Brisbane G20: Small Successes, Big Disappointments

John Kirton on how the G20 leaders failed to confront and control today’s central global challenges.

By: /
18 November, 2014
By: John Kirton
Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto

The G20’s Brisbane Summit proved to be a summit of small, selective success. It was a deep disappointment for all who had hoped and needed the G20 leaders to confront and control today’s central global challenges.

The summit ended on Sunday, November 16, 2014, with its Australian host Tony Abbott declaring at his concluding news conference that he was pleased to stand on a “unity ticket” with Russian president Vladimir Putin, who had abandoned Abbott’s summit to fly home before the leaders’ work was done. Abbott was referring specifically to Putin’s praise of Abbott’s hosting of the summit, where Abbott had not spoken a word, not even a harsh one, to Putin about the latter’s increasing invasion and annexation of Ukraine and his dispatch of Russian warships toward Australia’s coasts.

The concluding communiqué began by noting the reality that “risks persist,” including from “geopolitical tensions.” But on the biggest risk harming global growth — Russian actions in Ukraine — it then said not a word. Nor did it refer to the second biggest geopolitical risk — the brutal genocide of Islamic State terrorists in the Middle East. The previous G20 summit, at St. Petersburg in September 2013, had dealt flexibly and successfully with the biggest security crisis of the time, paving the way to remove chemical weapons of mass destruction before they became routine weapons of war, fell into terrorist hands, or be used by the Islamic State terrorists against innocent civilians and the Australian and allied troops arriving in Iraq now.

On the G20’s centrepiece priority of raising global growth over the next five years more than 2% above the baseline prevailing in October 2013, further disappointments arose. In their communiqué the leaders did not themselves commit to this goal, choosing instead to describe what others had earlier done. They noted that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) had estimated that G20 members’ newly promised actions added to 2.1% additional growth, but did not notice that the October 2013 baseline had now declined from 3.6% to 3.3%, leaving them a net 0.2% lower in their goal than their finance ministers had been in February. Even the additional 2.1% depended on 100% compliance with the close to 1,000 commitments members had made in their action plans, although Abbott opened the summit on Saturday by telling his colleagues he was unlikely to implement the two Australian pledges he chose to highlight for them. G20 leaders admirably asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the OECD to monitor G20 compliance with these commitments, but asked for no help from any institution not controlled or financed by G20 members themselves. In an effort to keep the communiqué to an arbitrary length of three pages (which it technically succeeded in doing if the two-page Annex referring to 36 other documents and 43 individual country plans is omitted), the promises on fiscal and monetary policy were expressed in such general terms that it would be difficult for anyone to monitor compliance with them.

On infrastructure, leaders endorsed the good work of their ministers and officials, without adding anything new of their own. They did create a new bureaucracy largely financed by governments and located in Sydney, without explaining why the tasks of this “Global Infrastructure Hub” could not be performed, for free, by the existing World Bank Group’s Global Infrastructure Facility.

On employment, the leaders made important advances. They wisely noted the need for inclusive growth and the need to reduce inequality, following IMF and OECD research that confirms that reducing inequality is a source of sustainable growth. They made important promises on youth unemployment, entrepreneurship and improving workplace safety and health. Above all, they made an innovative, specific pledge to reduce the “gap in participation rates between men and women in our countries by 25 per cent by 2025 … to bring more than 100 million women into the labour force, significantly increase global growth and reduce poverty and inequality.” But even here “national circumstances” had to be taken into account.

On financial regulation they usefully endorsed the recommendation already agreed to at the Financial Stability Board, while importantly endorsing the need to “strengthen the orderliness and predictability of the sovereign debt restructuring process.” They made similar moves on tax fairness and anti-corruption, committing to improve the transparency of beneficial ownership but not adopting public registries by a fixed date.

On trade, they wisely endorsed bilateral, regional and plurilateral agreements that complimented one another, reaffirmed their anti-protectionist and rollback pledges, and repaired the damage done to the Trade Facilitation Agreement they had called for at their summit last year.

On the reform of international financial institutions, they offered few credible thoughts on how they would get the United States, now with a Republican-controlled Senate, to finally implement the agreed IMF quota and governance reforms.

The brief paragraph on development dealt with remittances and food and nutrition security. But it disappointingly said only that it supported United Nations efforts “to agree an ambitious post-2015 development agenda” without providing any guidance on how it should be shaped.

On energy G20 leaders did much better. They endorsed the G20 Principles on Energy Collaboration. And they created a potential new G20 ministerial institution by asking their energy ministers to meet and report back to leaders in 2015. They further agreed on several specific steps on energy efficiency that could help control climate change. And they again agreed to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, without saying how this commitment from 2009 would be better complied with as its 2016 deadline approached.

On climate change specifically, the G20 leaders called for nationally determined contributions to limit carbon emissions and to the Green Climate Fund, as the United States had wished. However, they also pledged their support for a UN regime that had repeatedly failed, and was destined to do so again before and at the UN climate conference in Paris in December 2015.

Finally, the communiqué in paragraph 20 (of 21) dealt with Ebola, summarizing the impressive and innovate separate statement the leaders had issued on Ebola the day before (see “The G20 Discovers Global Health at Brisbane“). In a sign of the influence of Turkey, which will host the summit next year, G20 leaders expansively called on international financial institutions to assist with “other humanitarian crises, including in the Middle East.”

Without this action on global health, energy and women’s workforce participation, Brisbane by itself could have been the first failed summit of the nine held since the start in November 2008. At the moment, it is the least successful G20 summit to date. But its performance could improve if its innovations on health and energy are built on in the months ahead and once the details in its many accompanying documents are fully absorbed. And the disappointing dip in performance at Brisbane will not do permanent damage to G20 summitry, for the Turkish host for next year has already set forth a list of priorities that promises to return the Antakya Summit on November 15-16, 2015, to the strong performance of G20 summits past.

A version of this piece was originally published by the G20 Research Group.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter