G20 Brisbane: Not Quite Australia’s Coming of Age
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

G20 Brisbane: Not Quite Australia’s Coming of Age


As president of the G20 this year, Australia has wrapped up the Leaders’ Summit with mixed results. The host country won plaudits for running a tight and focused agenda and through this example is considered to have strengthened the G20 and set the direction for the organization moving forward. Unfortunately that same unwavering focus backed Australia into a corner when global political momentum shifted to promote climate change and left it behind.

With the presidency of the G20 and a seat on the UN Security Council, it has been a significant year for Australia on the global stage. Its leadership of the G20 has, moreover, been important. First, the G20’s increasingly bloated agenda, with little in the way of actual results, has encouraged increasing cynicism about the group’s effectiveness. This meant the success or otherwise of the G20 this year was even more significant than usual. Australian Treasurer, Joe Hockey, scored an early goal at the G20 Finance Minister’s meeting in February by convincing all members to commit to a concrete target of raising collective growth by 2 percent above projected targets. Second, for Australia, the authority of the G20 presidency gave it the opportunity to show political leadership. Alas, this appears to have been an opportunity it missed.

The G20’s greatest moment occurred at the London Summit in 2009, when financial stimulus packages during the global economic crisis were instrumental in averting an even greater catastrophe. Since then, commentators such as Matthew Goodman, writing in the Australian Financial Review, believes G20 leaders face a credibility gap as they fail to deliver on “two of their three core mandates – strong global growth and international architecture reform – and may be doing a premature victory lap on the third – financial regulatory reform.” He also points to a splintering of the group, reflected in the launch of the BRICS development bank and the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Goodman thinks the way to restore credibility and spirit of co-operation is to limit the number “of clear simple goals that reasonable people can agree are worthwhile and then take a few concrete steps at each summit towards those goals.”

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Australia limited the G20 agenda to focus on free trade, cutting red tape, increasing market participation, and meeting the infrastructure deficit, with Treasurer Joe Hockey promising the group would, “boost growth and create new jobs for a more prosperous global economy and would ensure “implementation of collective commitments.”

While this focus was impressive, leaving specific reference to climate change off the agenda left Australia open to criticism from multiple quarters. Prime Minister Tony Abbott appeared to be wrong-footed by the surprise announcement of the U.S.-China emissions deal at APEC a few days before G20. This was then compounded by veiled criticism from U.S. President Barack Obama, who used a speech at the University of Queensland on Saturday to refer to the climate change threat facing Australia’s own Great Barrier Reef.

In the final communiqué, “support for strong and effective action to address climate change” was mentioned, along with an endorsement of plans to boost growth by 2.1 percent by 2018 (increased from the February commitment of 2 percent in the wake of lower economic forecasts), measures to boost infrastructure investment, agreement on the goal of reducing the gap in participation rates between men and women by 25 percent by 2025, agreement to work together on tax evasion and corruption, the adoption of “landmark energy principles,” and commitment to an urgent response to the impact of the Ebola outbreak.

Playing to his domestic political agenda and refusing to give climate change the stature others called for meant Abbott lost control of the G20 narrative at a time when he should have captured it. Mike Callaghan, head of the G20 Study Centre at the Lowy Institute, said in conversation with The Diplomat, that more skillful handling might have allowed Abbott to “ride the wave” and contextualize the China/U.S. announcement as part of a package of G20 success.

In allowing the domestic agenda to trump its opportunity to lead, Tony Abbott has borne out the views of Peter Hartcher, author of The Adolescent Country, who believes that in Australia, “the big matters are commonly crowded out by the small.” Hartcher says “measured against its potential day to day and its needs tomorrow, Australia is seriously under performing on the world’s stage.”

Australia, it is probably fair to say, has still not fully defined its international role, and in particular its role in the fast changing Asia-Pacific region. At a recent Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) conference in Canberra, analysts and academics debated the direction of Australia’s foreign policy. Prominent Australian commentator, Hugh White believes “there is no bigger challenge in (Australia’s) history than figuring out how to shape the new Asian order.” Australia often appears vexed by the competing tensions in balancing its long standing military ties with the United States and its relationship with its number one trading partner, China. John McCarthy, national president of the AIIA, is critical of Australia’s close relationship with the United States, arguing that Australia’s set of alliances sends the message that the relationship with the U.S. is more important than any other. McCarthy believes this harms Australia in Asia because so long as the country is viewed as unable to talk independently, it won’t be listened to. Part of the problem stems from the fact that the country is unable to determine even what sort of power it wants to be. Richard Marles, Australia’s Opposition Spokesman on Immigration and Border Protection said at the AIIA conference, “we have a choice to make. Do we want to be a middle power, or an activist middle power?” Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, eschews altogether the term “middle power,” saying Australia is not a middle power, it is a “top 20 country.”

If it missed an opportunity to define its regional role and lost its way on climate change, Australia certainly left no doubt as to its ability to successfully host large-scale, important events of the type this country is unlikely to be see again for years. Early fears of violent protests and possible terrorist attacks came to naught, with a slick security operation and perhaps aided by a natural Australian psyche that prefers a beer and a weekend off to rabble rousing. The only thing that marred the event was an unseasonal heat wave, the irony of which will have been missed by few.

Roxanne Horton is a regular contributor to World Politics Review, a political researcher/writer at the Queensland Parliamentary Library and is a principal at Buxton Horton, a foreign affairs/human rights consultancy.

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