The Commonwealth summit proved anew the rule that leaders love to gather for a gabble, but deciding actually to do something tends to induce paralysis. Or, more likely, a demand for further study. 

What the leaders did agree on was to change succession laws so that in the future the first-born daughter of a British monarch will have the same right to the throne as a son. The leaders of the 16 Commonwealth countries where the Queen is head of state unanimously approved the succession change. Oh, and the ban on the monarch getting married to a Roman Catholic is also to be lifted. Progress, indeed!

Commonwealth gatherings often produce these unusual moments when a door to the past is opened and history steps on stage. Perhaps that is what to expect from a gathering that stands on the bones of the British empire and the common experience of being colonies.

Perth demonstrated another working rule of summits: it is always easier for leaders to talk about the areas where they can't have much impact. The less power, the easier the verbiage flows. Thus, the CHOGM Communique devoted plenty of space to musing about the importance of the WTO's Doha Round, urging the G20 to please do something, and stating most firmly that terrorism is a bad thing.

But when it came to human rights and democracy — where the Commonwealth has an unusual, even unique niche — suddenly the going got much harder.

The most bizarre element was that the leaders refused to order the official publication of the report from their own Eminent Persons Group. This produced the strange outcome that the Commonwealth proceeded to accept, defer and reject EPG recommendations that had not formally seen the light of day. So it was that the communiqué pronounced:

Responding to the remaining EPG recommendations as follows:

  1. adopting without reservation 30 recommendations
  2. adopting, subject to consideration of financial implications, 12 further recommendations
  3. asking the Task Force of Ministers to provide more detailed advice on 43 other recommendations to Foreign Ministers at their September meeting in New York, as a basis for further decision by Heads; and
  4. deeming 11 recommendations inappropriate for adoption. 

The eminent persons have clearly proved not to be sound chaps if only one-third of their ideas were judged immediately suitable. Little wonder that the British eminence, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, called the result a disgrace that raised questions about the relevance of the Commonwealth, while the EPG chairman, Malaysia's Abdullah Badawi, thought it rendered the summit a failure.

Apparently, big members of the club such as South Africa, India and Sri Lanka were not too keen on creating a new set of standards on democracy and human rights that would immediately start to bite them in sensitive places. The summit didn't actually kill the recommendation for a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights. Instead, the idea has been sent away for further study.

So Perth managed to reach agreement on the rights of as yet unborn royal humans while not being so 'brave' on human rights.

The wrangle over the Commissioner brings to mind a classic Commonwealth story. In a burst of benevolence for a deposed foe, the Hawke Government decided to nominate the previous Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, for the job of secretary-general of the Commonwealth. Ahead of the vote at the CHOGM in Kuala Lumpur in 1989, Malcolm had been jetting around pledging that he'd put new force and energy into running the Commonwealth.

The Australians were quietly confident that with a bit of extra summit urging from Bob Hawke, they just might win the vote for Fraser. As the moment of decision approached, Margaret Thatcher turned her attention to the race. She rang all the other leaders saying they should take the former Australian prime minister at his word. 'Do you realise,' Thatcher warned, 'if Malcolm gets in, he'll want to do things!'. Exit Malcolm.

Those who want the Commonwealth to do things will always confront difficulties at Commonwealth summits.