Mike Callaghan is Director of the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre.
Will Julia Gillard go to the G20 Leaders' summit in St Petersburg on 5-6 September, one week before the federal election?
This is a question being asked by many, including the foreign embassies in Australia which are monitoring Australia's preparations for chairing the G20 in 2014. My impression is that most think she will not attend the St Petersburg Summit. More generally, they believe that the election introduces an element of uncertainty into Australia's preparations to chair the G20.
These assessments may be right. No campaign manager would want their party leader to be in Russia in the crucial week before a general election. Imagine if momentum was starting to build for the ALP; would the Prime Minister want to be overseas? Of course not. The Opposition would no doubt welcome the Prime Minister's absence from the campaign trail for a few days and will criticise her if she does not attend the Summit.
But take a broader view. Australia will assume the chair of the G20 on 1 December 2013. It is important for the global economy, the Australian economy, as well as the country's reputation that Australia is a successful chair and strengthens the effectiveness of the G20. It is meant to be the premier forum for international economic cooperation and there are many challenges confronting the global economy.
With this in mind, the Australian prime minister should attend the St Petersburg G20 summit in September. The absence of the Australian leader would send the wrong signals about the priority Australia places on the G20. These summits follow a format a bit like the Olympics. At the end of the meeting, the incoming chair briefly outlines to the leaders the priorities and direction that they will be pursuing. It would not be a good look if the Australian prime minister was not there to outline Australia's priorities.
So how can the Prime Minister's international obligations be reconciled with the demands of a general election? Perhaps the answer is for both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to attend the G20 St Petersburg Summit in September.
Both could gain and potentially lose with such an option. The Prime Minister inviting the Leader of the Opposition to be part of Australia's delegation may be seen as signaling that the government expects to lose the election. However, the Prime Minister is Australia's leader at the Summit and would be participating in the meetings. The Leader of the Opposition would be part of the Australian delegation, so he may feel that he is 'second fiddle' to the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, he would have the opportunity for bilateral meetings with some of the world's leaders. He would also gain some insight into the G20 summits.
The Opposition may say that the Prime Minister knew of the obligations associated with the G20 summit when she picked the date for the election. And as noted, joint attendance has risks for both parties. So is it naïve to think that party political considerations and campaign strategies could be put to one side and there be a bipartisan approach to attending the summit. But it would be the best outcome for the country and a powerful signal of the importance Australia places on the G20.
Photo by Flickr user art-dara.