G20: Stunts and Speeches


The G20 summit is over. Furious final negotiations occupied Friday morning, with journalists peddling rumours and seizing on every scrap of filtered information. By two in the afternoon, the shape of the outcome was evident, the official communiqué was released and the leaders were on their way into their press conferences.

The real Barack Obama doesn’t look as youthful and energetic as the one in Oxfam’s stunts. His hair is grey, and the weight of the world has stooped his shoulders. In the stunt he strides; in person he shuffles. Instead of energetic waves he makes the minimum motion required to turn the pages of his prepared notes. (If you watch TV, you probably know all this.)

That said, Obama still wields an agile mind and a silver tongue. At his conference, he handled a wide range of issues with such skill he seemed less a politician, more a schoolteacher gravely taking pains to explain matters to his rather dull pupils. (Hmmm, that sounds more like the guy playing him in the stunt.) The journalists – bored with the lack of news and smelling weakness – gave him a very hard time.

Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, in contrast, exuded more energy in person than the cardboard face in the Oxfam stunt. She was nursing a bad cold, yet gripped the podium firmly, all the while loudly expounding her point of view. Like Obama, she felt inspired to explain the policy implications of Europe’s financial woes. She did so perhaps less confidently, but her body language was clear as could be: “Don’t challenge me!” And the journalists fawned.

Nicolas Sarkozy, as you might expect, looked especially bushed. But his eyes danced, and he stood like a prizefighter, his tiny lithe body threatening to take on all comers. Not unlike his stunt appearance. And for the first time, he uttered the words “Robin Hood Tax.” Not “financial transaction tax”; not “contribution by the financial sector”. “Robin Hood Tax,” the phrase made common currency by Oxfam and our allies.

Oxfam’s slogan at the opening stunt was “Le G20: C’est pas du cinema”. But you know, a lot of summitry is in fact theatre. Policy solutions to the woes of the world are not so hard to craft. Some, like the Robin Hood Tax or better regulation of commodity derivatives, make so much sense that the technocrats come on side.

The tough part is the politics: overcoming the influence of those who would lose money or influence, creating the political elbowroom leaders need to accomplish change and remain in office, finding common ground with potential allies. And all that requires a flair for the theatrical, showmanship on a stage like the G20 Summit – and beyond.

The curtain falls. Cue: applause. And the tired actors pack it in.

Mark Fried is Oxfam Canada policy coordinator.