Confusion clouds Tony Abbott’s Washington meetings
- 1 day ago
June 07, 2014
THERE was some consternation among bureaucrats in Canberra this week
when word spread that Tony Abbott had decided against meeting three of
the most important economic policy figures in Washington during his
the US Treasury Secretary. He was also scheduled to hold talks with
Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund,
and World Bank president Jim Yong Kim.
The meetings were locked into the diaries of those key officials. Then the arrangements were cast into doubt by Abbott’s office.
likely cancellations were particularly surprising because Australia is
host of this year’s G20 summit. The leaders of the 20 major economies
will assemble in Brisbane in November for what is probably the most
high-powered international gathering ever held in this country.
According to the Budget papers, the whole G20 exercise is costing
Australia almost half a billion dollars — $476.7 million to be precise.
That is an indication of its importance.
Lew, Lagarde and Kim are crucial to the summit. Lagarde and Kim are
involved in much of the preparatory work and will be there at the table
alongside the leaders. And reform of the IMF is one of the items on the
Lew’s advice will play a major role in how Barack
Obama approaches the summit and its success will depend heavily on an
engaged US President.
You might think that Abbott, who will chair
the summit, would seize any opportunity to tap into the thinking of
those people and use the opportunity, if necessary, to try to influence
them towards the outcomes he wants. But, given that the Lagarde and Kim
meetings are no longer in his program and the session with Lew is up in
the air, that is apparently not the case. Also, given America’s
influence on the world economy, previous prime ministers have regarded
meeting the US Treasury Secretary as a high priority in a Washington
It seems extraordinary that there is any equivocation at
all about an Abbott-Lew meeting. The puzzlement in Treasury ranks is not
hard to imagine. One Canberra hand, who has been involved with such
meetings in the past, says this could suggest that Abbott is not taking
the G20 summit as seriously as he should “and that’s a worry”.
is plenty of room for speculation about the reasons top-level economic
meetings seem to be treated as optional in Abbott’s Washington program.
Some critics will home in on his 2003 comment that left the then
treasurer, Peter Costello, hugely unimpressed.
Abbott told an
interviewer he found economics “a bore” and added, laughing: “I have
never been as excited about economics as some of my colleagues. I find
economics is not for nothing known as the dismal science.”
Prime Minister, Abbott has appeared to jettison what former Liberal
leader John Hewson, who once employed him, characterised as a lack of
interest in economics.
He has not only thrown himself into the
defence of Joe Hockey’s Budget, but played a leading part in developing
the tough policies that were central to it.
Another theory is that
the risk of disagreement and embarrassment over climate change could be
a major factor. I wrote last week that there was concern about the
potential for the climate change issue to cause difficulties for Abbott
when he meets President Obama at the White House on Wednesday.
has committed himself to strong new measures to counter global warming.
He and the Australian PM, who once described climate change science as
“crap”, have little common ground on the matter.
information has emerged. The Americans have let it be known that Obama
is annoyed because Abbott refuses to allow climate change to be part of
the G20 agenda. The PM has argued publicly that discussion of climate
change would “clutter” an agenda that should concentrate on economic
THE President, however, sees climate change as a massively
important economic issue, one that is already imposing heavy costs on
the US economy. He is expected to press this strongly when he and Abbott
get down to brass tacks in the Oval Office.
Lew would also be bound to lean on Abbott to change his mind. The PM might be reluctant to have the same argument twice.
Lagarde and Kim, and the institutions they head, have been engaged in
climate change debate and policy. Before a G20 finance ministers meeting
in February, Lagarde had a swipe at the Abbott Government’s attitude to
Australia, she said, had been “at the forefront”
on the issue under previous governments, and “I would hope that it
continues to be a pioneer”. Climate change issues, she added, were
“critical and not just fantasies”.
Now that information has leaked
about the on-again-off-again meetings, the line from the Abbott camp is
that all three just might be on again.
It is, I was told yesterday, “a matter of aligning schedules”.
Laurie Oakes is political editor for the Nine Network