Let’s begin with the essential proposition: the G20 is a good thing – or at the very least an immeasurably better thing than any of its predecessors.
The old G7 was an unashamed rich white men’s club: the United States, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan – the latter accorded honorary caucasian status as it was in apartheid South Africa. Canada was roped in at the last minute.
And that was where it stopped – for 22 long years, the world changed but the G7 did not. The members were politically and culturally westerners, free-enterprise capitalists who saw their mission to preserve and enhance the economic status quo. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was eventually brought into the fold and having opened the floodgates, the G7 finally accepted that there was a new reality. Pushed by Canada’s Stephen Martin and urged on from the sidelines by Australia’s Kevin Rudd, the G20 stumbled, blinking, into the daylight.
The emerging giants of China and India could no longer be ignored and from Asia they were joined by South Korea and Indonesia. From South America came Argentina and Brazil and, from Central America, Mexico. The Middle East provided Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and South Africa and Australia brought up the numbers 19. To round things off, and to appease the old guard, the European Union as a whole was given a seat in its own right.
Hence the G20, comprising 85 per cent of the world’s wealth, 75 per cent of its trade, and – more importantly – nearly two thirds of its population. Its leaders represent, in one way or another, a diversity which mirrors a very large percentage of the planet on which we all live. It is worth celebrating, and so Tony Abbott, among many others, is prepared to celebrate.
But alas, it did not go quite according to plan. To start with, we had the mega-macho threat of a shirtfront to Vladimir Putin. This was always going to be a letdown, and so it transpired. Our prime minister came down to a robust discussion, then to a demand for justice, and finally a request to an apology – not in the glare of sunny Brisbane, but behind closed doors in Beijing. When the pair met at the G20, Abbott offered an effusive handshake. Even a captive koala seemed more aggressive. Team Russia one, Team Australia nil.
In the end the seriously hard words came from David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Stephen Harper, prompting a reports that Putin was preparing to make his excuses and depart prematurely. In the end he didn’t, but it was another distraction which had already included far too many for Abbott’s time in the spotlight – the hysterical revelation that Russian warships could be seen in the distance among them.
But the big one was of course Barack Obama’s stubborn insistence that climate change was the real issue. Having already pre-empted the headlines with his announcement with Xi Jinping at APEC, Obama upstaged everyone with his powerful and wide-ranging speech at Queensland University, where he urged the masses to rise up and demand action – urgent and uncompromising action – from their politicians.
The contrast from Abbott’s public adjuration to speak from the heart (as opposed to the brain, presumably) was devastating. After he reminisced through his 2013 election slogans, boasted about getting rid of the carbon tax – the most cost-effective weapon in the fight against climate change – building more roads for more emissions for more cars and stopping the boats (which he said were illegal – they’re not) he moved on to complain that the voters and their parliamentarians did not want him to put up university fees and charge more for sick patients.
No doubt his fellow leaders were bewildered. His own press called it a whinge.
And of course he dismissed the Xi-Obama breakthrough as hypothetical. Well, yes: but no more so than his own action plan to increase two per cent of the world’s GDP.
Pledges for the future are, by definition, pledges. But given the progress the United States and China have already made in working towards reducing their reliance on carbon, they must be seen as a lot more realistic than Tony Abbott’s own pre-election promises.
And they are serious. When Obama described Australia’s position as a healthy debate, he was obviously being tactful, but given the whole tone of his speech, he was making it very clear that Abbott’s position was simply not acceptable. No amount of sophistry can conceal the inadequacy of the defence put up by him and his minsters: we really are doing something, it really will work and when we get around to it we may or may not do something more. And if you fudge the figures, we are doing as much as the United States.
Of course it is not really an economic issue anyway, so it does not really exist. And above all, coal is good for humanity, remember? The arguments have always been self-serving and ignorant; in the context of Obama and the broad consensus of the gathering at Brisbane, they are contemptible.
And this is the real strength and message of the G20 meeting: it shows us a hard look at our leaders and their peers, and when they are giving us hope and confidence, and when they are talking bullshit. And it seems that the punters can sense it: not just the audience at Obama’s speech, but those on the sidelines. The demonstrators who endured Brisbane’s heat to make their many points all had their particular grudges, and fair enough; but they wanted positive responses. Unlike too many of those who disrupted previous G20 meetings, they did not just want to tear the system down, they wanted to make improve it – to listen more to what they saw as the injustices and inequalities in society and to find remedies. Idealistic perhaps – even naïve. But how much better than fear and pessimism, gloom and doom.
On that level alone, the G20 must be counted a success – even if Tony Abbott did not get the public acclaim he had wanted. Or perhaps because of it.