Analysis — News Limited’s Steve Lewis missed half of Gillard’s Brazil story

Steve Lewis’s story today on the News Limited website bemoans the AUD$900,000 that Prime Minister Julia Gillard ‘wasted’ by taking a substantial delegation to last year’s Rio environment summit in Brazil. While he’s right to question the ultimate impact of the summit itself, he completely misses the larger foreign policy gains that Gillard’s attendance won for Australia.

To put it bluntly, Brazil is very important for Australia. Trade is relatively small, but there are major Australian foreign direct investments in Brazil, not least of which is the rapidly growing presence of Pacific Hydro. More to the point, thanks to its leadership position in the global South and large domestic economy, Brazil has a much weightier voice than Australia in global governance forums, including groupings such as the UN, WTO and G20. Good ties and positive working relationships with Brazil are going to be critical if Australia wants to successfully advance its international agenda in the future. This will matter tremendously when it comes to issues such as environmental standards, agricultural trade rules, and innovations in international legal frameworks.

Brazil’s government and foreign ministry were in a great state of concern immediately before the summit that they would hold a party and nobody would come. The large delegation that Gillard took to the 2012 environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro thus stands as more of an investment in what will hopefully become an important strategic partnership than the immediately obvious search for global climate conventions. In this context Australia’s active participation became an important statement of confidence in the summit’s emerging power host.

The importance of Australia’s recognition of Brazil was effectively codified by the signing of the Brazil-Australia Strategic Partnership on the margins of the environment summit. Brazil has a long line of suitors and has become adept at politely, but firmly deflecting efforts for such agreements from many of those would-be partners. Simply put, if it cost Australia $900,000 to secure a regularly scheduled opportunity to consult, plan and coordinate positions that will be taken to the various global governance bodies, then it was cheap at the price — much cheaper than purchasing squadrons of latest generation advanced fighter jets, for example.

To be fair to Lewis, it is not entirely surprising that he missed this critical element of the story. Just as some Australian government officials (like those in a number of other OECD countries) are still working to come to terms with the rise of Brazil in the global system, the media is also playing a game of catch-up. More detailed contextual knowledge is needed. Indeed, if Lewis had this knowledge he might not have been quite so disgusted at the cost of the accommodations for the Australian delegation. (You should hear what staff from the Brazilian Senate have to say about the cost of their deeply sub-standard accommodation at the Summit.)

What is the bottom line? Matters of State operate on multiple levels, which requires a sophisticated analysis that goes past sensationalist rhetoric and cheap point scoring. A lot happens on the margins of a Summit such as the Rio+20 meeting, which is why such large delegations are sent by participating countries. Despite a general benign neglect of Brazil and Latin America,  Australia nevertheless came away from Rio with some fairly substantial and concrete deliverables that will serve the country well over the medium and long term. Not a bad achievement at the price.

–Sean Burges

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