Seated on yellow sofas in the drawing-room of a luxury resort hotel on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, Commonwealth leaders wearing open-necked shirts grappled with the thorny problem of Zimbabwe between sips of tea yesterday.
Voices rarely rose above a genteel murmur as delegates spent the afternoon in private talks, closeted away from their officials and the media. Outside, though, bitter divisions between the Commonwealth's black and white nations were laid bare with painful clarity.
While Britain, Australia and New Zealand forcibly restated their wish to see Zimbabwe suspended after the intimidation and violence that have marked campaigning for next weekend's presidential election, African countries vented their frustration at being railroaded into immediate action.
Britain and Zimbabwe, meanwhile, stepped up their war of words. Tony Blair accused President Robert Mugabe of attempting to rig the election; Jonathan Moyo, Harare's Information Minister, castigated Mr Blair for neo-colonialist meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state.
The dilemma concerning the Commonwealth's most recalcitrant member has preoccupied the grouping of Britain and its former colonies for months. There were hopes that this four-day summit would end the prevarication and send a clear signal of the civilised world's abhorrence of Mr Mugabe's repression of the media and opposition parties.
Few of the presidents and prime ministers cloistered in the heavily guarded Hyatt Regency complex in Coolum would dispute that Zimbabwe has flouted Commonwealth principles of respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law. But they remain split on whether to resort to the ultimate sanction of suspension.
The timing of the biennial Commonwealth heads of government meeting originally scheduled for October, but postponed because of the 11 September atrocities has strengthened the hand of those leaders inclined to be forgiving of Mr Mugabe. With polling just a week away, and Commonwealth observers deployed in the country, they argue that it would be foolhardy to punish Zimbabwe now. Even before they arrived in Coolum, Mr Blair and other vocal critics, such as Helen Clark, New Zealand's Prime Minister, were resigned to the prospect of action being deferred.
The issue threatens to undermine the Commonwealth's credibility and illustrates the obstacles that prevent it from acting decisively. The group of disparate African, Asian, Pacific and Caribbean nations insists on decision-making by consensus and speaking with one voice. So the outcome of the Zimbabwe discussions is likely to be a classic Commonwealth fudge: a strongly worded statement and to follow a compromise proposal tabled by Canada yesterday a timetable for Harare's status to be reviewed within six weeks if election observers give critical feedback.
The other problem is the uneasy, quasi-paternalistic relationship between white developed countries and other member states.
Benjamin Mkapa, the Tanzanian President, articulated the anger of many African leaders yesterday, saying: "The scene is unfolding in Zimbabwe, not in Coolum. Unless we are going to make unintelligent, irrational decisions, we should let the scene play out before we make a judgement." There was an assumption, he said, that a Mugabe victory meant a rigged election. "That is ridiculous," he said. "Let's wait and see."
John Agyekum Kufuor, Ghana's President, said the idea of suspending Zimbabwe was "too radical to think of right now".
Mr Blair challenged Mr Mugabe, who is not attending the summit, to ensure the election result reflected the will of the people. "What he should do if he is confident of his support amongst the people of Zimbabwe is let them have free and fair elections," he said on Australian television.
A few hours later, Mr Moyo marched into the media tent at Coolum and unleashed a stream of invective against Britain. "This is gross interference in our independence and sovereignty by a prime minister of a former colonial power who has exhibited unbelievable arrogance," the Information Minister said.
Referring to Britain's alleged support for Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main opposition party, the Movement of Democratic Change, Mr Moyo added: "He [Mr Blair] says that unless his candidate wins, the election will not be free and fair. That is insulting, not only to Zimbabwe but also to African nations and the Third World."
Zimbabwe has overshadowed all other issues at the summit, to the irritation of small countries who regard the Commonwealth as their only platform.
Yesterday Koloa Talake, Prime Minister of tiny Tuvalu, struggled to make his voice heard when he appealed for help to prevent his low-lying South Pacific island nation from being engulfed by rising sea levels caused by global warming.
And little fanfare perhaps fortunately attended remarks made by Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan President, as he accepted an award for his government's campaign against Aids. Mr Museveni declared that the Aids virus was spread mainly by heterosexuals in his country, since "we don't have homosexuals in Uganda".Reuse content