Abbott ready to put G20 behind him


Tony Abbott at G20

My prognosis that the heat would be on Tony Abbott at the G20 was largely borne out. It was a tough meeting for him, and whatever remains of personal warmth or trust between the Australian PM and US President Barack Obama will have been diminished by its outcomes.  

Abbott’s best public moment was his closing media conference. He gave an impassioned defence of the meeting’s achievement in agreeing on a concrete, statistically verifiable plan to raise global growth by 2.1 per cent over the next few years. This strategy was essentially negotiated by Treasurer Joe Hockey and senior national officials, who also drafted a communiqué, in the months preceding the meeting. There was, apparently, nothing very controversial in this ‘Brisbane Plan’ and it was welcomed by G20 leaders and international financial agency heads.

This G20 was not a boring talkfest, however. On two important matters – climate change and Ebola - the dynamic of the meeting got out of the Chair’s control and produced outcomes clearly not to his liking. Abbott’s counter-strategy – quite successful in retrospect  – was to set media hounds running to the side-drama of Vladimir Putin. As Anglosphere leaders and journalists goaded and stalked the impassive Putin over Ukraine, Abbott – having stoked this fire assiduously over past months - stood back smiling, saying it was the Chair’s task as host to treat all participants with equal respect during the meeting, and that he had had his say on Ukraine at APEC a few days earlier.  All this distracted the media from the real story: how Abbott had lost control of the meeting. 

The real and historic drama at this G20 revolved around climate change policy, and the protagonists here were Abbott versus most leading participants. The denialist Abbott failed to keep climate change policy discussion out of the G20 meeting. 

He had had no warning of the major Obama-Xi carbon emissions reduction target agreement a few days earlier. Then he was wrongfooted by Obama’s brilliant and moving appeal to Australian youth at Queensland University on Saturday to resist the outdated thinking of their elders and the vested coal interests. Cameron supported that message the next day. The heatwave helped. Abbott and Canada’s Harper were on their own. 

Obama announced a generous US pledge of $300 billion to a UN Green Climate Fund to help developing countries to avoid going down the carbon road. On the next day, Japan’s Abe pledged $150 billion. Both leaders thus responded promptly to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s appeal for early generous pledges. 

There were bitter behind-the-scenes battles between Australian officials and other delegations on how strong the communique language on climate change should be. Australia lost. The original draft was greatly strengthened. The final communiqué appealed to G20 members to make strong early commitments to new decarbonisation targets well ahead of next year’s Paris Climate summit, and to make early pledges to the Green Climate Fund. At the media conference, a clearly disgruntled Abbott said Australia will address such matters at the appropriate time.   

The other drama was Ebola. Again as with climate change, there was a drafting committee confrontation which Australia lost as to how strongly the communique should appeal to countries to give generously to the world battle against Ebola. 

There is no doubt that the US was a major protagonist in these policy confrontations with Australia. As Obama happily told his post-meeting press conference, this G20 had made real progress towards ‘its three main policy goals’: in trade reform, in climate change and Ebola. So where did the Australian mantra ‘this G20 is all about jobs and growth’ go?  

Abbott's forgettable moments included his introductory remarks about his achievements in ending the carbon tax, stopping the boats, and building roads; and regretting his difficulties in getting the Parliament to pass a $7 patient’s contribution to doctors’ visits. The stony, stunned faces of other leaders as they listened to this odd discourse said it all. Bill Shorten’s later critique of it as ‘weird and inappropriate’ was justified.

I was also struck by the inappropriate scheduling of a tripartite US/Japan/ Australia leaders’ side meeting to discuss defence cooperation in Asia. If the theme was to be cooperation in containing China - as had been tipped to media that it would be -  the timing and venue were highly inappropriate, so soon after the Obama/Xi climate policy breakthrough and even an announced improvement in China/Japan security relations, and the day before Xi was to address the Australian Parliament . 

I assume Australia had suggested this meeting. In the end, to give it some public justification, they played the Putin card again, producing a joint statement on Ukraine. 

Abbott in Sunday’s G20 energy discussion reportedly made a defiant defence of the continuing need for coal for years ahead, and he repeated this in his final press conference. 

I would say this was an interesting G20 with undercurrents and side-currents of real drama. It succeeded by its own dynamic and under the convention that every such meeting must be successful because it would reflect badly on all august participants if it were not. But clearly Abbott did not get his own policy way at this meeting, and it showed (e.g., in Hockey’ strained reaction to persistent questions on climate change on the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday). Now, Abbott will put the best face on it.  

Brisbane was thanked for its hospitality, and Abbott was thanked for being a good and effective Chair. Maybe the contrived anti-Putin sideshow will save him from the worst negative public assessment of his own achievement at this G20. But I am sure he was glad when it came to an end.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is a former ambassador to Poland.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, G20, Tony Abbott, Vladimir Putin, Barrack Obama, economic growth, climate change, Ebola



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Existing comments

The fabric of Humankind is being ripped to pieces. Too many hands are pulling in too many different directions. Some of these hands are well visible others instead are not visible at all. Some pull in the name of everyone and some instead want all knots in that fabric to align with all other knots while there are also those who want to offer that fabric to a Tailor to turn it into a religious toga. Today, the survival of that fabric is at risk. As soon as possible the focus of the public opinion must change and unify those people who want to save the whole fabric against those who instead for selfish motives are about to destroy it. Today like never before in history technology offers the means to do it. It will be useless to apply bandages and wait out the sorts of a mortal wound. After 9/11, it will take well planned, gradual and progressive changes with an end game in sight visible for everyone. Even before introducing new laws Humanity must be able to look in the mirror and establish new values that this time won’t be corrupted or dictated by the “value” of money. Allegory: “Circle of Equality” At the foundation of a long lasting social system it must be set a priority of values and, in a system of values, Reason is at the center of the “Circle of the Stronger”. Imagine, running along the perimeter of a strange circle: the mouse killed by the cat, the cat killed by the lion, the lion killed by the man, the man killed by the bacteria, the bacteria killed by the white cells of the mouse. The survival of each one depends on the survival of those on their sides and that of the entire Circle. Then, Above all written laws there must be one Mutual Trust that every action will always satisfy the needs of the Circle well before those of any Individual.
wavettore | 17 November 2014

Rash Putin had to hurry back to Ukraine crisis: "Russia has denied any involvement in the conflict in Ukraine that has killed more than 4,000 people this year. “Today the situation (in Ukraine) in my view has good chances for resolution, no matter how strange it may sound, but certain structures had been established on both sides that could handle the tasks they are facing better,” Mr Putin told reporters before he left Brisbane ahead of the formal ending of the summit. [Irish Times]
Father John George | 17 November 2014

Knowing he was addressing an audience as fawning as most of his domestic press conferences used to be, the President's oration was a self indulgent, attempt to refresh a two term presidency that has been a disaster for his own country and tragedy for the rest of civilisation.
grebo | 19 November 2014

I don't understand Mr Abbott at all. He sees climate change as 'too hard' yet I see opportunity. Substantial investment and retraining in the renewable sector would create incredible job opportunities and give Australia a bright future. Just look at what Germany has done in this area. Mr. Abbott said himself, "I can't be concerned about what 'might' happen 20 or 50 years away, I am working on the here and now". Well it was close to that. Please God help us!
Kate | 19 November 2014


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