Hugh Jorgensen is a Research Associate in the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre.

Last night in her address to Commonwealth foreign ministers, who are meeting in Sri Lanka for a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Julie Bishop took the opportunity to outline Australia's vision for 'the G20 2014 Agenda.'

Although both the Treasurer and the Prime Minister have made post-election references to Australia's plans for the G20, Bishop's remarks constitute the first fully dedicated speech on the subject by a minister in the new Coalition Government.

The speech is also quite timely, in that is now precisely twelve months until the G20 Brisbane summit is held on 15-16 November on Brisbane's South Bank.

Although there are still sixteen more days before Australia officially takes over the G20's reins from Russia, the symbolism of the Foreign Minister outlining a G20 agenda for 2014 at this early stage suggests the new government has begun to grasp the opportunity that chairing the G20 represents for Australia (hopefully the Russians won't be too miffed by Australia's eagerness). The Treasurer's recent admission that he had 'underestimated the size of the G20 leadership task' further highlights this shift. 

Bishop outlined three priority areas: lifting economic growth, creating jobs and improving access to financial services.

The first two priorities, both carry-overs from the Russian presidency, are fairly high-level objectives, and the Foreign Minister outlined the various angles from which the Australian Government would seek to address them in 2014:

  • By generating greater productive investment from the private sector.
  • By removing 'unnecessary regulation and red tape'.
  • By encouraging the leveraging of funds from international institutions to incentivise private sector investment in emerging-economy infrastructure.
  • By supporting multilateral trade (sort of, see below) and the role the G20 should play in pursuing it.
  • Strengthening the international financial sector, particularly through reform of the IMF and the Financial Stability Board.
  • Tackling tax evasion and the loss of tax revenue that developing countries incur as a result of inadequate tax administration.

The Foreign Minister did not really elaborate on the third stated priority — improving 'access to financial services' — beyond noting that it was 'fundamental to developing countries...small and medium enterprises and women's economic empowerment.'

If the government can achieve tangible outcomes — or at least meaningfully advance negotiations — on its stated priorities, it would be quite a win for the G20 and for Australia as chair. Indeed, even if the G20 is simply able to realise Bishop's hope for an agenda that is 'not too crowded...able to achieve outcomes of global benefit...and vibrant enough to attract the energy of the leaders of the G20,' this would be a marked reversal in the otherwise desultory nature of recent G20 summits

But of course, if wishes were fishes, I'd eat salmon all day long (I think that's how it goes). The G20 specialises, or at least ought to specialise, in dealing with transnational issues that are beyond the remit of any single government to resolve. And if such problems were easy to fix, they would not have made it to the G20 for discussion in the first place.

Statements like 'what nations need to do now is get their private sectors activated to drive growth and employment,' and 'the new (Australian) government has resolved to (remove) a billion dollars' worth of red tape each and every year,' point to issues which are mostly domestic in nature. Similarly, these days, IMF reform is almost entirely a matter for the US Congress, regardless of how much 'pressure' the rest of the G20 attempts to bring to bear upon it. 

For the G20 to navigate its way through difficult transnational problems while simultaneously accommodating the tricky domestic politics of certain G20 countries (for example, climate change was not mentioned in the speech), Australia, as chair, will have to provide a good deal more clarity on precisely what it is that the G20 can uniquely bring to restoring global growth.

Bishop's comments on getting global trade 'back on track' are also a little vague: 'many parts of the world are building networks of bilateral and mutual free trade agreements. We hope that with that kind of momentum we will effectively end up with a multilateral outcome.'

One would certainly hope so, because if the standards set by the 'regionalist' Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership trade agreements come to supersede those of the WTO, the global trading system as we know it may very well be off to join the choir invisible. It would be a black mark against the G20 if it were to let this happen, and it is in Australia's interest, as a middle power, to stand up for global trade multilateralism.

It is still early days, and the portion of Bishop's stated agenda that remains (or, alternatively, gets diluted into insignificance) by the time of the Brisbane summit depends on the willingness of the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the rest of the Government to campaign and get the rest of the G20 on board over the next 365 days.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte.