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What is the Commonwealth and why was Elizabeth II the queen of Australia and Canada?

King Charles will take over as Head of the Commonwealth, the global network of 54 nations with close ties to the United Kingdom.

What is the Commonwealth?
Charles McQuillanGetty

The UK monarch not only rules over the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but is also head of state in dozens of nations across the world.

There are 54 countries across the world, including the United Kingdom, who form voluntary members of the Commonwealth, formerly known as the British Commonwealth of Nations. This free association is now led, in principle, by King Charles III but members are tied more by shared values and ties of friendship that any governmental structure.

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The evolution of the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth emerged in the first half of the 20th century as Great Britain began to release the composite regions of its Empire. For the first time, sovereign states were able to pledge an allegiance to the British crown while maintaining their own government.

The Commonwealth was first established in 1931 with the Statute of Westminster and sovereign status was given to Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State (Ireland). New Zealand, South Africa and Newfoundland, which later became a province of Canada.

Over the following 80 years the Commonwealth has expanded to span 54 independent countries. Many of the members were formerly a part of the British Empire who opted to retain close ties with Britain after their independence. One of the first to do so was India, which decided to remain in the Commonwealth after its status as a republic was confirmed.

The Head of the Commonwealth is not necessarily a hereditary role, despite the fact that it has always been assumed by the British monarch. However after the death of Queen Elizabeth II this week, it was confirmed that King Charles III would become Head of the Commonwealth.

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Why are Canada and Australia in the Commonwealth?

As a general rule, Commonwealth nations opt to be in the group because of close political and historic ties with the United Kingdom. Both Australia and large parts of Canada were formerly under the control of the British Empire and their remains similarities in culture, society and language that bind the nations.

In terms of the specifics, Canada wanted closer ties with the UK in the post-war years to aid its lucrative export market. As a number of the first Commonwealth nations were recently-founded republics, like Canada, membership of the Commonwealth was seen as a unifying principle that could bring together nations of different political systems.

The situation is similar in Australia, which was a British colony until 1901. Australia was one of the founding nations of the Commonwealth, despite being on the other side of the world, and retains a close relationship with the UK.

A statement from the Australian Parliament explains: “As Australia’s history is closely tied to Britain we have chosen to maintain our membership of the Commonwealth to the present-day.”


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