Australia's first G20 sherpa meeting

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Australia's first G20 sherpa meeting

Posted 11/12/2013 by Tarek Dale

Australia is the G20 host in 2014 (a process that started earlier this month on 1 December). Its first meeting as host will be held on Thursday and Friday this week (12-13 December). Senior officials (sherpas) from G20 nations will meet in Sydney, beginning a process that will culminate in the leaders’ summit next November.

The Group of Twenty (G20) is ‘the premier forum for international economic cooperation and decision making’, with representatives from 19 member countries and the European Union. The G20 calendar has multiple events, and many non-government organisations (amongst them international institutions and regulatory bodies, businesses, and civil society groups) will be providing input to the G20. All of these processes, including the work undertaken throughout the year to prepare by ‘sherpas’ from each country, build towards the leaders’ summit.

The leaders’ summit is the focus because of the potential it offers for significant change, driven by high level agreement and coordinated action. When the G20 leaders’ summit was first convened, the Brookings Institute described it as a ‘global governance breakthrough’. Although views differ over the effectiveness of some subsequent G20 summits, that potential for significant coordinated action is still a key driver for the G20 process.

The leaders’ summit will be the most significant international meeting Australia has hosted, and as host, the Australian Government has a significant role in the process. An initial overview of Australia’s presidency identified economic growth and global economic resilience as priorities. A recent speech by the Foreign Minister highlighted trade reform, tax reform, and strengthening the international financial sector.

But to reach significant agreements at Leaders’ Summits, an enormous amount of work has to happen beforehand. In Australia, public servants in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), the Treasury, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and across the APS are involved in the lead-up to the summit. The senior official representing Australia is the Australian ‘Sherpa’ – a senior adviser to the leader, who attends preliminary meetings throughout the year.

Lourdes Aranda Bezaury, Mexico’s Sherpa during its host year (2012), said:

‘Sherpas are famous as guides and energetic supply carriers for expeditions to the Himalayan summits. The term serves as a metaphor for those of us who, in our role as leaders’ representatives, pave the way to summit meetings … In particular ,the term ‘Sherpa’ seems useful to me because it emphasizes the preparatory process, the gradual ascent to the summit and the preponderance of leaders in the final outcomes of the summits.’
When the term ‘sherpa’ was first used is unclear, although the metaphor seems to have led to new titles like ‘Sous-sherpa’ or ‘yak’ for less senior officials. Australia’s Sherpa, Dr Heather Smith, is a deputy secretary in PM&C – she will be hosting the first of four meetings in Sydney tomorrow.

As well as the Sherpa and finance minister meetings, business groups, civil society and a whole range of organisations will be meeting in parallel processes in the build-up to the leaders’ summit. Australian business will be represented through a ‘B20’ (a group of businesses leaders), with taskforces focusing on trade, human capital, financing growth and infrastructure. In addition to its G20 Studies Centre, the Lowy Institute is organising a ‘Think20’, a group of think-tanks and academics organising around the G20. Civil society organisations will be represented through a C20 process. Some community groups say they may also protest at the G20, under a Brisbane Community Action Network G20 (BrisCAN-G20). Queensland organisations are participating in a ‘Q20’, to use the summit as a chance to highlight the state, and a Y20 summit will be ‘the official platform for young people from across the … G20 countries’.

In the midst of all this, sherpas will continue meeting throughout the year, working across a very broad agenda to prepare for the leaders’ summit next November.

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