“Shirtfronting,” traffic and terror worries, and government spending excesses have dominated Australian media coverage in the lead-up to the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane. But Canberra has bigger plans for the most significant gathering of world leaders the nation has ever hosted, not least including the challenge of reviving a faltering global economy.
Despite being described as “a stairway to heaven for international bureaucrats” with its 69 official related meetings, Australia has pledged to deliver tangible outcomes at this year’s gathering with its agenda of “promoting stronger economic growth and employment outcomes” and “making the global economy more resilient to deal with future shocks.”
Leaked documents have pointed to growing expenses for the event, including A$150,000 ($132,000) for a special conference table, despite Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s pledge to rein in the “frivolous” plans of his predecessor.
Yet since assuming the G20 presidency in December 2013, the government has promoted the significance of the event for the world’s 12th biggest economy.
“The G20 Summit will be the most significant meeting of world leaders Australia has ever hosted. With 4,000 international delegates and 3,000 media anticipated to attend, it will bring global exposure to Brisbane in a way not experienced since the Commonwealth Games and World Expo of the 1980s,” Abbott said in a statement.
With the G20 gathering representing more than 85 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), 75 percent of global trade, and 65 percent of the world’s population, Abbott has stressed the event will be more than a “talkfest,” with practical measures to remove “international impediments to trade, jobs and growth.”
In February, G20 finance ministers and central bank governors pledged at a Sydney meeting to “lift our collective GDP by more than 2 percent above the trajectory implied by current policies over the coming five years,” or effectively a 0.5 percent annual GDP gain, delivering a $2 trillion boost to the global economy.
At a follow-up meeting in Cairns, Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey announced that the same group had “delivered strategies that will achieve 1.8 percent of additional growth across the global economy…[making it] 90 percent of the way to meeting the 2 percent growth ambition we set at our Sydney meeting.” Hockey said “genuine measures” had been put forward by all G20 economies, with around 80 percent of the 1,000 measures announced being new.
Hockey also cited agreement on a “Global Infrastructure Initiative” to boost investment, along with new international tax rules, improved financial regulation and proposed reform of the International Monetary Fund, as well as a coordinated response to the Ebola epidemic. Other measures on the agenda for the November 15-16 Leaders’ Summit include cutting trade barriers, promoting competition, regulating the “shadow banking” sector, improving energy markets and curbing corruption.
Traffic, Terror Warnings
While Beijing has reportedly encouraged residents to vacate ahead of the APEC summit to help clear its polluted air, Brisbane’s Lord Mayor Graham Quirk has called on the city’s 2.2 million residents to stay and prevent the Queensland state capital from becoming a ghost town.
“It is absolutely important to our city and its future that we do not have 3,000 journalists writing about a ghost town. We do not want that, it would be bad news for Brisbane, for its tourism, for its retail, for a whole lot of other things into the future,” Quirk said.
A public holiday has been declared for Brisbane on November 14 ahead of the start of the Leaders’ Summit, while the city government has launched music, dance and light shows to keep residents entertained as part of the “G20 Cultural Celebrations.”
Despite police pledges to limit the event’s impact, parts of the city will be in lockdown mode, including Brisbane airspace, when U.S. President Barack Obama’s Air Force One begins its descent into Brisbane airport. Obama reportedly will bring two planes and Russian President Vladimir Putin three among around 50 aircraft expected for the event, delaying flights at the nation’s third busiest airport, which plans to erect 13 kilometers of strengthened perimeter fencing.
The motorcades of the visiting G20 leaders are expected to block roads between the airport and city venues such as South Bank, where the event is being held, while more than 6,000 police guard key meeting areas.
However, Brisbane’s Courier Mail has warned of plans by anarchists to lay siege to “overt symbols of capitalism,” threatening “waves of destruction” against the event. Police reportedly are preparing for “the sort of violent scenes that broke out during the summit in Toronto in 2010” when more than 1,100 people were arrested.
The daily newspaper has also cited warnings from spy agencies of a potential terrorist attack outside the heavily protected lockdown zone, particularly given Australia’s role in the battle against ISIS in Iraq, although acknowledging there was “still no known threat against the G20.”
Abbott vs Putin
Australia’s prime minister attracted international controversy with his threat to “shirt-front” Putin over Russia’s role in the MH7 Malaysian Airlines tragedy, in which 38 Australians died among the 298 allegedly killed by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists.
In an escalation of a war of words between the two nations, Abbott said: “I’m going to shirt-front Mr. Putin. I am going to be saying to Mr. Putin Australians were murdered. There’ll be a lot of tough conversations with Russia and I suspect the conversation I have with Mr. Putin will be the toughest conversation of all.”
In Australia Rules football parlance, “shirt-front” is a charge aimed at knocking an opponent to the ground. A Russian official responded by noting that Putin has a black-belt in judo compared to Abbott’s university boxing experience.
Despite speculation that Putin would be barred from the event, the Russian leader is still expected to attend, notwithstanding the sanctions imposed on his country by other G20 members. A reported anti-Putin rally is planned for the first day of the summit.
The Abbott government’s move to focus the G20 on economic matters has also led to criticism over such issues as climate change, with Obama reportedly planning to join other world leaders in pushing for global action, despite Australia and Canada’s reluctance.
Concerns have also been raised over Argentina’s debt default and India’s veto over a global trade deal, while some commentators have suggested the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks should have priority over the G20, given the TPP’s potential to deliver a broader free trade zone spanning 40 percent of world GDP.
However, analysts still believe the G20 event would prove worthwhile.
“What should you expect from the Brisbane summit? I’d answer that with one word: traffic. It’s going to be a complete lockdown and I’d just go away if I were you,” joked Matthew Goodman of the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies at a recent Brisbane conference hosted by the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Lower Institute for International Policy.
“It’s a meeting that is a meeting – like all meetings it will have some parts that are tedious, some parts that are not particularly productive, and then some things will hopefully come out of it based on an agenda that Australia has teed up,” he added.
“But the point is these leaders sitting around a table and talking in the hallways and over dinner and so forth, are having an opportunity to build habits of cooperation among them. These leaders are busy people…but they don’t actually have the chance to talk to their peers once a year about important issues that matter to all of them…and so that’s why the G20 is still important, regardless of what it actually does.
“You can’t get President Obama to come all the way to a lovely place like Brisbane just because it’s a lovely place – there has to be something that comes out of it. For the United States, it’s growth and financial stability, at the essence,” he said, citing “subpar” global growth, particularly in Europe.
China’s Ye Yu of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies said Beijing saw the G20 as “heading in the right direction” with its global growth target and cooperation on financial issues.
“China takes the G20 very seriously…for example, in the 18th Party Congress document in 2012, the G20 was written into the document as a very important international platform. That’s the most important strategic document guiding the new leadership….China is [also] trying to increasingly integrate the G20 into its strategic dialogue with the US and Europe,” Yu said.
She noted that the Chinese leadership saw the G20 agenda as legitimizing its domestic growth strategy, although targets for external trade balance and exchange rates were still sensitive areas for Beijing.
Wonhyuk Lim of South Korea’s Korea Development Institute cited the benefit for Australia: “There’s an old diplomatic saying that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. In 2010, when Seoul was the venue for the G20 summit, it was viewed as a coming of age celebration for Korea, finally being at the table.
“The way it is structured, middle powers like Australia can play a very important role in facilitating and mediating among the members and making the whole enterprise work. That’s why it’s so important for Australia this year to host the G20, and why it’s in Australia’s national interest as well as the global interest to make the G20 function well as a multilateral forum for international cooperation.”
Asked if Brisbane would see any lasting benefit, Goodman responded: “I wouldn’t have high hopes for this to have a lasting benefit…it will benefit Brisbane economically, but you’re going to have a lot of traffic and shutdowns and there will be a cost from that. It will highlight Australia’s role as a leader in a group like this, and that will have some lasting benefit…but if Abbott and Putin do have a shirt-front it could be quite memorable.”
Anthony Fensom writes for The Diplomat’s Pacific Money section.