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Reflections of a G20 scholar

Reflections of a G20 scholar
Published 29 Sep 2016   Follow Tris_Sainsbury

Tomorrow will be the final official day of the Lowy Institute for International Policy’s G20 Studies Centre. 

Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison will be speaking at the Lowy Institute tomorrow on the themes of trade, investment and immigration, all crucial dimensions to current discussions about globalisation.  

Next Thursday, Dr Martin Parkinson, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, will talk on Australia’s approach to international governance and to the G20. The closing address of the G20 Studies Centre promises to make a unique and fitting contribution to a debate that the Institute has been hosting in recent months on how Australia should best approach international economic engagement.  

These timely speeches reinforce one of the primary goals of the G20 Studies Centre: to add to the quality and volume of Australian voices on matters of international economic governance and the G20.

On a more personal note, tomorrow also marks my last day at the Institute after two years as an international economic governance scholar. 

In my office I have a photo. It is of one of my favorite memories of the G20. It is of me playing a drive at a cricket match during an ‘Aussie barbeque’-themed lunch during the Australian G20 presidency. 

The game started among Australian officials and support staff, but quickly became a joint participation event as many delegates from around the world experienced their first backyard cricket match. One (prominent) attendee’s contribution sticks in my mind. Holding the cricket bat in a way that would make baseball aficionados proud, he had a tendency to launch bowlers over their head and over a nearby fence. And each time he hit the ball over the fence, it set off an alarm. [fold]

The longer I have spent in a think tank, the more I believe the boundary-hitter had it a bit easy. Sure, this was the first time he was playing the sport, with (by that time) a large crowd watching him. But as Mike Callaghan, the inaugural director of the G20 Studies Centre, described to me before I joined the Lowy Institute, the life of the think tanker is one of lobbing balls over a fence without ever being sure whether targets on the other side are hit. As outsiders attempting to add value to the closed-door G20 process, it is very rare to be able to draw a clear causation between our ideas and the public policy agenda, let alone the sort of on-the-ground outcomes that affect people’s lives. And we are public commentators, with our names attached to everything that we publish (and as I have learnt recently, sometimes things we don’t). We point instead to correlations and aim to be an influential voice in a debate. 

The G20 Studies Centre was established in 2012 with the support of the Australian government and with a mandate to help strengthen the G20 through independent analysis, fresh ideas and constructive, pragmatic recommendations. We coordinated the Think20 process in 2014, bringing ideas from around the world to feed in directly to the 2014 Australia G20 Presidency. We have had an excellent vantage point in Sydney in monitoring the forum’s progress as Russia, Australia, Turkey and China have each stepped up and taken the hosting reins. 

The last four years have certainly been insightful for those interested in international economic governance. It has become clearer where the value of the G20 lies. The G20 remains the premier forum for international economic cooperation, and it provides insurance value as an avenue for policy cooperation during crises. The forum has delivered some success stories for longer-term governance challenges, mainly in the progress made in the realms of cross-border financial regulation and international tax (although both areas can still be described as ‘work in progress’, with much still to be achieved in both areas). It has been the site of broader technical cooperation among G20 governments in a range of areas.

But one thing that is striking, looking back, is how many of the overarching challenges that were evident in 2012 continue to plague governments across the world. In the overview to the first G20 monitor, Mike Callaghan pointed to a weak, unbalanced and vulnerable global economy, failures of governments to act in a way consistent with their role of providing global economic leadership, worries that the G20’s agenda had expanded too widely and covered too many unrelated issues, and calls for the G20 to get ‘back to basics’. 

It is fair to say these are still prominent issues. The world hasn’t emerged from the long shadow of the ‘great recession’, and the inability to point to significant advances in several key areas has contributed to growing public perception that the G20 is not acting effectively at a time where governments face increasing incentives to focus domestically and lower their sights away from global challenges. 

None of this obviates the need for global cooperation on genuinely global issues. Indeed, Glenn Stevens, former governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, has highlighted how international engagement is an inherent and arguably increasingly worthwhile objective, notwithstanding rising anti-globalisation and protectionist sentiment. Given this, my firm view is that economic engagement in the G20 remains a no-brainer for Australia

To that end, we need to continue to see high-quality public analysis and debate on international economic issues and the best approach to Australia’s international economic relationships and memberships. Being at the Lowy Institute provides a unique blend of insights into attitudes from academia, the media, civil society, business and the general public, both within Australia and internationally. As I move on, I look forward to seeing my wonderful Lowy Institute colleagues continuing to lead the charge in this important public policy space.

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