Abbott's chance to seize the G20 lead

Australia will chair the G20 for a year beginning in December. With a host of global trade issues critically ignored, Tony Abbott must set a disciplined agenda to get multilateral consensus back on track.

There are high expectations when Australia takes over as G20 chair on 1 December 2013. Australia is expected to help the G20 get its ‘mojo’ back. Can Australia deliver?

The Treasurer hit the nail on the head when he recently said in New York that in chairing the G20 ‘I am looking to build a tight, well-focused agenda that leads to genuine action and tangible outcomes’. There does not have to be a long list of ‘achievements’ coming from the Brisbane summit. In fact, a bloated and excessively ambitious agenda is one of the G20’s problems. But there has to be substantive progress on a few international economic issues. The Brisbane Summit has to demonstrate that the G20 is more than a talk shop and photo opportunity.

But previous G20 chairs have said similar things at the start of their term – getting ‘back-to-basics’. What went wrong? The chairs were swamped with a wave of pressure from countries and international organisations to either include new items or not drop existing items from the agenda. Within countries, various parties both in and outside government want to see their top international issue on the G20 agenda.

So how can Australia resist this pressure and deliver the goods? It will take leadership and discipline. There needs to be a united team, a strong captain and a comprehensive plan: Lowy has released its ‘Playbook’ for the Brisbane Summit. The G20 is a political grouping, not an international economic institution. Its inherent strength is the involvement of leaders. Leaders can overcome political roadblocks and provide momentum to advance issues. Getting outcomes will require a coordinated 12 month political campaign. The message must be clear as to what the summit is seeking to achieve and why. And the chair has to keep the G20 ‘on message’.

The priorities for the Brisbane Leaders’ Summit should include: developing a ‘G20 coordinated growth strategy’, which would incorporate the role of infrastructure investment in driving growth; breathing life into the multilateral trading system; progressing the international effort to combat tax evasion and avoidance; and building momentum for the UNFCC climate change negotiations in 2015.

The ‘vision thing’ should also be incorporated into the Brisbane Summit. Businesses are increasingly operating globally. Goods are no longer made solely in one country, but are ‘made in the world’ through global value chains. Trade policy has not kept up with the spread of international business, nor have tax laws. With technological developments, including the rise of the digital economy, the pace of change will continue. Nation states acting independently cannot deal with globally operating businesses.

The Prime Minister must take the lead and ‘own’ this agenda. He has to engage with other G20 leaders throughout the year and enthuse them with the importance of making progress on key issues. The Prime Minister and Treasurer will have to put the steel into the Australian officials chairing the preparatory meetings to ensure that the agenda remains focussed on real outcomes.

Australia will have to be forthright in its chairing of the G20. From the outset it has to signal that things will be done differently. The officials cannot be captured by the ‘club-like’ atmosphere that dominates international gatherings. Their focus should not be on avoiding contentious issues, particularly through the use of gobbledygook language in communiques, but identifying the critical stumbling blocks that leaders need to resolve. The push to add items to the agenda can be handled with a multi-track process – leaders concentrate on a few key issues with the rest of the agenda handled by ministers and officials and reported separately. But there must be coherence in all the work undertaken by the G20 and clarity as to how it is contributing to achieving shared objectives, particularly economic and jobs growth.

As with any political campaign, it is important to manage expectations. Previous G20 chairs have been excessively ambitious. Many issues cannot be resolved at one summit. But if a contentious matter is seriously addressed, and this builds momentum toward resolving the issue, then this can be a valuable outcome.

In Brisbane, leaders should look to the future and recognise that closer international economic cooperation will be essential, as will an effective G20.

Mike Callaghan is the Director of the G20 Studies Centre at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He is the author of ‘Playbook for the Brisbane G20 Summit’ launched Wednesday.