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Parliaments and democracy in an evolving Commonwealth

As the world seeks to address a wide range of daunting challenges, the importance of sharing best practice and knowledge amongst Commonwealth Parliaments and Parliamentarians has never been greater. Continuing to develop and enhance the performance of Commonwealth Parliamentarians has been the mission of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) since it was established some 112 years ago.

Tracing the evolution of democracy reveals the differing stages of its development in each Commonwealth country. While some countries have a history of emerging democracy, others cherish long-established democratic parliamentary governments with diverse challenges. Both new democratic governments and older democracies face the challenge of strengthening and institutionalising democracy.

The CPA is a forum for Parliamentarians to articulate and discuss developments on parliamentary procedures and practices, democracy, good governance and human rights. These are fundamental Commonwealth values, as agreed by Commonwealth Heads of Government and codified in the 2013 Commonwealth Charter and other Commonwealth Declarations, such as the Harare Declaration of 1991 and the Singapore Declaration of 1971. The Commonwealth Charter demonstrates resolve and collective commitment to promoting and ensuring that these Commonwealth democratic principles and values are upheld, nurtured and implemented to the highest standards. The CPA continues to play an important role in this regard.

The CPA is highly motivated by the standards of the Commonwealth Charter in conducting its regular activities and we continue to benchmark our ongoing projects with it firmly in mind. The CPA Strategic Plan (2022-2025) echoes the principles of the Charter with the key thematic areas and readily aligns itself to the mission, values and aims of the Association. 2023 also marks the 20th anniversary of the Commonwealth Latimer House Principles, which promote the Separation of Powers in jurisdictions between the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature. As one of the partners that originally established the Commonwealth Latimer House Principles, they are also a key driving force in the CPA. During this extremely tense, stressful and unstable period in history, it is more important than ever that the Commonwealth Charter and the Commonwealth Latimer House Principles are upheld. The relevance of peaceful solutions is brought into sharp focus and differences can be solved by open discussion, tolerance and consensus.

Over the years, the CPA has continued to be a forum for sharing best practices and principles on these fundamental values, which are important for the promotion of democracy and development for the benefit of all Commonwealth citizens. The CPA has a membership of almost 180 Commonwealth Parliaments and Legislatures, big and small, and an estimated 17,000 Parliamentarians across all regions of the Commonwealth. The CPA holds a unique position in representing national, state, provincial and territorial Legislatures across the 56 member countries of the Commonwealth, including the subnational Legislatures of many countries and the Parliaments of the British Overseas Territories and UK Crown Dependencies.

The breadth of the CPA’s membership reminds us of the long record of cooperation and collegiality among the Parliaments and Legislatures of the Commonwealth. Valuable bilateral exchanges and international meetings of those elected or appointed to represent our citizens, and of officials who serve Parliaments and Legislative Assemblies, provide valuable demonstrations of our shared values and democratic principles.

The CPA acknowledges that democracy is a continuously developing concept that needs to be nurtured, and that no single Parliament can do it all in terms of providing a source of best practice. All Parliaments, regardless of how big or small, young or old, are good sources of vital transformation and influence. The CPA is therefore a key forum for promoting and sharing parliamentary development and experience where Members and parliamentary staff learn from each other.

The CPA’s many activities and its quarterly parliamentary journal, The Parliamentarian, are vital not only for sharing information amongst Parliamentarians and other stakeholders, but are also instrumental in enabling the CPA to fulfil its statement of purpose to ‘connect, develop, promote and support Parliamentarians and their staff to identify benchmarks of good governance and the implementation of the enduring values of the Commonwealth’. Members exchange views and deepen their understanding of contemporary democratic and development issues, as well as their roles and responsibilities as the peoples’ representatives.

Today, the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, global economic uncertainty, widespread financial hardship and the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the ongoing need for global cooperation and the opportunities to work together that the CPA network provides. The pandemic has reminded us that we live in an inter-connected global community in which we have a shared responsibility to address common challenges.

Around the world, the pandemic has highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of health systems, including unequal access to vaccines. Parliaments and Parliamentarians have a vital role to play in promoting universal health coverage, both within their own jurisdictions and internationally.

A similar challenge applies to education, where children and young people across the world have seen significant disruption over the past two years. Once again, Parliamentarians have an important responsibility in holding their governments to account on these commitments, as well as ensuring that necessary legislation and budget measures are put in place.

With approximately 60% of the Commonwealth’s 2.6 billion citizens across its 56 countries currently under the age of 30 years, the Commonwealth has a responsibility to engage proactively with young people. 2023 also marks the ‘Commonwealth Year of Youth’. The CPA is dedicated to supporting youth engagement and participation, such as the annual Commonwealth Youth Parliament, held most recently in the CPA Trinidad and Tobago Branch, and through CPA Roadshows to schools and universities and youth workshops. For the Commonwealth to continue being relevant, we need to adapt our approaches with technological and digital advances, utilise every educational opportunity and face challenges together to look toward a more contemporary Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth can position itself strongly and unequivocally beside its citizens and help to tackle the inequalities that cause so much poverty and injustice in our societies. Parliamentarians are vital actors in securing the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the UN Agenda 2030. Parliaments have a duty to represent the people they serve – one way that they fulfil this responsibility is by being inclusive, accountable, open and transparent public institutions.

The CPA Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures reinforce the belief that effective Parliaments are one of the principal institutions of any functioning democracy. They provide a minimum standard and a guide on how a Parliament should be constituted and how it should function in line with the values and principles of the Commonwealth Charter on the development of free and democratic societies.

Commonwealth Parliaments have acknowledged the importance of the CPA Benchmarks and the benefits of undertaking self-assessments using these recommended markers. They noted that the exercise not only promotes good governance and management of Parliaments but also increases Legislatures’ self-awareness of institutional gaps and challenges that need further attention.

The continuous professional development of Parliamentarians and parliamentary staff remains a key priority of the CPA and we therefore continue to develop innovative and relevant programmes for all CPA members. These programmes facilitate the expansion of knowledge, enhancement of procedures and practice, and improvements in accountability and transparency so that our democratic institutions answer to the needs and expectations of their electorates. These activities align closely with the Commonwealth priorities for continually raising levels of performance and responsiveness.

Perhaps our biggest innovation in recent years was the launch, two years ago, of the CPA Parliamentary Academy. This is an online resource available to all CPA Members and parliamentary staff free of charge. Members of Parliament and parliamentary staff are all busy, but the great strength of the CPA Parliamentary Academy is that these courses can be undertaken whenever and wherever you have the time.

Parliamentarians have a vital role in enabling democracy to filter down to a local level among those they represent, as they also hold to account Ministers and officials at the highest levels of government. The most senior interaction between Parliamentarians that takes place amongst the Commonwealth is at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). At successive CHOGMs, Heads of Government have lifted Commonwealth ambition and maintained its global relevance through the contributions of Governments and Parliaments alongside other intergovernmental and associated organisations, networks of civil society organisations, businesses and other partners. There are a huge number of issues that the Commonwealth can work together on, and this demonstrates the important role that Commonwealth Parliaments and Parliamentarians can play in driving forward progress, and in setting ambitious goals for attainment nationally, regionally and for the Commonwealth collectively.

Looking to the future, democracy in the Commonwealth must take account of the changing economic situations and the impact of global pandemics, coupled with emerging trade and economic patterns deepening interdependence, peace and security issues as well as the prospects of creating greater economic opportunities for human development and social inclusion. All of these will have significant implications in defining the common aspirations of the people of the Commonwealth. It will be necessary for upholding democracy to maintain a process of evaluating and evolving norms and practices that will allow for continuous adjustment to unfolding and ever-changing political, socio-economic and cultural trends.

A key priority is the fight against climate change. Small Island Developing States have been powerful voices within the Commonwealth as they find themselves on the frontline in the battle to avert a climate disaster. The Commonwealth can help to amplify the voices of those who need the most urgent action to protect the environment and to promote sustainable development.

In recent years, we have seen increasing international concern about actions or policies that erode or threaten shared democratic values, good governance and human rights. Within the Commonwealth, the CPA works with others to defend these values. Part of our work is to highlight the key role of Commonwealth Parliaments in upholding these principles.

Each of the 180 Parliaments and Legislatures within the CPA is a unique institution reflecting its own special historical evolution. What all Parliaments have in common is a capacity to strengthen democracy by acting as powerful agents of change. Success here is most likely if Members have the necessary support to carry out their parliamentary and constitutional responsibilities.

One of the CPA’s roles is to provide a diverse range of activities and initiatives to enable our Members to learn from and communicate with each other. This is one of the important functions of our three CPA networks.

The CPA Small Branches network represents the smallest jurisdictions of the CPA to identify their particular needs and requirements in parliamentary strengthening, development and cooperation.

The Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians (CWP) is the network of women Members of Commonwealth Parliaments and addresses the need for equal representation and women’s full participation in Legislatures, as well as helping Parliaments to become gender-sensitive institutions.

The Commonwealth Parliamentarians with Disabilities (CPwD) network recognises the need to increase representation of persons with disabilities in political institutions and has been established to facilitate activities and programmes to champion and increase this representation.

These networks serve to connect Parliamentarians so that they can learn from each other, as well as to provide platforms for their voices and common interests to be heard throughout the Commonwealth.

Let us hope that we can work together across the Commonwealth, and beyond, to learn and evolve and dedicate ourselves, once again, to meeting the many challenges faced by Parliaments and citizens alike.

To find out more about the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, please visit or email Hon. Ian Liddell-Grainger, MP was elected as the Chairperson of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) Executive Committee in August 2022 at the 65th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference (CPC). He is a Member of the UK Parliament, having been elected in 2001 for the seat of Bridgwater in Somerset (since 2010, the constituency is Bridgwater and West Somerset). He has served on a number of Parliamentary Committees including International Development, and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

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