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G20 summit successful but untidy for Abbott

Tony Abbott and Vladimir Putin cuddle up to koalas. AAP/Andrew Taylor, G20 Australia

Tony Abbott always said he wanted the Brisbane G20 to come up with practical actions and a communique of no more than three pages.

He achieved both objectives – although the communique had a mass of attached documents.

Notably, the leaders have endorsed reform plans aimed at significantly lifting global growth (by 2.1%) over the next five years above what it would have been.

But the G20 was untidier for Abbott than desirably it should have been. The climate issue forced its way centre stage despite the government’s best efforts to keep it marginalised.

If the government had been more flexible, less ideological, it could have been a different story.

Circumstances came together to run the government over on the climate debate. US president Obama is determined to make it a legacy mission. China is looking to its longer term emissions. Various countries are starting to consider their positions for the Paris climate conference late next year.

Last week’s United States-China agreement on post-2020 emissions created a momentum that would inevitably flow like a tidal wave to the Brisbane meeting. If there was ever any doubt, Obama made sure of that with his forceful speech at the University of Queensland.

Obama might be unpopular at home but he wowed his audience, which included many students. He backed his rhetoric with money – US$3 billion for the Green Climate Fund (GCF).

The Australian government was unable and unwilling to go with the flow.

On the one hand, it insisted there was nothing new to see, that climate was always set to be discussed – it was in the original draft of the communique Australia had circulated. On the other hand, Abbott was vigorous in his defence of coal while treasurer Joe Hockey said that “ultimately, the only way anyone can pay for all the initiatives you need to deal with climate change is to have money in the bank, and governments can only have money if they’ve got prosperous economies and it comes back to the focus on growth and jobs”.

The communique said that countries which were ready to communicate their post-2020 targets for the Paris conference should do so in the first quarter of next year. It reaffirmed the G20’s support for mobilising finance for adaptation and mitigation, such as through the GCF.

But Abbott – critical in the past of the GCF – would not commit at his post-summit news conference to allocating dollars to it. He also has wriggle room on the timing of Australia producing the post-2020 target – the government is anxious to see the targets of a range of other countries.

Australia has no good policy rationale for leaving itself so vulnerable in the international climate debate. If critics have an argument that Kevin Rudd wanted to take Australia too far out in front, there is little doubt that Abbott is holding Australia too far at the back of the international pack.

Abbott was assisted politically in opposition when climate change receded as an issue under the pressure of the global financial crisis and after the failure of Copenhagen.

In a Coalition where there are many climate sceptics, there is neither the will nor the dexterity for the government to move to meet changing circumstances. So next year it could be as challenging for Australia on the climate front as the G20 has been.

The tests in other areas – growth targets and countries’ individual action plans – will come in the longer term. The various initiatives will be monitored, but countries’ undertakings can’t be enforced. Even Australia is unable to guarantee that it will meet the pledges it has made, which include budget items facing opposition in the Senate.

Still, if the action plans give some help to global growth, the Brisbane meeting will have brought benefits. The perfect should not be made the enemy of the good. The same is true of the commitment to increase women’s participation in workforces.

On tax avoidance, financial issues and trade there were positive steps – it is too early to judge how big some of those steps will be.

Vladimir Putin’s presence, which had hung heavily over the lead up to the summit, was in the end managed. Abbott, sensibly, had it out with Putin over MH17 on the margins of the APEC meeting. Abbott in Brisbane could leave it to other leaders, especially his mate, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, to strongly and personally register their opposition to what Russia has been doing in the Ukraine.

Abbott could act the polite host. Putin publicly had little but good to say about Abbott on this front.

Putin was pictured uncomfortably holding the obligatory koala, which made its own protest by trying to escape. The Russians denied a Saturday night suggestion that he was leaving early, but he certainly didn’t hang around longer than he had to.

The Russian president got the message that he was the most unpopular leader at the G20 party, but is unlikely to take it to heart.

Listen to part two of The Conversation’s podcast coverage of the event.

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