On 23 February Prime Minister Abbott delivered a much anticipated speech to World Economic Forum at Davos outlining Australia's vision for the G20. The immediate response on Twitter was largely negative.
Chris Giles from the Financial Times tweeted: 'sign of the times, Rouhani (President of Iran) packs out the hall. Everyone leaves before Tony Abbott explains Australia's ambitions for the G20 in 2014'. Was the apparent lack of interest a comment on Australia, the G20 or the Prime Minister? Giles followed up with a tweet saying 'Abbott uncomfortable with all this G20 stuff'. A bit harsh.
This was a speech by the Prime Minister, rather than one largely drafted by officials. As a former official, I am sure that any draft submitted to the Prime Minister would have had more about Australia's priorities for the G20 in 2014. But the prospects of achieving any meaningful outcomes from the G20 Brisbane Summit will not come from what officials write, but what the Prime Minister believes in. He is in the chair for the summit and he will set the tone. We heard comments based around the Prime Minister's key beliefs, and these are largely centred on the fundamental role of the private sector in driving growth.
The three specific priority areas for the G20 mentioned by Abbott were trade liberalisation, combating tax avoidance and evasion, and encouraging infrastructure investment. This is appropriate, but what still remains to be outlined is how Australia intends to progress these objectives.
The most notable thing from the Prime Minister's speech was the reference to a three-page communiqué from the Brisbane Summit. If this can be achieved, it would compare well with the 27-page leaders' declaration at St Petersburg (and over 400 pages of supporting documentation).
Prime Minister Abbott deserves a bouquet for his commitment to brevity. But producing a short, meaningful and agreed upon communiqué is significantly harder than agreeing on a longer statement. Stick with it, PM.
The speech was, of course, only part of the Prime Minister's engagement in Davos. His arguably more important commitments were his meetings with other leaders. In his speech he said 'I promise you: we will make your trip worthwhile'. I hope he convinced the G20 leaders he met in Davos that a trip to Brisbane in November will be worth it and gave them a sense that there will be some significant outcomes from the Brisbane Summit.
Bottom line: there wasn't much new information about Australia's priorities for the G20 in 2014, but at least the Prime Minister is beginning to engage on the issue.