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Prime Ministerial self-indulgence

By Reg Little - posted Thursday, 29 August 2013

When the leaders of the G20 nations meet on 5 and 6 September 2013 in St Petersburg, Australia's Prime Minister will be absent. He will, of course, be preoccupied with the likely outcome of the Australian election on the following day. He is unlikely to be following closely the interactions between national leaders in an organization where his own initiative and efforts ensured Australian membership. This is unfortunate, particularly as Australia is scheduled to succeed Russia as President and Host of the G20 members in Brisbane in 2014.

Australian media and academia still pays little attention to a wide range of emerging international organizations, These are forming as national leaders manoeuvre to be well positioned in a world where the post-1945 international organizations, all shaped and largely led by the English speaking world, become increasingly ineffective and marginal to major developments.

Australia is not, and is unlikely to become, a member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Mongolia as observer states and Turkey, Belarus and Sri Lamka) groupings, where China and Russia are working together to explore new directions and partnerships. Nor is it likely to be invited to join the ASEAN plus Three grouping, where China deploys its growing economic, cultural and political authority to shape a new cooperative dynamic throughout East and South East Asia. This goes unnoticed as Australian observers are mesmerized by apparent differences in the East and South China Seas.


Against this background Australia's membership of the G20 is potentially of critical importance. It is a grouping where Australia has the opportunity to evaluate and participate in the exchanges and negotiations that are beginning to question many of the Anglo certainties of Australia's two centuries of modern history. It is a grouping where Australia has obligations to long standing allies and where Australia needs to be evaluating and developing prospective future allies.

Russia has articulated its G20 goals for 2013 as organized around three overarching priorities, aimed at starting the new cycle of economic growth through quality jobs and investment; trust and transparency; and effective regulation. While this diplomatic speak may sound unexceptional, these goals need to be understood from the perspective of Russia and its prospective allies within the G20.

At a 20 July 2013 press conference by Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov he included the following remarks about the results of the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors' Meeting just held in Moscow.

In any case, we agreed to regularly exchange information about the actions of monetary authorities and to take measures in order to make policy in this area clear and predictable. On the one hand, we will be working to prevent any sudden changes or major upheavals. On the other hand, we are concerned with how long the quantitative easing policy will last. There contains a risk of more market bubbles emerging where the extra money and resources created by quantitative easing flow to the financial sector rather than the real economy. As a result, more derivative instruments and bubbles are emerging in the market. We need to walk this fine line very carefully to avoid falling to either side. There have been many discussions of this matter.

Again the language is sober and diplomatic but it needs to be noted that these issues are now being addressed at the highest level internationally, with strong implicit criticism of "quantitative easing" and "derivative instruments". These might be described unkindly as America's credit cards with no limits. Even more important, all this is taking place outside the carefully managed confines of the US controlled and hitherto unchallenged International Monetary Fund.

It is little reported in Australia but there is a growing body of comment and speculation about the displacement of the US dollar in global trading, the threat of hundreds of trillions of dollars of derivatives to the Western banking system and the continued off-shoring of the West's employment and precious metals. At the same time, there are now appearing early signs that Western interests in the Middle East have been seriously compromised by positions taken in the Arab Spring in Libya, Syria, Egypt and possibly even Saudi Arabia.


Simply put, many of Australia's assumed and comfortable certainties are already anachronisms. They may have allowed the Australian Government to treat the St Petersburg G 20 Summit as an irrelevance in the context of domestic politics. But this has been achieved at an unspecified cost to the nation's future in a rapidly shifting global environment.

The effort and expenditure that went into obtaining a 2 year seat on the UN Security Council displayed a similar lack of awareness and judgement about the international situation. In a deadlocked body where Western ineffectiveness is increasingly on display, Australia's presence seems likely only to draw it into more difficult and unrewarding choices on Middle Eastern developments.

When it came to the choice of a date for the Australian election, internal Labour Party jockeying and confusion disregarded Prime Minister Gillard's apparent planning to return with international accolades from St Petersburg for a 14 September election. Instead, that prize seemed to be handed to Prime Minister Rudd. He, however, despite his diplomatic background and known enthusiasm for hobnobbing with the world's great and powerful, could not hold the ship steady long enough to meet such national obligations. Moreover, he was never likely to consider calling an earlier election that may have given a new LNP government the opportunity to evaluate the challenges and opportunities it would inherit after 5 and 6 September as the 2014 President and Host of the G 20 meeting in Brisbane.

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About the Author

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat from 1963 to 1988. He gained high level qualifications in Japanese and Chinese and served as Deputy of four and Head of one overseas Australian diplomatic mission. He is the co-author of The Confucian Renaissance (1989) and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997) and author of A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2006). In 2009, he was elected the only non-ethnic Asian Vice Chairman of the Council of the Beijing based International Confucian Association. His other writings can be found on his website:

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