To Sydney for the first of three G20 meetings in Australia this year. It’s a long way to travel, but as the formidable Treasurer, Joe Hockey, reminded the jet-lagged finance ministers and central bank governors of the world: now you all know what Australian ministers have been putting up with all these years they’ve been travelling to your meetings. The government of Tony Abbott may be new to the international stage, but they’ve laid on an impressive show. We have a tight agenda, focused on clear and achievable outcomes; and the trappings are kept to a minimum. It all augurs well for the big leaders’ summit in Brisbane this November.
I regret to say I’ve only been to Australia once before. That was on a flying visit 15 years ago with William Hague, then our Conservative party leader and now our imperturbable Foreign Secretary. He was invited to speak at the Liberal party convention by John Howard. British readers will be relieved to know this wasn’t an early exercise in coalition-forming — the Liberal party in Australia makes the British Conservative party look positively, well, liberal. I was the bag carrier on the trip, and we spent more time in an aeroplane than on the ground. The third member of our travelling group was Seb Coe, Olympic gold medal winner, athletic legend and then William’s chief of staff. He asked me to join him on a run around Sydney Harbour, past the Opera House. Sensibly, I declined. This time I did go for the Harbour run – but alone, accompanied only by the occasional cries of cockatoos from the botanical garden and at a pace that Seb would have found embarrassing. I don’t care — it was beautiful.
We were expecting a fight at the G20, and the media were disappointed that one never materialised. The script seemed written in advance. The emerging economies would blame their current problems on the decision of the Federal Reserve to start tapering off their quantitative easing; and the advanced economies, including us, would tell them that the real cause of their troubles lay in the failure of some of them to put their own houses in order. Except no one read the script. Janet Yellen, in her first international appearance as chair of the Fed, acknowledged that she and her committee had an obligation to communicate their policies clearly. In return, the emerging economies agreed they needed to do more to reform. So instead of an argument, we had an outbreak of harmony. Everyone signed up to the Australian ambition to increase global GDP by 2 per cent more than previously predicted over the next five years. It’s a laudable goal — now we need to turn it into concrete plans. By the way, it’s refreshing that with Janet at the Fed, and Christine Lagarde at the IMF, arguably the two most powerful people round the G20 table are women.
I broke the journey to and from Sydney with brief stopovers in Hong Kong and Singapore — two islands that have defied geography and history to become Asian economic powerhouses. Although very different in character, they share an ambition to plan for the long term that western nations would do well to learn from. Whether it was the vast new high-speed terminal in West Kowloon I went to see under construction, or the staggering scale of the Port of Singapore, both countries are investing in the infrastructure of the future. Britain needs to do the same. So does Australia. I came away, as I always do from my visits to Asia, awed by the change that is happening in the world — and full of determination that my country will not be left behind. Britain can and will raise its game and invest also in big infrastructure, such as high-speed rail and new airport capacity.
Thanks to the difficult decisions we’ve taken to put our public finances in order and create a pro-business environment, the British economy is now growing faster than many others in the West. But this visit reminded me we cannot rest on our laurels — my Budget next month needs to redouble our efforts to support investment and exports. I admire China but borrowing money from the Chinese simply to buy the things the Chinese make for us is not a sustainable future for Britain. We need to earn our way in the world and see ‘Made in Britain’ again in the ports of Singapore and Hong Kong.
John Howard is a political leader who, like Margaret Thatcher, took the difficult decisions and made reforms that the Australian economy is still benefiting from. I was honoured when he invited me for lunch at the Australian Club. I came straight from an event put on by the excellent Sydney Institute in the new Chifley Tower, designed by Richard Rogers. After an hour of being grilled by the forensic Gerard Henderson, I was ready to take a back seat at lunch and listen to the reminiscences of the man he once served as chief of staff. But I’d forgotten that John lives in the present, not the past, and we were soon into a lively conversation about the global economy, Australian and British politics, and the prospects for English cricket. So the G20 meeting was just a bonus; I would have flown 10,500 miles just to hear the wisdom of John Howard.
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