Wednesday 23 Jan 2019 | 20:49 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Jan 2019 | 20:49 | SYDNEY

Brisbane G20 summit a success, despite Australia's climate misstep



16 November 2014 19:09

I give the Brisbane G20 Summit a tick of approval. It produced outcomes broadly in line with what I suggested in advance would be necessary for Brisbane to be called a success.

The Brisbane Action Plan, which outlines the reforms countries are proposing in order to increase growth and create jobs, is a more substantive product than similar documents from past summits. Introducing the economic growth target helped push countries to at least promise they would undertake more ambitious reforms.

The real challenge is to implement these reforms. But G20 countries have said they will be held accountable for their performance and have called on the IMF and OECD to monitor and report on their progress in implementing their commitments.

The establishment of the Global Infrastructure Hub has to be kept in perspective. It is being presented as the silver bullet for unleashing trillions of dollars of private sector financing into infrastructure. The hub will make a contribution. But increasing infrastructure requires a lot more than having a hub for improving data flows and best-practice in project documentation. It requires countries improving their investment environment and having a rigorous approach to project selection and planning. The IMF's note to the Summit warned leaders that they had to raise the quality of infrastructure investment by improving the public investment process through better project appraisal and selection.

The deal between the US and India which saw India remove its veto to advancing the WTO agreement on trade facilitation was a godsend for the Brisbane Summit.

If India had not agreed to progress the WTO trade deal, it would have undermined the value of any commitments on trade liberalisation coming from the Summit. Fortunately, the measures on global trade outlined in the leaders' communiqué are positive, particularly the commitment to implement all elements of the Brisbane package, define a work program to complete Doha, and find ways to make the WTO work better.

Cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance was another priority area. Again there are no silver bullets, but Brisbane maintained the G20's momentum on this issue. The introduction of the automatic exchange of tax information will end bank secrecy. This is a big outcome. And the momentum has been maintained in international efforts to combat aggressive tax-planning strategies of companies.

The design of many important aspects of financial regulation were landed, particularly in relation to the problem of some banks being seen to be 'too big to fail', and thus at risk of needing to be bailed out by the taxpayer if they got into trouble. Important outcomes were also achieved on anti-corruption, such as principles to disclose the beneficial ownership of companies. The agreement to improve international energy governance arrangements is also significant.

Not bad for a weekend's work. (Of course, all this was not achieved in one weekend but reflected years of work.)

So Brisbane was a success. But the main press story around the Brisbane Summit was Australia's embarrassment in trying to prevent climate change being discussed in the face of the dramatic deal between China and the US to reduce emissions. It was claimed Australia had lost control of the agenda.

This was a problem of Australia's own making.

Imagine if Australia had adopted a less negative approach during the course of 2014 on how climate change would be handled in Brisbane. The Prime Minister could have said that the G20 is not the place for negotiating emission targets, as that is the role of the UNFCC. But he could have added that he expected leaders would likely discuss climate change in advance of the important UNFCC negotiations next year, and he could have noted that the G20 is dealing with directly related issues such as energy efficiency.

Prime Minister Abbott basically said this at his post-summit press conference. But it was too late. If Australia had adopted a more positive approach well in advance of the summit, rather than conveying an impression that it was doing everything possible to avoid the mention of climate change in Brisbane, it could have latched onto the US-China deal on emissions and presented the Brisbane G20 Summit as an important step in building momentum for next year's UNFCC negotiations.

So for all the good work Australia did as G20 chair in 2014 and the substantial outcomes from the Summit, it missed an opportunity for Brisbane to be presented as a major success across all fronts, rather than being overshadowed by the US-China agreement.

It's a pity, because in every other way Australia had a successful G20 year.

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