Indeed, on the very night of the spill, Bob Carr made it clear that Australia’s role in the G20 was going to feature in the ALP’s campaign for re-election: “The choice of whether you want Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd representing this country at the G20 in September in St Petersburg becomes very clear.” Kevin Rudd reiterated this point in question time the following day, and again in his Saturday morning press conference: “I don’t think it is right, if we can possibly avoid it, for Australia to be represented at the St Petersburg G20 summit by a prime minister six or seven days out from an election.” Rudd has even tentatively invited Abbott to attend the G20 with him, in an effort to demonstrate Australia’s bipartisan commitment to the forum.
Regardless of whether Rudd or Abbott is best placed to represent Australia at the G20, it is good to see the G20 getting more airtime in the domestic debate.
Australia’s place at the top table of economies is not guaranteed. Nor, for that matter, is the table. For although the G20 leaders’ summits commenced with a multi-trillion dollar stimulus package that undoubtedly helped prevent a global depression during 2008/9, critics are starting to line up to decry the relevance, legitimacy and effectiveness of the forum.
However the latest Lowy poll suggests that Australians do appreciate the special opportunity that our participation in the G20 represents – perhaps something Carr and Rudd are aware of. Seventy-Nine per cent of Australians say they have heard of the G20, and nearly 90 per cent believe that ‘it is important for Australia to be part of organisations like the G20.’
The Lowy poll provides a valuable indication that the public will not be impressed if our leaders squander the unique opportunity available to Australia when we assume the 2014 G20 chairmanship.
This is important, as the key variable in whether a G20 chair is remembered fondly (or otherwise) is largely down to the willingness of the host to actively galvanise their G20 colleagues, in the months of negotiations preceding the summit, to sign up to a communiqué with punch.
The G20 has arguably lasted as long as it has because of the active presidencies of the first three hosts at the summits in Washington, London and Pittsburgh. These summits showed the G20’s potential to make important collective contributions to global economic stability, and won over even reluctant members to the point that leaders were prepared to designate the forum as their ‘premier forum for economic cooperation’ with one another in Pittsburgh.
If Australia wants the global economy to be a better place by the end of our chairmanship, then the prime minister, the treasurer and a host of senior officials will have to spend our host year ‘campaigning’ in G20 economies to produce outcomes related to our agenda priorities, be they on multilateral trade, financial reform, or infrastructure financing. This will require active and informed input from the government of the day.
The Lowy poll result suggests that whichever party wins the election will have to hit the ground running on the G20 if they don’t want to let down the Australian public, and our national interest, fourteen months later in Brisbane. Without this kind of dedication, the G20, and our claim to be a part of it, will be that much weaker.