In 2020, The Parliamentarian, the Journal of Commonwealth Parliaments published by the CPA, celebrated its 100th anniversary with a special issue.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association was founded in 1911 as the Empire Parliamentary Association. At the time, the British Empire was composed of the Westminster Parliament in the United Kingdom, five dominions, a handful of tiny protectorates and a vast array of colonies. The Empire Parliamentary Association was founded at a meeting on 18 July 1911 in what was then House of Commons Committee Room 15 in the Palace of Westminster.
As well as Members of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the meeting was attended by representatives of the then dominion Parliaments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa. The meeting was organised by Howard D’Egville who was later knighted for his role in founding the Empire Parliamentary Association. For over half a century, he supported the Association and would ultimately be the first Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
The founders of the original Association had different motives: the British sought to generate dominion support for a centralised imperial federation to advance British interests in an increasingly tense world, while the dominion representatives wanted a voice in what Britain might be dragging them into. They soon realised that they had more in common than the differences that separated them – the practice of democratic government and the language of parliamentary politics.
Post-Great War Years
That first meeting in 1911, held to mark the coronation of King George V, paved the way for future meetings of British and dominion Parliamentarians at Westminster and paved the way for dominion leaders to be involved in the imperial war cabinet during the First World War and in them, and India, joining Britain in signing the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. As it moved into the 1920s, a new political role emerged for the Association as a link to keep a changing empire together. Its membership began to expand, taking in first Malta and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and then India. Soon other Parliaments joined from Europe, Asia and the Caribbean, and Australia’s states and Canada’s provinces began joining the group to extend the Empire Parliamentary Association into the second tier of governance. Heads of Government began using Empire Parliamentary Association conferences and other meetings as a forum to speak to Britain and in 1924 the first conference was held outside London, with representatives spending two months in southern Africa, starting in Maseru in what is now Lesotho before moving across South Africa.
Conferences followed in Australia and Canada, although London remained as the favoured destination. Its meetings set the stage for the Balfour Declaration of 1926, which lay the foundation for the ’Commonwealth’ as a free association of nations, and for the Statute of Westminster of 1931 which gave the dominions de facto independence. By 1939, the Empire Parliamentary Association was composed of more than 20 Parliaments and Legislatures. It was a force in keeping the parliamentary side of the Allied effort together during the Second World War through the provision of information via conferences, publications and letters. It kept open the channels of communication which were to bring the United States into the conflict on the Allied side. This continued after the war as its conferences and publications were often the only means of reliable communication among the Parliaments as the new internationalist world was taking shape.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association emerged from the Empire Parliamentary Association at a conference in London in October 1948, as Parliamentarians preceded their governments by several months in recognising the future lay in working together as equals co-operating to build a new world. The Commonwealth was not to be born officially at the government level until 1949 with the London Declaration.
The ‘winds of change’ which then blew throughout Africa and across the entire former Empire brought about the end of colonialism and the birth of a diverse collection of independent states which could have gone their separate ways, leaving their common history of conquest and subjugation as nothing more than a bitter legacy. But, as it had in 1911, the commonalities of the practice of democratic government and the language of parliamentary politics helped to keep the peoples, their new governments and the Parliaments that had grown out of the old empire together in a new dynamic – if often underappreciated – international grouping of peoples, sovereign nations and their Parliaments and Legislatures. As the Commonwealth grew to its current membership of 53 nations, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association grew to become a force for good governance not just in the over 180 jurisdictions where it has Branches today, but throughout the wider world.
As Ghana led the independence movement across Africa to join India, Pakistan and the ‘old’ Commonwealth, the CPA’s growth in numbers and in new Parliamentarians occurred in parallel to a movement which was building across the professional world in the 1960s and 1970s, the implementation of continuing professional development.
CPA Conferences, which became annual from 1961 having previously been held every two years, added discussions on parliamentary and electoral processes to the usual agenda of political – especially foreign policy – issues. Seminars, such as the Westminster Seminar on Parliamentary Practice and Procedure which began in the early 1950s, meetings of Presiding Officers and Clerks, study groups on parliamentary subjects, the conversion of its quarterly journal from a summary of debates in various Parliaments to The Parliamentarian as the Journal of Commonwealth Parliaments (first published in 1920).
The EPA/CPA Archives from 1920-1980 are stored within the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Archive. More information on accessing the archives can be found here.
The CPA in 1989 created the constitutional posts of Patron and Vice-Patron of the Association. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of the Commonwealth consented to become Patron of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. The Vice-Patron of the Association is normally the Head of State or Government of the CPA Branch hosting the coming annual Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference.
The Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians (CWP) was founded as an informal group in 1989 to increase the number of female elected representatives in Parliaments and legislatures across the Commonwealth and to ensure that women’s issues are brought to the fore in parliamentary debate and legislation. The CWP was formally recognised by the CPA in 1996 and the CWP Chairperson was first elected in 2004.
The CPA has since 1981 held Small Branches Conferences for Members from more than 30 jurisdictions with populations of up to a current ceiling of 500,000 people. Members discuss political problems and the operation of democratic systems in some of the world’s smallest jurisdictions through the CPA Small Branches network and in 2016, the first CPA Small Branches Chairperson was elected.
The CPA celebrated its centennial in 2011 and has continued to develop the best traditions of the Commonwealth and the CPA to honour the work of the Association in a way which will promote and advance the evolution of the parliamentary system throughout the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association continues to evolve and adapt. In 2018, the CPA established its latest formal network in the form of the Commonwealth Parliamentarians with Disabilities network. This came about following a Conference in Nova Scotia, Canada in 2017 which highlighted the need for more work to be done to support disabled parliamentarians.