Australia had a prime chance to demonstrate its adult status in chairing the G20 Summit this year. What did it do with the opportunity?
It showcased some of the characteristic behaviours of an adolescent country, my term for Australia in a new Lowy Institute Paper. Tantalisingly, it also showed glimpses of real leadership, the potential to improve itself and the world at the same time.
It was, of course, the adolescent huffs and squalls that got most of the publicity. First was the Prime Minister's grudging refusal to admit publicly that he would allow the topic of climate change on to the agenda. Like a kid insisting he will allow only his favourite games at his birthday party, Abbott appeared to spend months refusing to countenance any other country's view.
The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, describes climate change as 'the defining issue of our time.' But the Australian Prime Minister said it was not to be a priority. By his wilful determination to shut down the subject, he made it the dominant one. Like attempting censorship in an open society, the attempt to suppress it only gave it greater topicality.
Abbott said that the G20 was an economic forum and he wanted to restrict the agenda to economic issues. But, in reality, his reasoning was based on provincial politics. He had risen to the leadership of his party, and later his country, by campaigning against carbon pricing policies. It was a point of political vanity that he would now turn his back on climate change. He would not allow his Labor opposition the satisfaction of shining a global limelight on an issue seen to be a Labor one.
A rising international indignation towered over the prelude to the Summit. In the event, it almost completely swallowed it. The climactic moment was the US President's speech on the campus of University of Queensland halfway through the summit. Barack Obama was flush with the success of his announcement about new US carbon curbs during an appearance with China's president, Xi Jinping, in Beijing the week before.
American presidents pioneered the use of props in their speechcraft, and Obama is no different. After taking advantage of the Chinese President for one announcement, he then took advantage of Queensland's most famous landmark to make another. 'The incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened,' Obama declared. He wanted to return to Australia to visit the reef with his daughters when he had more time. 'And I want them to be able to bring their daughters or sons to visit and I want that there 50 years from now.' He then announced a US$3 billion contribution to the UN Green Climate Fund.
When the G20 communique was issued the next day, it contained a paragraph on climate change. 'Abbott was on the wrong side of the carbon debate throughout the summit, with his government trying to keep it off the official agenda,' said CNN's Andrew Stevens. 'But, reportedly under strong pressure from both Europe and the US, carbon emissions were part of the official final statement.'
The Los Angeles Times' reporters, Christi Parsons and Don Lee, likewise rated it a triumph for the US:
Obama's influence at the summit also was seen in the final communique's inclusion of statements on climate change, an issue that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott sought vigorously to keep off the agenda.
But beyond the political posturing, in the official working groups, it had been a faux contest. Even as Abbott posed publicly against the idea, his officials quietly added it to the draft communiqués. As Abbott himself disclosed at the Chairman's closing press conference of the G20:
The very first draft of the communique, which Australia prepared, talked about climate change. All the way through, we've been talking about energy efficiency and climate change... All of us want to take strong and effective action against climate change.
In the drafting, the clash had been nothing more than a debate over whether to give climate change its own subject heading. Or not. In the event, there was a paragraph on climate change, and it was included under the heading of energy efficiency.
Yet on the surface, it looked like a triumph for Obama. And it is surface looks like that usually decide opinion. 'It's been a good week for American leadership,' said Obama. It looked to be an embarrassment for Abbott. And it seemed the Australian leader was smarting. A string of Abbott proxies — two ministers and The Australian's Greg Sheridan — went public to grumble and gripe about Obama's speech. This went on for a week. But the simple fact is that Abbot had been caught indulging the provincial reflex in the middle of a global gathering.
The result? The economic agenda that Abbott most wanted to discuss was largely overshadowed by an artificial argument on climate change, the very subject he wanted to avoid.
The other dominant media theme at the G20 was President Vladimir Putin's interventions into Ukraine and his alleged culpability for the deaths of 298 civilians aboard MH17. Abbott had threatened to 'shirtfront' Putin when he visited Brisbane. This set up a confrontation, one the global media eagerly awaited.
Abbott's anger over MH17 was real, but his promised confrontation was also designed to display his toughness to the electorate. Yet after Abbott welcomed him to Brisbane, Putin took great pleasure in exposing the Australian leader's threat as hollow. The Russian state-owned ITAR TASS news service reported Putin's press conference:
I know the way it was covered in the media, I heard the echo. I've seen statements by my Australian counterpart. I would like to say that in practice there had been nothing of the sort. The Australian partners created an extremely friendly environment for work. Cordial, I should say, and very good for the search for solutions to the problems the world economy is faced with.
There was also much media attention to the three Russian naval ships that appeared in Australia's northern approaches during the Summit. The Russian Pacific fleet is aging, but still potentially nuclear armed. 'It can't be coincidence,' said ANU professor emeritus Paul Dibb. Who was shirtfronting whom?
The third much-reported outbreak of the provincial reflex was the Australian Prime Minister's opening remarks to the assembled G20 leaders. These were the remarks where Abbott confided that he was finding it 'massively difficult' to get signature budget proposals through the Senate.
After requesting that all leaders keep their opening presentation to a five-minute maximum, Abbott spent about half his time explaining, ostensibly to the presidents and prime ministers of the countries accounting for 85% of the global economy, the benefits of deregulated universities and a $7 GP co-payment. Among his critics was Bill Shorten, who talked of Abbott's 'eight excruciating minutes' where he 'delivered a weird, cringe-worthy, "little Australia" lecture to the global community.'
Once again, Abbott was using a high-level global meeting to address a domestic audience, and once again it flopped. If he had taken the opportunity seriously as an event in itself, he might have enjoyed happier results.
All of these misjudgments were assailed from afar by the Los Angeles Times' journalist Robyn Dixon by recourse to my thesis of Australia as The Adolescent Country. The G20 Summit had been 'a classic example' of the syndrome, the expat Australian wrote.
Yet there was an underlying substance to Australia's year as chair as well. The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, developed a growth target for the G20 of adding an extra 2 percentage points of global GDP over five years. The member countries submitted some 800 policies which, combined, would add 2.1%, according to the IMF and OECD. It was the right measure for a faltering global economy. Of course, implementation is all-important. The leaders agreed to a review mechanism, but in the end it will be a discretionary matter for each. Still, this is as good as it gets in international summitry.
Hockey led the group in working on other important initiatives, too, including measures to begin reining in multinational corporations' global pea-and-thimble tax minimisation tricks.
Australian showed 'adolescent country' impulses even as it led the world towards some serious work on some grown-up business. The adolescent behaviours were such a resounding failure, and the serious business such a success, that we can only trust that our leaders will conclude it's time to grow up.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.