“I think people are all excited about the fact that when the G20 is hosted in Australia next year, the G20 Finance [Ministers] will be meeting here in Cairns in far north Queensland… of course, that exists as a possibility because our government during my Prime Ministership has made it possible for Australia to become a member of the G20, in fact, we helped create the institution.” - Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, press conference in Cairns, 14 August.
This isn’t the first time the Prime Minister has mentioned his role in creating the Group of 20, better known as the G20. The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan wrote an article on 5 August criticising Rudd for “reinventing history” on the G20:
“Kevin Rudd’s first press conference of the 2013 election campaign contained a gross foreign policy inaccuracy. The Prime Minister said, with an apparent shrug of modesty, that he was involved in founding the G20 in 2008… Both these claims are completely ahistorical, or to put it another way, no such thing ever happened.”
Sheridan also wrote: “If any Australian was involved in the founding of the G20, it was Peter Costello, who was treasurer in 1999”.
So who’s telling the truth: Rudd or Sheridan? Actually, both are partially correct.
Australia’s role in shaping the G20
The G20 is made up of 19 major industrial nations including Australia, plus the European Union. It brings together leaders, finance ministers and central bank governors for meetings to discuss pressing global economic and financial issues.
Kevin Rudd and Peter Costello have both been influential figures in shaping two separate phases of the G20’s evolution.
In 1999, the G20 started as a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis. Australia was invited to join.
However, then Treasurer Peter Costello was an important figure among the G20 finance ministers, as acknowledged by the University of Toronto’s G20 Information Centre in their 54-page history commissioned and prepared by member countries.
Costello reflected on this role in his farewell speech to Parliament in 2009, and in his memoirs, where he in fact credits Bill Clinton with a lead role.
In November 2008, the first G20 leaders’ summit was held in Washington DC, and the group played a key role in responding to the global financial crisis.
Professor Xu Yi-Chong from Griffith University has written that Kevin Rudd is often credited with bringing the leaders of the G20 together for this first summit in September 2008. She cites comments by then World Bank President Robert Zoellick to the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove that Rudd:
“established himself as a catalyst for better multilateral policy-making. Much of this work was behind the scenes, a combination of smarts, humour and attention to personalities.”
In 2009, the Obama administration’s most senior US official on Asian policy, Kurt Campbell, paid tribute to Rudd’s “decisive” role in bringing about the new G20 leaders’ summits, which Campbell told Sheridan in The Australian was “the biggest innovation in global politics in decades”.
It is also clear that Rudd paid careful attention and devoted energy to the G20 leaders’ process, as noted in a 2011 speech. And it is true that Rudd lobbied to have the G20 held in Australia.
Other Australians are also seen as well-regarded figures in the development of G20 processes by their peers, including Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens, former Treasury official Mike Callaghan (now at the Lowy Institute), and Australian sherpa, Prime Minister & Cabinet Deputy Secretary Gordon de Brouwer.
Most G20 commentators would probably credit Canada’s Paul Martin as the key figure or “founder” of the leaders’ process. Then Canada’s Minister of Finance, Martin was chosen by the G7 to be the new G20’s first chairman for a two-year term, ending in October 2001.
It is not surprising that Australian leaders from both side of politics spend energy on influencing the G20, as Australia’s national interest clearly lies in strengthening the G20 and securing its membership in these key global economic discussions.
Kevin Rudd is partly right. Rudd is widely acknowledged as having worked hard and played a key role in bringing the G20 leaders together in 2008, and those ongoing leaders’ meetings have made the G20 a more influential institution.
However, Australia was already a member of the G20 finance ministers process since 1999. The Liberals deserve credit for their role during this period, especially Peter Costello, so Greg Sheridan’s recent article was right on this point.
Susan Harris Rimmer will be attending the G20 Leaders Summit in St Petersburg in early September and will report for The Conversation.
This article is correct in saying that Kevin Rudd and Peter Costello have both been influential in shaping two separate phases of the G20’s evolution.
Costello was influential in Australia becoming a member of the G20 when it was established, with the first meeting of G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors held in Berlin in 1999.
Paul Martin, then Canadian Finance Minister, was instrumental in the establishment of the G20 process and chaired the forum for the first two years of its existence. Sometimes referred to as “the father of the G20”, in the mid-1990s Martin advocated that the G20 be elevated to a leader level process. But this did not receive traction until the global financial crisis.
The G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors met annually until November 2008 when US President George W. Bush called a meeting of G20 leaders. Rudd actively lobbied for such a meeting of G20 leaders to deal with the financial crisis, and he was actively engaged in the first few G20 leaders’ summits.
In short, Costello was involved in Australia becoming a member of the G20 - well before the Rudd government was elected - but Rudd was involved in the G20 being elevated to a leader-level summit. - Mike Callaghan