February 22, 2016, by Editor

The Commonwealth Conference – a Liaison Officer’s perspective

Written by Blake Purchase.

The only reason the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Malta last November might sound remotely familiar is due to the Queen’s visit to the island nation.

In terms of its significance, an analogy for the role CHOGM plays is the way in which it acts as a ‘rocket booster’, propelling an exceedingly diverse conglomeration of countries in roughly the right direction. Commonwealth conferences are essentially a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings with an overarching agenda of peace, democracy and environmentalism.

Coordinating the movements of 52 delegations on an island barely quarter of the size of London was nothing short of a logistical nightmare. Thus, it was essential to place support staff with each delegation and I was appointed Liaison Officer to the Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

It was incredibly surreal to be discussing arrangements for the deposit of my delegation’s firearms in the VIP area of Malta International Airport just hours after finishing a German grammar seminar in Nottingham. Having requested the number of Delegation Vehicles required, I returned home at 2am and managed just two hours sleep before needing to wake at 4:30am on Friday morning.

My hour and a half commute across the congested island, followed by stringent security checks at the perimeter of the Radisson Blu Hotel near the town of Mellieħa, made the commute each morning particularly laborious.

A bemusing moment of the daily commute that weekend, was one morning seeing David Cameron’s Range Rover and motorcade soar past the police car I was travelling in, only for my car to pass the Prime Minister moments later as he commenced an impromptu jogging session along a rural road in the north of the island at 6am.

Looking back on the conference, much of it was a series of ‘The Thick of It’ moments, in which Maltese officials hastily pinned up notices in the staff lounge conveying information that had already been altered just moments before, such as timings, travel arrangements and even locations. It then needed re-communicating to our confused delegations who were whizzing around the country attending summits and multilateral meetings. Although it must be said, the organisation of the conference was generally commendable, especially considering the dreadful weather and context of heightened security just weeks after the awful Paris Attacks.

A highlight was facilitating bilateral meetings within a narrow timeframe. An environmental summit on Friday dragged on considerably, thus shifting the meetings forward and working with the other Liaison Officers to get their VIPs in the meeting room at precisely the right time to avoid unnecessary waiting around, was a challenge.

Halfway through the first meeting, the Guyanese press turned up to get coverage of their President’s meeting with the Singaporean Deputy PM and after I gained the delegations’ consent, they were barraged with questions and flash photography. Later that evening, I bundled the Deputy Prime Minister and his spouse into their car for dinner with the Queen.

Saturday was particularly hectic due to David Cameron deciding he wanted breakfast and a quick multilateral chat about corruption at 8am in the morning. The motorcade was a tad late in arriving to the hotel so I had the exciting job of telling the police escort officer to step on the gas. He proceeded to fire up the sirens, clear all the traffic, dodge an earlier accident and park in the back compound of the hotel in which David Cameron was based just before 8am.

 I then sent the cars to different parts of the island to pick up and drop off delegates and spent the afternoon coordinating the Deputy PM’s dinner arrangements. Much to my surprise, I encountered François Hollande in the hotel lobby that afternoon but was later told he is a personal friend of the Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

In the evening I joined the Singaporean security detail whilst their Deputy PM and his wife enjoyed dinner in the beautiful city of Mdina. Driving across the same bridge that featured in the Game of Thrones ‘King’s Landing’ scene with a ministerial motorcade was a fantastic moment and in itself felt rather like a movie setting. Perhaps more notably, I persuaded the Singaporean security officers to try their first olives in the foyer of the restaurant.

Following more meetings and the return journey to the airport, my final and less thrilling task involved assisting the Singaporeans wade through the bureaucracy related to getting their firearms and luggage back.

Participating in CHOGM Malta 2015 was an unforgettable experience, albeit incredibly intense and I am particularly grateful for the support I received from the Politics Department. The experience also reaffirmed for me the Commonwealth’s relevance in facilitating dialogue and pushing forward such an important agenda among this incredibly diverse group of countries.

Blake Purchase is a second year student studying a BA in Politics with German. His research interests include European party systems, IR theory and Thatcherism. Image credit: Author

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