Interview: Don McKinnon

New Zealand’s former deputy Prime Minister Don McKinnon spent close to a decade in charge of the Commonwealth, dealing with dictators, diplomats and dissent. He talks to JOSH REICH.


Don McKinnon

Some call it the greatest club in the world, others, a relic of a bygone era. Comprising world powers such as the United Kingdom and India, as well as minute islands in the Caribbean and Pacific, few international organisations can boast such a variety of membership as The Commonwealth. For eight years former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Don McKinnon found himself in the middle of the maelstrom, serving two terms as its Secretary-General. Crises in Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Fiji hogged the headlines during his stay at Marlborough House, on The Mall, while he also had to keep on top of more mundane issues raised by the 50-odd member states, largely linked by the English language, cricket, and little else.

McKinnon, still as sharp and thoughtful as ever at 73, has recently penned his memoirs – In The Ring – of his time at the helm, and was in London recently on a promotional tour and to speak about his experiences in the role. Ever the diplomat, he was unwilling to discuss the performance of the Commonwealth since his departure with the New Zealand Times, but was certainly more forthcoming on why he feels it is still relevant in a world where the United Nations and regional organisations appear to hold sway. For many, the Commonwealth Games and despotic rulers aside, it appears to play little role in the everyday consciousness. McKinnon, as would be expected, is an advocate, but says it is up to each nation to ensure it gets full benefit from its membership.

“I used to pose a question of the Commonwealth leaders individually – are you making the most of your Commonwealth membership? The answer, usually, was probably not. It is a question of each country asking itself that. Really, every country, once a year, should put down all of their international memberships… and see how much are we paying for this and how much are we getting out of it? But for New Zealand, the Commonwealth gives us tremendous entry into Africa. We’ve got two posts in Africa – Pretoria and Cairo – and most Africans do not regard Cairo as an African post. That’s the way it is. One of the jobs John Key gave to me a while ago was to campaign for our (UN) Security Council seat (an election is being held in September 2014), as I’m reputed to know something about Africa. That’s where you use those Commonwealth linkages. The Caribbean is another one. We have very little contact with the Caribbean, except for cricket, so it’s worth while reminding yourself from time to time.”

If Australia wants to introduce something into the United Nations, having the backing of a disparate group of nations, from the smallest island nations to major African powers, is of profound benefit.

“If you can convince 54 counties to support you, that’s a fair whack, but you can also convince people that you’ve truly got global support.”

Then there is simple economics.

“For countries like New Zealand and Australia, we’re both dependent on export income for our standard of living, networks are everything. The networks we have with APEC, regional forums, the Commonwealth, they are invaluable to us in our own way.”

In the dock

Inevitably, the Commonwealth only hits global headlines when one of its members strays from the democratic path. McKinnon took charge in 2000, just as events in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe were coming to a head. Having been unable to satisfy that elections were free and fair, Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth in 2003 and remains a pariah to this day. While losing a member nation was a blow, McKinnon does not expect Zimbabwe to remain on the outside for ever. Grim as it sounds, the eventual death of Mugabe should be the spark that leads to reintroduction.

“I think so,” McKinnon said. “They’ll want to come back. They feel they belong. His (Mugabe’s) own cabinet minster said to me this wasn’t a cabinet decision to leave the Commonwealth. Pakistan was out for 17 years. They haven’t beaten that record yet. Someone said yesterday isn’t it time they came back, but I’m not sure Mugabe will sign up to our values, let alone adhere to them.”

Fiji is also in the Commonwealth dog-box, having been fully suspended in 2009, three years after a military coup led by Frank Bainimarama removed the elected government. Having pledged to hold free elections by September next year, McKinnon remains hopeful a fair vote will go ahead and pave the way for their re-admittance.

“The big thing is to remain engaged. We won’t always achieve what you want to achieve, but you’ve got to remain engaged and keep encouraging and hope that we get there. We hope that he’ll keep himself to that election, which is only a year and a half away. But at the same time the international community has got to keep working with Fijian groups and institutions.”

Balancing act

As a white man from a western country, McKinnon was acutely aware of the balance he had to strike when working with African and Caribbean nations in particular. It was also important that when helping members reform legislatures or democratic processes, a key function of the Commonwealth, a one size fits all approach based on the experiences of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand or Canada may not be quite so appropriate for countries with a more tribal approach to leadership, or with a multitude of ethnic or religious groups.

“It’s often the case that Western countries are a little bit prone to saying to a developing country:  ‘Here is an electoral system, here is a judicial system, here is an education system, take it’. “That doesn’t work. These systems have to grow from within. We can help them do that, we can explain the pitfalls of that. A legislature – a House of Representatives – is it representative of the country? If by virtue of that analysis you can say that after all of this effort one group is not even there, the system is wrong. Whether you’re dealing with different ethnic groups, religious groups or racial groups, the House of Representatives needs to truly be that.”

Transforming lives

Having left the role in 2008, he returned to his country roots, buying land south of Auckland and spending time toiling in the fields. A former National minister, he has recently taken a number of positions offered by the current government. He remains proud of what he helped achieved, especially with some of smaller nations and projects that may not have captured as much international attention – a new primary school curriculum in Ghana, fishing agreements in the Pacific, electoral reform in Lesotho – works which have helped transform lives without making headlines, and continue to keep the Commonwealth relevant.

“More obituaries were written about the Commonwealth than any other organisation, but it still hangs in there. For me it was to ensure the Commonwealth was relevant and credible. In other words, it meant something to the membership and what it did had credibility. As long as you kept that in the forefront of your mind, which I did, that was my sort of guidance.”