EDITORIAL by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Behind Obama's unfriendly behaviour at G20
, December 6, 2014
When President Barack Obama visited Australia for the recent G20 meeting in Brisbane, he delivered a keynote address on climate change to a select audience of young people at the University of Queensland. The address was telecast nationally, and extensively quoted in the media, both in Australia and overseas.
It subsequently emerged that Obama’s speech was trenchantly critical of the Abbott government’s refusal to put climate change at the top of the G20 agenda, of Australia’s CO2 emissions, and of its management of the Great Barrier Reef. It was in fact a direct attack on a key international ally, and made against the advice of the U.S. Embassy in Canberra.
The federal government’s initial reaction to Obama’s speech was to ignore it, because it had been made outside the G20 forum to a group of young people. Ministers also saw it as an attempt to distract the G20 from addressing the issue of global economic growth, which has been poor since the global financial crisis of 2007/08.
However, Queensland government officials who had bent over backwards to accommodate President Obama’s late request to address young people, were taken aback by his attacks on Australia’s management of the Great Barrier Reef and the growth of the coal industry.
After the G20 meeting concluded, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, revealed that she had personally briefed the United States on Australia’s long-standing efforts to protect the reef, but her briefing had been ignored.
She told ABC television’s 7:30 Report that her briefing of the U.S. took place days before Mr Obama’s Queensland speech.
She said: “I met with the United States Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, in Sydney just a couple of days before President Obama spoke at the University of Queensland, actually at the World Parks Congress, and I outlined to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in considerable detail Australia’s commitment and capacity to preserve the Great Barrier Reef.
“We have been able to not only halt but reverse the decline in the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef, which is one of the causes of coral degradation.
“So we were very confident that we were more than up for the challenge of preserving and conserving the Great Barrier Reef for generations to come, and that was a message that I sent clearly to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.”
After the G20 meeting, Ms Bishop sent a detailed explanation of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef program to the U.S. President.
Her interview on the 7:30 Report was followed by the comments on Sky News of Australia’s Trade Minister, Andrew Robb, who described Obama’s comments as “misinformed” and “unnecessary”.
He said: “I felt that the President was not informed about Australia’s achievements, which have been bipartisan achievements. You know, we get a lot of people lecturing us from around the world about meeting targets. We — Australia — have met the Kyoto targets.… Most of the countries lecturing us did not meet their targets.”
The U.S. did not even ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
Further revelations were to come. In a front-page article, The Australian newspaper reported that the U.S. Embassy in Canberra, which received an advance copy of Obama’s speech, had urged presidential staff to remove comments critical of the Australian government (November 22-23, 2014). The request was ignored.
The Australian also reported that “despite repeated Australian requests, White House officials refused to provide a text of the speech to their Australian hosts in advance, and did not provide a summary of what would be contained in the speech”.
Taken together, this amounts to a direct public snub to the Australian government, at an international forum where the eyes of the world were on our country.
Obama’s unprecedented actions fortunately got little traction at the G20 summit, which ended with a commitment by leaders of the largest industrialised countries of the world to give first priority to international growth.
Nor did it blunt Australia’s bid to strengthen ties with the large emerging economies in our region.
After the G20 summit, China committed itself to negotiate a comprehensive trade agreement with Australia; India’s new Prime Minister, Mahendra Modi, promised to fast-track an agreement to expand Australian mineral and agricultural exports to India, which maintains high levels of protection; and Australia will enter new trade negotiations with Indonesia.
Some observers have speculated that Obama wanted to strong-arm climate change onto the G20 agenda, following the agreement he signed with China’s President Xi Jinping while en route to Australia.
Others suggested that he is positioning himself to launch an international campaign on the issue in the run-up to the 2015 Climate Summit in Paris, despite the fact that he has no prospect of getting anything through the U.S. Congress, which his political opponents now dominate.
Either way, he has just demonstrated his political impotence, not a good thing for the leader of the most powerful nation on earth.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.