HONOLULU - Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t stick around long once the G20 in Brisbane, Australia, was over.
Like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Harper left earlier than scheduled, except he stayed for the final working lunch and the official close of the meeting by the Australian host, Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
The Canadian prime minister, known to hate time zone changes and love sleep, was done. And keen to return to Ottawa Sunday, rather than Monday.
Reporters were allotted two hours before takeoff to file stories after Harper’s news conference, held before the final G20 communiqué had even been released.
Harper had been on the road for more than two weeks: a state visit to China, a quick appearance at the Asia-Pacific summit, a Beijing meeting about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, then a whirlwind return to Ottawa for Remembrance Day before jetting back across the Pacific for the G20 meeting in Brisbane.
Yet when it was all done, Harper had no second thoughts about the usefulness of showing up, even though much of the final text is negotiated in advance.
This was good face time with the leaders who matter to the prime minister, and a chance to do other business on the sidelines — one-on-one meetings or informal conversations that grease the wheels of freer trade.
Canada would prefer that the G20 avoid “mission creep,” as Finance Minister Joe Oliver called it: stick to global economic challenges rather than getting sidetracked with other international concerns like climate change.
“G20 is an economic organization, fundamentally,” said Oliver. “I’m not suggesting those other issues are not important, fundamental in fact, but that’s not what we were focusing on.”
Jumpstarting economic growth in a sluggish global economy was the main business at hand, with “a real concern in some areas about getting growth up,” Oliver said.
Which is why Harper hailed the agreement reached in Brisbane to endorse economic reforms and policies that leaders claim will generate $2 trillion of economic growth across the G20 members.
That’s the stuff that really excites the prime minister.
In his own 15-minute closing news conference, Harper devoted a third of his remarks to praising the usefulness of the gathering that puts 20 of the world’s political and economic heavyweights in a room alone for private talks, and then in working sessions with top staff to cap months of negotiations with the political seal of approval. A fleet of policy advisers were along for this one.
“The G20, whatever its deficiencies, is one of the most valuable summits I go to every year,” Harper said. “It’s got all the most important countries in the world, with 70 per cent of some enormous amount of global GDP (gross domestic product) . . . very focused on an economic agenda. And, in the end, the G20 is really the sole element of governance that we have in what is now a globalized economy.”
He pointed to specific measures, including “a thousand” reforms and safeguards to shore up the resilience of the global economy to unexpected shocks.
It’s not “sexy terminology,” he admitted. It “basically has to do with things like the capitalization of banks, rescue plans in place before you have bankruptcies, things that would avoid a financial collapse like we had in 2008.”
Over the next three to four years, G20-wide standards will be adopted to deal with tax evasion and tax havens around the world.
“We know from the ’08-’09 crisis that there are times when no national government, no matter how important — not even the biggest in the world — are going to be able to deal with macroeconomic developments at the global level.”
The G20, Harper declared, is “not perfect, but I think it has a pretty good record. . . . And while the global economy isn’t booming, there has been a modest recovery in most places and most of the issues that confront us are at least being dealt with.”
Harper’s like-minded Aussie host, Abbott, had promised beforehand the weekend meeting in Brisbane would not be a “talk fest.”
But it was clear other pressing issues at times sidetracked discussions here.
Climate change, the Russia-Ukraine conflict and other international security challenges grabbed headines.
University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris said it “makes perfect sense” for leaders to also deal directly with the big concerns at hand, as Harper did in confronting Putin over his Ukraine incursions and Putin’s denials to the world that Russia is even “there.”
On the other hand, said Paris, the issue of the G20’s future “is a much bigger question because we are living through a moment when the old international institutions created in the aftermath of WWII seem to be increasingly outmoded.”
Paris says there is a whole gamut of new forums around the world trying to corral geopolitical interests.
“What is very important is that we have opportunities to have countries that are both established countries and rising countries to meet together to talk about important issues.”
Like Harper, Paris said the G20 proved useful during the financial crisis of 2008-09. But after the urgency of the financial crisis had passed, “many people questioned whether it would be possible to achieve serious or substantive agreements among G20 leaders to make that grouping useful as a permanent organization.”
“But I think that given the profound and rapid changes taking place in the world, it makes sense to try to work with whatever new instruments are being created that allow both established and rising countries to be speaking to each other, including India and China and Russia and the United States and Europe and Canada.
“We don’t know how these fundamental changes are going to play out in the end,” Paris said.
Other business on Harper’s trip to the Asia-Pacific region was conducted, not all of which won headlines: Canada and New Zealand agreed to extend the duration of work permits issued to youth from 12 to 23 months, and Harper met for the first time with India Prime Minister Narendra Modi to talk trade. There have been eight rounds of negotiations to reach a foreign investment protection agreement, like that with China, and a free trade deal with India, and Canadian officials say the ball is now in India’s court to indicate next steps.
But measuring the success of the actual G20, the purpose of this trip, based on a three-page joint statement that skimmed the surface of so many issues — like anything written by committee — is a mug’s game.
Some analysts would have liked more concrete measures.
Julia Kulik, a senior researcher with the University of Toronto Munk Centre’s G20 Research Group, said, for example, that while it was good the leaders issued a call to action to curb the Ebola outbreak, “the G20 fails to take any ownership of the actual commitments being made in the statement.”
She wrote that G20 members committed to do “what is necessary” to end the outbreak, but “avoided outlining any specific goals or targets to be accountable for.”
And, Kulik said, they ignored the call from Jim Kim, president of the World Bank Group, “for the $2 billion he says is needed to address the crisis adequately and they told the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to find a way to make it work with the $300 million recently pledged by the IMF.”
In reality, the success of this or any summit is only measurable in years to come.
Harper says the ability to do just that, measure progress through national implementation plans overseen by the IMF and World Bank, is a crucial step forward.