Driven either by ignorance or ideology, the Albanese government’s response to last week’s shock cancellation by Premier Daniel Andrews of the 2026 Commonwealth Games has been nothing less than pathetic. Indeed, it has all the makings of a monstrous diplomatic stumble.
Reactions outside the Canberra bubble have been intense, albeit largely predictable. Mostly, and quite understandably, they have focussed on the suspicion that Andrews’ pledge to stage the Games in a number of scattered regional centres (with no events planned for venue-rich Melbourne) was a cynical ploy to buy marginal-seat votes in the bush, this perception of a pig in a poke compounded by the appraisal, based on Andrews’ track record of forever playing fast and loose with the truth, that there was never any genuine intention to honour that pledge. Outrage has been particularly severe in the communities most affected — the rural centres promised new pools, bowling greens and athletic fields — and amongst Australian sporting bodies and their athletes, who have been deprived of a major international sporting event on home soil.
Disbelief is also apparent amongst the wider Victorian populace. Once again the Premier responsible for the world’s longest and harshest COVID lockdown, the man who applauded VicPol’s embrace of sanctioned thuggery as police beat, pepper-sprayed and arrested Victorians, has made his state a national laughingstock. Now attention has turned to just how much getting out of the Games contracts will cost the taxpayers of a state teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. So far the news is not good, with Victoria’s negotiating team flying back from London without a deal amid reports that Games officials are demanding at least $500 million in compensation.
As many commentators have noted, damage has been done to Australia’s reputation abroad. Even then, however, apart from rightly expressing fears that the Victorian Premier’s actions have raised the prospect of sovereign risk, their concerns generally have been framed by the old lens of our ‘cultural cringe’. The worry commonly expressed is that Andrews’ antics are being seen abroad as just the latest example of our immaturity, of a lack of sophistication and self-awareness on a par with the boorish and insensitive behaviour often displayed by Aussie tourists in Bali, tantrum-prone sportsmen and sneaky sandpapering by cricketers.
Whilst much of this fretting about the country’s reputational damage is probably justifiable, what has been little commented upon is the almost complete silence from Canberra. The Prime Minister claimed when first quizzed by reporters that he had no prior knowledge of Andrews’ decision and, when pressed, he brushed it off as a matter solely for Victoria and its government. So far as I can ascertain, neither Foreign Minister Penny Wong nor her department spokespersons have said anything publicly about this extraordinary development, despite the potentially serious consequences.
Reneging on an undertaking that an Australian state government has made with a major international organisation — the Commonwealth Games Federation (GFC) in this instance — is a serious matter. It should have rung alarm bells in the corridors of our federal government, immediately being recognised as an issue of national reputation and not just a state drama to be safely ignored. Let’s hope that such an awareness is at least at work behind closed doors. The GFC’s parent, the Commonwealth of Nations, is not to be dismissed, as many on the left are prone to do, as an irrelevant, anachronistic relic of the British Empire no better than a club for fusty old colonialists and imperialists — hence of no real significance to modern Australia and its national interests. Far from it.
The Commonwealth is by no means a lightweight in international affairs. With a membership of 56 sovereign countries (and growing), it is about the same size as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the other large grouping within the UN General Assembly, comprising about thirty percent of that body’s total membership. Together, Commonwealth member states are home to about 2.5 billion people, again about 30 per cent of the world’s population. Of Canberra’s 110 diplomatic missions, 24 are the High Commissions of Commonwealth nations. Of the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum, of which Australia is a participant, 13 are either Commonwealth member states or are in free association with ones that are. Some 2.5 billion people, 60 per cent of whom are 29 years old or younger, call a Commonwealth country home. This includes the world’s largest country, India, with a population of 1.4 billion, but also many of its smallest. Some 33 of the 56 member states have populations under 1.5 million. Of these, 25 are small island developing states, eight of which are in our Pacific region.
Federal governments that treat our obligations to these countries with disdain, deeming their interests as unworthy of our concern, do so at Australia’s peril. Australians are unpleasantly aware of Daniel Andrews and what to expect of him, but from the more distant perspective of overseas observers the distinction between a rogue state acting independently within the Australian nation is less obvious. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, it is not just Victoria but Australia itself that has welched on the Games agreement.
The Commonwealth Games Federation
The CGF, or Commonwealth Sport as it calls itself these days, is an associated organisation with 72 member states and territories, each with its own Commonwealth Games Association. All 56 states of the Commonwealth are members, but there are an additional 16 or so territories associated with individual member states that also belong to the CGF. Some are British Overseas Territories, such as Gibraltar, Bermuda, and the Falkland Islands, but included also is Norfolk Island, an Australian external territory, and Niue and the Cook Islands, both self-governing states in free association with New Zealand. The United Kingdom, although only counted as one member state of the Commonwealth, is included in the CGF as seven separate territories – England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man.
Commonwealth Games are held every four years, on a two-year alternating cycle with the Olympic Games. Whilst all the basic sports, such as those on the track and in the pool, are the same in both competitions, the number and range across the board are more modest in the Commonwealth Games. In the last Commonwealth Games staged in Birmingham in 2022 there were 19 able-bodied sports and eight parasports, compared to the 32 and 22, respectively, planned for the Paris Olympics 2024. Apart from the core sports that must be included, games host cities are given some choice as to what sports they will cater for. Notably absent from Commonwealth Games are sports, such as sailing, rowing, and equestrian events that are costly to stage and prohibitively expensive for many of the smaller Commonwealth to participate. On the other hand, regularly included are other, non-Olympic, sports that are widely played across the Commonwealth – rugby 7s, cricket, netball, bowls and squash.
The Commonwealth Games mostly live up to their reputation as the ‘friendly games’, global sporting events that are accessible to sportspeople from a large number of small countries and territories that do not enjoy the benefits of well-endowed sporting academies and national competitions. For them the Commonwealth Games are often the only chance they have of pitting themselves against some of the world’s best, or of simply enjoying competing against similarly situated adversaries. Where else could a bowls team from the Falkland Islands battle it out with one from Gibraltar? Or a young squash player from the Isle of Man try to best an opponent from the Cook Islands? All of these possibilities, and all of the hopes and aspirations of many from across this global community, could well be thwarted this time around, and in many cases destroyed for good, by Daniel Andrews’ indifference, along with that of Canberra, to a national embarrassment.
We can be assured that these dramatic missteps by one of the oldest and wealthiest members of the Commonwealth have not gone un-noticed by our fellow members, especially amongst the host of smaller, poorer states whose athletes have been the most impacted. Of particular concern for those who run our foreign relations should be the damage it has wrought amongst our Pacific Island neighbours, those whom we profess to be ‘our family’ and which we seek to keep from the arms of China. They, like every other international observer, can spot feckless from a mile off.