Once every two years, the heads of government of the British Commonwealth meet. This meeting is called the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit or CHOGM, for short. One pronounces it cho-gum.
This year, CHOGM is to be held in Perth, Australia. I am typing this en route to that great western Australia city. I am in the back of what we call RCAF 01, a big passenger jet that that air force officially classifies as a Polaris CC-150. In fact, it's really just a rather old-fashioned Airbus A310 that has some military-grade avionics, a coat of that grey-green RCAF paint, and a special cabin up front for the prime minister (and, in this case, his wife).
The picture on the left, incidentally, is a rare snap inside the prime ministerial cabin but it was taken in 2010. It's changed slightly and just recently. The seat covers have been replaced in the PM's cabin and elsewhere in the plane. Instead of the dark blue, there is a lighter shade, though still, dark with a pattern on it. Other than that, it's still pretty much as is, complete with the faux-wood panelling that was so popular as an installation option in the basements of so many Canadian homes in the early 1970s.
And while I'm on the topic of our perfectly functional but rather shopworn little green donkey (as I affectionately call RCAF 01): I know we're living in a time of austerity and that many ministers are being beaten about the head for over-using the fleet of RCAF Challenger jets. But we're a G8 country and this is the plane our leader runs around in. The US has Air Force One built by an American company, Boeing. The Indians also put their guy in a 747 trimmed with national colours. The Japanese PM flies with not one 747 but two! I could go on… And when we show up at world summits, there's our little green donkey parked on the tarmac next to countries who don't mind showing off a bit by buying their leader a decent plane. Perhaps we could spend a few bucks to show off a Canadian plane manufacturer like Bombardier? Plus this 10-hour trip to Honolulu is right at the end of this Airbus' range. To get to Perth or China or India, our PM has to refuel three times! Couldn't we get a fuel-efficient aircraft that can get our PM from one side of the world to the other with fewer GGEs and without having to refuel? I know: Wishful thinking. We don't have the money for hospital beds or the unemployed. And you're probably right.
As it is: we are about 4 hours out of Ottawa as I type this and still have a little more than 6 hours to go until our first of two refueling stops. The first is in Honolulu, Hawaii. (If all goes well, that's where I will see my first IP address in 10 hours and from where this will be posted) After spending 90 minutes to fill up the green donkey we have 8 hours and 10 minutes in the air to arrive at our second fuel stop in Noumea, New Caledonia where we will fill 'er up again before spending another 7 hours and 50 minutes in the air to get us to Perth.
So we will have left Ottawa at 1720 ET on TUE OCT 25 and will have arrived at our final destination at 2300 ET on WED OCT 27. But that's Ottawa time. When we arrive, it will be 11 a.m. on THU OCT 28 and, though we will have spent 30 hours in a plane, we will all be getting right to work. Prime Minister Stephen Harper will emerge from his cabin (above) where he will have enjoyed a bed and a shower, armed with a new speech to be delivered to the CHOGM business forum. Journalists and political staff will be leaping up from our economy seats in the back of the plane to proceed directly from the airport to the convention centre where, two hours after deplaning, Harper will deliver this speech. Then, somewhere around 3 a.m. Ottawa time on THU OCT 28 / 3 p.m. Perth time, we will get to our hotel in Perth. I'm not complaining! Just sayin' is all. Honour to cover Canada's PM overseas all, yadda, yadda, yadda ….
And I should point out here, because it often comes up, that the media accompanying Harper on RCAF 01 are paying their way. The bill for airfare, hotels in Perth, and so on comes to several thousand dollars for each reporter, cameraperson and technician on board. Some of the major news organizations in the Parliamentary Press Gallery such as The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star have opted not to pay that fee and are not present for this trip to CHOGM in Perth. The news organizations that have ponied up to dispatch a reporter on this 30-hour ride out to Perth and 30-hour ride back include Sun Media (that's me), Postmedia, Canadian Press, CBC English television, CBC English Radio, CBC French television, CTV, and Global Television. That's it. No Maclean's. No Rabble.ca. No Le Devoir.
As for what to expect in CHOGM: Not sure. I'm blessed to have been to enough summits now to know that if you stick to the stories you expect to write on your way there, you will miss the stories that are actually happening while you're there. That said: We have a few things we're keen to track:
- Will the Commonwealth nations accept the recommendations of an “Eminent Persons Group” (which included Canada's Conservative Senator Hugh Segal) and make changes to improve the Commonwealth's ability to encourage the rule of law, democracy, and human rights among its members? Among other things, this group is recommending the creation of a Commissioner of Democracy. Surely that would be a world's first.
- In more than 40 of the Commonwealth's 53 countries it is illegal to be gay. Honest to god. That's wrong. And Canada would like to see some countires change that, particularly given rising homophobic violence in places like Uganda and Cameroon, our Commonwealth cousins.
- Speaking of human rights: A United Nations panel said there is “credible” evidence that Sri Lanka's army committed war crimes against its own civilians in 2009 as that country's 25-year civil war was coming to an end. Many, including Canada, say Sri Lanka must face up to its past and investigate these allegations. Sri Lanka's response to global calls for such an investigation? Screw you. Ain't gonna happen. Ok, but when Sri Lanka hosts the next CHOGM, in 2013 in Colombo, they won't see Canada there. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already said he won't go until Sri Lanka's government does the right thing. Wonder if any other Commonwealth cousins have the same cojones to call Sri Lanka out.
- Can British monarchs marry Roman Catholics? Nope. If Will and Kate have three girls in the next five years and then have a son seven years from now, how come the son becomes heir to the British throne and not the three girls? That's the way it's been, I'm afraid, since 1701 when the Act of Settlement banned monarchs from marrying Roman Catholics and gave male offspring first dibs on the throne over their older female siblings. UK PM David Cameron, though, is ready to change that — and Queen Elizabeth II is down with his plan. (She's already in Australia and will be there to preside over CHOGM) Now all Cameron needs is the approval of all the “realms” that recognize the British monarch as their head of state — Canada would be one of those 16 or so realms — and it seems a done deal that such approval will be given, enabling Cameron to present legislation to his House of Commons to amend the 1701 Act of Settlement and give it a 21st century freshener.
- Other than that: Australian columnists are making a big deal out of the fact that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has blown off this summit. The population of all Commonwealth countries is about 2 billion and 1.2 billion of them live in PM Singh's country. He's old, he says. And he has to go to the G20 in France a couple of days after CHOGM. And then there's the APEC meetings in Hawaii he needs to attend a few days after that. Too much travel. The Australian press,on the other hand, says Singh is snubbing Aussie PM Julia Gillard's government and that Singh's failure to attend is a failure of Australian diplomacy with arguably the most important player in Southeast Asia/Oceania.
- We're back in time for trick-or-treating in Ottawa on Monday. Should be a fun few days.