment on whether Prince Charles should succeed Queen Elizabeth because that was a decision for the heads of government.

Under arrangements made in 1949, the head of the Commonwealth is decided by the leaders and does not automatically pass to the British monarch.

“Long may the Queen live. Her mother lived to over 101 so I think she’s got a good time to go yet,” Baroness Scotland said.

“These are issues which will be determined by the 53 leaders whenever they want to discuss that. There’s a lot of speculation, a lot of people are talking about it but I have nothing to say about it because it is going to be down to the 53 leaders to determine.”

David Crowe is the chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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