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If the G20 is so great, why isn't Rudd going?

If the G20 is so great, why isn't Rudd going?
Published 7 Aug 2013 

Hugh Jorgensen is a Research Associate in the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre.

It took me three years of work to get us into the G20. We are hosting it next year. To have this jammed up against a federal election date is a problem and if I can overcome that problem I will.

— Kevin Rudd 

Given the 7 September election date, we now know the (political) problem of the G20 summit could not be overcome.

For mine, this is surprising. Only last week, French President Francois Hollande issued a press release stating he would be meeting with Kevin Rudd in Russia. Moreover, given the number of phone calls Prime Minister Rudd was making to his G20 colleagues, I had become so convinced that the Prime Minister would be mingling with twenty of the world's most powerful leaders at the 5-6 September G20 leaders' summit in St Petersburg that I actually tried to place a bet on a 21 September election.

Luckily for me, the risk of insider information corrupting such markets led to them being shut down back in January, and so while I may have saved $6 (I'm a high-roller), the bigger question for Australia is: what will we lose by not having our leader at this year's G20 summit?

There are at least a couple of reasons to believe that, as far as the G20 is concerned, the timing of the election is a less than preferable outcome for Australia's foreign policy aspirations. [fold]

The first reason, previously outlined by Mike Callaghan, is that the roll-call of leaders at the Brisbane summit may be more spoilt by 'the tyranny of distance' than any previous summit. Brisbane is a long way from the other centres of G20 power, even if only psychologically rather than physically. Yet if one or two major leaders decide they are unable to attend next year's summit due to domestic political concerns, it may become a dead rubber event. This could be bad-to-fatal for the future of the G20, and hence Australia's place at 'the top table'.

Greg Sheridan wrote on Monday that non-attendance at events like the G20 due to domestic elections or national disasters was par for the course. But the G8 only lost its perfect attendance record at its 38th meeting (Putin did not make it last year) and the newer BRICS summits still have a 100% success rate.

To date, only two leaders have failed to show at a G20 summit: at the Toronto 2010 meeting, Lula da Silva excused himself due to the death toll from the horrendous Brazilian floods, while Wayne Swan represented Australia, as Julia Gillard had only disposed Kevin Rudd days earlier. So it does not help that our second avoidable non-attendance will provide a ready-made excuse for reluctant participants in 2014. It will also bolster critics of the G20 who already dismiss its status as a 'premier forum for international economic cooperation.'

This is doubly so if Australia wants to aim for some 'visionary' outcomes in 2014.

If Australia's G20 presidency opts to take on a big global policy deadlock that is crucial to the future of our own country and region, such as the future of the multilateral trading system, resolving the morass of climate financing, or contributing to the post-2015 development agenda, then we need to convince all the key players to be in the room. And even if Australia targets something meaningful in 2014, given the precariousness of the election outcome, Foreign Minister Bob Carr, Rudd's likely substitute, will not be able to confidently advertise to other G20 leaders precisely what that target would be, as this is something to be determined by the election winner.

The second reason is that Australia will assume the G20 presidency on 1 December, after which time the prime minister will be responsible for corralling and establishing working relationships with fellow G20 leaders so as to produce a meaningful outcome at the Brisbane summit in November 2014. If the election had been held prior to 7 September, the new prime minister could have attended St Petersburg and begun building (or rebuilding, in Rudd's case) rapport with G20 colleagues.

This is a shame. The G20's great advantage over other multilateral bodies is that it brings together the key political figures from its member countries. Together, they can do significant things that ministers and officials cannot. At the 2009 London summit, leaders notoriously 'tore up the script' that had been prepared by their officials and collectively came up with the now famous 'trillion dollar' stimulus 'fight-back' that helped avert a global depression. But such action requires the G20 chair to have established a professional camaraderie with a core group of leaders before the summit.

In addition, if any bold action does emerge in St Petersburg, Senator Carr will simply not be able to contribute with the kind of clout that is the unique remit of a leader (and not least because his own political shelf life may be mere hours from expiry, although, admittedly the same could be said of Rudd).

Of course, realistically and unfortunately, the above considerations are likely all but immaterial for the Government. The decision to call an election that coincided with the timing of the G20 is clearly one short on foreign policy, and long on domestic. The evidence is abundant: recent private polling in the very marginal seat of Boothby (currently held by the Coalition by a margin of 0.6%) found that attending the G20 would have made voters feel less favourable to Rudd, and could forgoe any chance of the ALP winning the seat. And if the ALP were able to build up enough momentum in the next four weeks, then having the Prime Minister abscond overseas mere hours before the ballot would clearly be a political insanity.

While the prospect of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition attending St Petersburg in a bipartisan show of Australia's support for the G20 has been entertained in these pages and would probably be warmly welcomed by a campaign-weary public, Tony Abbott's recent stated aversion to the idea now all but precludes this from happening. Specifically, Abbott's belief is that 'Australian elections are not about someone being prime minister of the world, they're about someone being prime minister of Australia'.

Maybe, but one would have thought that elections are also about choosing which prime minister we want to send out into the world on our behalf, a world that needs all the help it can get in global economic governance.

Yet by not attending the St Petersburg summit, Rudd has also made it more difficult to claim Australia's participation in the G20 as a feather in his cap, or as a crucial part of his government's response to the global financial crisis, as was implied by the opening quote of this piece. Put bluntly, if it's so great, then why isn't he going?

On the night of Rudd's return to the leadership, Bob Carr indicated on Lateline that the G20 was going to feature heavily in the ALP's re-election campaign: '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'. Yet the timing of the election means we have only been presented with one choice: none of the above.

Photo by flickr user London Summit.

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