OPINION

<i>Illustration: Glen Le Lievre</i>

Illustration: Glen Le Lievre

It's easy to be cynical about the G20. Will the meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors in Sydney this weekend, and the leaders' summit in Brisbane in November, amount to anything more than talkfests? People say the Brisbane summit will be the largest and most important economic meeting ever held in Australia. That's true, but it just means it will be bigger than the Sydney APEC leaders' summit in 2007 - which is remembered mainly for The Chaser boys' Bin Laden stunt.

But though it's easy to be cynical, it's a mistake. It's possible the two meetings this year will prove no more than talkshops, but that would be a great pity. And, since Australia is this year's chair of the group, it's up to Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott to make sure they're worth more than that.

The G20 began in 1999 as a group for finance ministers and central bankers, in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, which revealed the need for greater co-operation and co-ordination between governments in responding to crises in the global financial system and, better, making changes to the global financial ''architecture'' (rules and institutions) that reduced the frequency and severity of financial crises.

The formation of the G20 was a recognition that the G7 (compromising only Europe, North America and Japan) wasn't truly global, particularly because it excluded the emerging BRICS economies - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

For a decade or two most of the growth in the global economy has come from the BRICS, and the developing economies now account for more than half gross world product. For a better global spread, the G20 also adds Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, the European Union and, of course, Oz. With just these 20, it accounts for 85 per cent of gross world product.

In 2009, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the G20 was upgraded from just finance ministers to include summits of presidents and prime ministers, an acknowledgment of the way economic power had spread beyond the North Atlantic. But why do we need these get-togethers?

Because, as Christine Lagarde, boss of the International Monetary Fund, said recently: ''The breakneck pattern of integration and interconnectedness defines our times.''

It has become unfashionable for the media to talk about globalisation, but it's continuing apace. As Mike Callaghan of the Lowy Institute said last week: ''If there is one lesson from the [global financial] crisis, it is the interconnectedness between financial markets. Events in US financial markets had worldwide consequences. We need co-operation to deal with globally operating financial institutions.''

These days, global integration is being driven less by deregulation and more by advances in technology, particularly the information and communication revolution. One part of this is the way the internet has globalised the media.

News of an economic calamity in one country is now conveyed to the rest of the world almost instantly. Financial traders in New York or other centres can start moving money out of the affected country in no time. They can then take a set against neighbouring countries they merely fear may have a similar problem, giving rise to a big problem called ''contagion'', where trouble spreads like a communicable disease.

And TV news that a few banks are tottering in Europe can scare the pants off consumers and business people in countries around the world, prompting them to stop spending until their confidence returns.

But it's not just crises. As Callaghan reminds us, more and more businesses now operate globally. Goods are more likely to be ''made in the world'', with inputs from many countries rather than just one. So the trade policies agreed by the international community have to adapt to the new reality that such ''value chains'' are increasingly driving world trade.

Then there's tax. The more businesses that operate globally, the more businesses that are able to exploit loopholes between different countries' tax laws, shifting their profits to countries with low tax rates. This is eroding the tax base of many countries - including ours - so their taxes aren't raising as much revenue as they should be.

In other words, technology-driven globalisation - the ever-reducing barriers separating particular economies - is throwing up problems that can't be solved by individual countries acting individually.

So we need greater communication, co-operation and co-ordination between countries, first, to discourage countries from pursuing ''beggar-thy-neighbour'' policies - I attempt to fix my problems at your expense, which usually provokes retaliation, so we all suffer - and, second, to find group solutions to the various problems.

The first couple of G20 leaders' summits in 2009 were quite effective in ensuring the Great Recession wasn't as bad as it could have been. But the truth is the G20 has been running out of momentum, resorting to high-sounding rhetoric while getting bogged down in excessive detail.

Considering how crisis-prone the global economy has become, it's important merely for world leaders, treasurers and central bankers to know each other, have face-to-face meetings and phone each other. But we also need more joint action, and if the G20 doesn't lift its game the big boys will stop coming to meetings and eventually shift their interest to a smaller, more cohesive group which includes China and a few others, but excludes Australia.

Clearly, it wouldn't be in our interests to lose our seat at the top table. That's why it's so important we use our position as this year's chair to get the G20 back on the rails. Many pre-meeting phone calls need to be made by Hockey and Abbott to their counterparts, to gather support on the directions to be taken.

Then they need to chair the meetings effectively, discouraging set-piece speeches and encouraging interchange that improves mutual understanding and makes progress on a limited range of key issues.

We have a lot to gain or lose.

Ross Gittins is the economics editor.