B20 fanfare sounds but now the real battle begins

The business carriage of the Group of 20 caravan has moved on with the B20 holding its major presentation and releasing its recommendations in Sydney last week, emphasising not only was the Australian government’s incremental 2 per cent growth target possible but it could be beaten.

The headline was reforms proposed by the business task forces could add $5.5 trillion of new economic activity and more than 150 million new jobs.

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On the sidelines of the event, B20 boss Richard Goyder of Wesfarmers and task force heads like ANZ CEO Mike SmithBHP Billiton’s Andrew Mackenzie and Telstra’s David Thodey made the point the potential of the recommendations added up to more than a 2 per cent point in global economic growth – but the real challenge was having them implemented.

This is the reality of these multi-lateral forums: they require governments to change policies and laws and, as Mackenzie has emphasised, it is issues like non-tariff barriers which are clogging trade (and investment) along with formal trade rules.

Yet there are few votes at a local level for multi-lateral agenda and this is why, even though their formal task of recommendations has finished, the B20 participants and veterans of past events like Seven’s Kerry emphasised business has to stay on the case, continually reinforcing the real world impacts of what are too easily dismissed as confabs of business elites.

Advocacy, ongoing, is critical if the work of forums like the B20 is to achieve real results. And that’s not just a multi-lateral challenge. Politically inconvenient as it is, unilateral action to remove barriers to trade is even more effective than the often fraught struggle to implement global or even bilateral trade agreements.

These are often posed in the form of why should we give up some protections if the other side won’t? The reality is we’re better off giving up our protections which are always paid for by us as taxpayers and hence reap the benefits of taxpayers in the other country subsidising our imports.

So the challenge for business advocates is not only multilateral.

There was a sense too after the B20 that Australia actually has a rare chance to make a difference despite our own domestic political troubles. That’s because the outcome from last year’s Russian leadership was lacklustre and political and economic uncertainties are greater than Australia’s in next year’s host nation, Turkey.

Equally, while the focus is obviously on what G20 ministers should be striving for, B20 leaders also acknowledge – perhaps not publicly enough - that much of the challenge is in the hands of business itself and there should not be the sense - which doesn't play well to the general public - that business is not getting its own act together.

Productivity in particular, CEOs acknowledged, is a management challenge as much as a regulatory or policy challenge. The realpolitik is business has a much greater chance of achieving outcomes on the regulatory, tax and investment fronts if it is not seen to be asking for handouts and can point to its own achievements.

Fortunately, the considerable work which has gone into the B20 and via its taskforces provides not only templates for finance ministers and their governments but for business itself.

That said, there is definitely a challenge for the G20 to recognise while it is a forum dominated by major economies, the great hope for global growth is actually emerging economies. And as the financing taskforce identified, there is both a philosophical and actual issue in ensuring policy and regulation designed in response to an acute crisis in developed economies creates a collateral, chronic problem in terms of access to finance for lesser developed economies.

Doubleheader column this week also see FSI view of financial literacy warrants closer scrutiny.

Photograph: B20 conference.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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