G-20 nations must act to deliver

Action lines that emerged from the Group of 20 discussions in Australia were as ambitious as they were varied - spanning trade and infrastructure, corporate tax avoidance, climate change and disease control. Most striking was the injunction that combined gross domestic product growth needs to be better than 2 per cent more in the next five years, assessed against International Monetary Fund projections. There will be millions more jobs in the US$2 trillion (S$2.6 trillion) of additional output that is to be produced, according to the concluding statement.

Is it achievable in downbeat conditions worldwide? The expansiveness of summitry - where targets set are often just statements of intent - has to be weighed against prevailing and forecast conditions.

The idea of demand stimulating growth through unimpeded trade and investment has yet to take hold in Europe and Japan. A lurch towards fascist tendencies in most of Western Europe is dangerously overshadowing the economic restructuring debate. Japan is facing early elections as the Abe government seeks to head off a new deflation bout. The Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations, upon which the world has pinned hopes in expanding aggregate supply and demand, are slowing just when they should be pacing themselves better to make up for the shortfall in the advanced economies.

The G-20 as a coordinating mechanism proved quite useful after severe systemic shocks to global financial stability - the Asian currency crisis, followed by the American-induced banking and markets crash. The leaders summit instituted only in 2008 provided the political impetus required to coordinate crisis responses. But in between the spikes, the G-20 moved rather like any other consultative forum (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the G-8, the endless Doha trade consensus round). Perish the thought that it must take another financial catastrophe to galvanise governments to act.

This does not suggest that not much is expected of the Brisbane proposals, only that member nations have to act collaboratively, in the collective interest. They can make good on the trade pledge by being serious about dismantling barriers. They should act on labour and financial reforms and boost infrastructure spending to make themselves competitive. Otherwise, as Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, "no amount of global cooperation or consensus will succeed in boosting growth".

Singapore is not a G-20 member but it provides a plausible working model of promoting growth without obsessing about the downside of open trade. There is value in observing small competitive economies as these are "the canaries in the mine" of a turbulent international system, as research firm Landfall noted.