Australia’s high commissioner for the UK, Richard Alston, will represent the Australian prime minister at this year’s imminent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kampala.

The former Senator Alston, who served in John Howard’s government from 1996-2003 as minister for communications, information technology and the arts, has been appointed the prime minister’s “special envoy” at this year’s CHOGM. Yet as the meeting begins this Friday, 23 November (the eve of our general election) and ends on Sunday, 25 November, it seems he will spend most of the proceedings uncertain as to who, exactly, is prime minister of Australia. After all, Uganda lags well behind Australian summer time.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has also confirmed that Australia’s current caretaker foreign minister, Alexander Downer, will be represented at this year’s CHOGM by senior DFAT official, Michael Potts. Those attending the meeting include the Queen and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Among those who have been pestering DFAT for weeks for news of who would represent Australia at this year’s CHOGM were the British Australian Pensioner Association and the British Pensions in Australia organisation. Over the years they have pleaded with John Howard to raise the matter of the UK’s frozen pensions policy at CHOGM.

The UK frozen pension policy penalises Britons who retire to Australia and almost every other Commonwealth country. Their British pensions are not subsequently uprated in line with inflation, even though they contributed to the UK’s mandatory National Insurance pension scheme throughout their working lives. The policy does not adversely affect Britons who retire to the European Union and most other non-Commonwealth nations.

Currently about 500,000 British expats are penalised by the policy. About half of those expats are living in retirement in Australia. Many have become dependent on a supplementary Centrelink pension because they can no longer survive on British pensions that have not been uprated in line with inflation for years and in some cases, decades. The current cost to the Australian taxpayer is about $110 million a year.

For decades successive Australian governments have unsuccessfully called on the UK government to rescind the policy, although John Howard has repeatedly refused expat pensioner organisations’ requests to raise the matter at CHOGM. Even though many Australia-based British WW 11 veterans are penalised by the policy, Howard also refused requests to raise the issue when visiting the UK for WW 11 related events that have included the 60th anniversary of the Normandy Landing.

But a glimmer of hope. Given the uncertain times, special envoy, Richard Alston, may well be incredibly grateful for something pertinent to say in Kampala, something acceptable to either Howard or Rudd, whomsoever he may find himself called on to represent. In any event, the British Australian Pensioner Association has lost no time in emailing him to suggest there would be no better time to ask Gordon Brown to relieve Australia of the cost of supplementing the pensions of expat Brits.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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