A year in the planning, this week’s meetings of Commonwealth business and government leaders need to deliver tangible results.
One year ago, when Commonwealth Business Council director-general Mohan Kaul visited Perth to start promoting the Commonwealth Business Forum, he had a clear message.
“The Commonwealth’s history may lie in politics but its future lies in business,” he told local industry leaders.
Dr Kaul said the future of the Commonwealth lay in trade, investment and education links.
He urged business leaders to “leverage the Commonwealth to your advantage”.
The state government has certainly done its utmost to leverage this week’s gathering of government and business leaders from some 50 countries.
One of its earliest moves was signing up one of Perth’s most-respected and well-connected business figures, investment banker and company director Mark Barnaba as chair of the business forum’s Western Australian steering committee.
Mr Barnaba predicted one year ago the business forum would attract up to 1,000 delegates.
The final number was closer to 1,200, which is a good turnout for any conference in Perth.
Dr Kaul made a much more ambitious prediction last year.
He prefaced the prediction by saying the last Commonwealth Business Forum in Trinidad & Tobago resulted in the signing of 11 agreements, collectively worth $1 billion.
Deals signed in Perth could be worth 10 times that amount, he said.
It was a good way to draw attention to the event, which has attracted some of the world’s largest companies, including BP and Rio Tinto, as sponsors.
For many people in the local business community, the business forum and the main event – the heads of government meeting and the presence of the Queen in Perth – provide a rare opportunity to do two things: to build networks and to showcase WA’s achievements and its place in the world.
To some extent, the fact that CHOGM has garnered so much attention simply confirms Perth’s status as a relatively small, isolated and very parochial city.
Be that as it may, we should all look to make the most of this opportunity, which can serve to highlight the many positives WA offers.
That can be everything from our clean environment and inviting climate (rain permitting), to our world-class universities, our enviable tradition of liberal democracy, with a free press and independent judiciary, through to our business achievements.
The latter are led by our world-leading profile in the resources sector. This involves a whole lot more than just digging rocks out of the ground. The resources sector in WA is technically advanced and that is why one of the opportunities being pursued this week is to promote the state as a centre of training and skills.
Many Commonwealth countries, particularly in Africa, would benefit from modelling themselves on WA; they can’t reproduce our climate, but all of the other attributes discussed here can be applied elsewhere.
There are many Commonwealth countries that need to improve their record in terms of free elections, an independent judiciary and other attributes we take for granted as a liberal democracy.
These issues tend to swept under the carpet at large gatherings like CHOGM, which is a shame. Robust debate is always a good thing.
In terms of commercial opportunities, the biggest market among the Commonwealth countries is India. As such, it’s a shame that India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, chose not to attend CHOGM.
But it’s notable that WA’s largest export market in China has chosen to send a substantial delegation to Perth this week.
China is still the main game for WA business but there are many other opportunities across the globe.
In one week, or one month, when we reflect on this week’s events in Perth, hopefully there will be tangible results that we can point to.
If it’s just another talkfest, the public will be rightly cynical about all of the effort that has been taken to accommodate visiting world leaders.