Matt Franklin’s intriguing weekend piece on a phone call between the Prime Minister and President Bush on 10 October raises plenty of questions.

The piece contains a detailed discussion of what the men talked about, including a damning revelation that Bush didn’t know what the G20 was. According to the account, only one other person, a Rudd adviser, was in the room, taking notes. Franklin made a point of noting that Rudd, appropriately, did not provide any comment for the article. Someone who was there did, however, and in quite some depth. Given the article highlights Rudd’s skill in convincing Bush to hold a G20 rather than a G8 summit, you’d have to assume the Prime Minister’s office had a hand in it somewhere.

But the idea of Rudd singlehandedly convincing the dullard Bush as to the worth of including major developing countries – and Australia – in the summit on the financial crisis doesn’t quite stack up. The importance of involving the likes of China in the summit had already occurred to plenty of others. The Wall Street Journal was discussing the need to include G20 leaders in the summit – and the possibility that Bush might opt for the G20 – the very next day.

And it’s surely inconceivable that even Bush would seriously ask another leader “what’s the G20?”

There’s also a missing nuance, one the New York Times picked up on, in that Bush will be a reluctant summiteer. The summit is a European idea, and one Bush was not eager to embrace for fear it would lead to a new round of financial regulation. Having G20 leaders – rather than the G8 preferred by the Europeans — will automatically make agreement at the summit, or its follow-up discussions, more difficult. Any European agenda of imposing tighter financial controls will be more difficult to implement at a larger gathering.

By 15 November, of course, Bush will not so much be a lame duck as a sort of sad reminder of the mentality that caused the mess in the first place. His capacity to influence events might be fairly limited, especially if, as seems likely, President-elect Obama will have a massive Democrat Congressional majority to use.

Rudd’s positioning of himself as a key player at the summit – possible go-between for Bush and Wen Jiabao, advocate of “not more or less regulation, but better regulation” – is one thing that Malcolm Turnbull can’t match, no matter how hard he tries. It also keeps the focus at least partially on the international nature of the crisis. The Government knows that voters will want to blame them for a recession, and that Turnbull knows that is his only chance of winning in 2010. The trick, while doing anything possible to avoid a recession, is to make sure everyone knows we’re better off than the rest of the world if it does happen.

Peter Fray

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