Well, just in case anyone was wondering whether the whole G20 phonecallgate story wasn’t an extended piece of navel-gazing by the Press Gallery, the weekend papers settled it.

Laurie Oakes had a go at The Oz in his (invariably excellent) Telegraph column. Dennis Shanahan had a go at Annabel Crabb, Media Watch and Michelle Grattan in his Weekend Australian column. And the Weekend Oz editorial had a go at Oakes, Paul Bongiorno and, as if to confirm there’s no love lost within the News Ltd stable, Glenn Milne and Malcolm Farr. That was a bit harsh on Milne, who at least tried to gauge the actual consequences of the leak when he wrote about it in his Sunday Telegraph column a fortnight ago.

Oh and they had a go at Crikey as well. We’re a “lame goose”. Yes, a “lame goose”. Don’t laugh. You’d be surprised how much a mixed metaphor can hurt when it’s thrown in anger.

The Australian has now devoted almost as much space to defending itself as it gave to the actual coverage. It’s a full-on fight in the Press Gallery sandpit, with toys and dirt being chucked, kids being dobbed on and tears and sulks galore. Meantime, the adults get on with life.

Judging by the reaction of Crikey commenters last week, there seems to be a widespread view that no one cares about the Prime Minister leaking a conversation with the US President to big-note himself, then refusing to own up when caught out. Radio segments I did last week seemed to confirm this view isn’t confined to Crikey’s readership.

People, it seems, don’t want to know that their Prime Minister has an ego so large it unbalances his judgement. Or perhaps they know and don’t care. There’s a peculiar relationship between Australians and their Prime Minister, one the media can only speculate about, not influence. Australians will put up with hugely flawed individuals in the highest office, as long as they believe they’re producing the goods. Tendencies to egocentrism, a reluctance to tell the truth, or a contempt for basic standards of political decency are tolerated. Leaders have to stick around for several terms for Australians to get sick of them, as Bob Hawke and John Howard found. In the scheme of things, Kevin Rudd having some fun at the expense of President Bush is pretty minor stuff.

Rudd was probably irrelevant in Bush’s consideration of whether to have a G8 or a G20 summit but he was right to push for a wider gathering. The G20 communique — a rare such document in actually justifying its length — reflects a strong push, doubtless by the Europeans, for greater regulation, including in two areas nominated by Kevin Rudd beforehand – executive salaries and regulation of ratings agencies. But it is hard to imagine that the G8 would have produced such a clear statement in favour of free trade, the need to avoid the false appeal of protectionism and a rapid and successful conclusion of the Doha Round.

Were that to come to fruition, in however limited a form, the financial crisis won’t have been for nothing, and humankind will have demonstrated at least a semblance of a capacity to learn from its mistakes. It would also mean that George W. Bush will leave office with at least one significant achievement to his name amidst the wreckage he has inflicted on his own country and the rest of us. President Obama would not have been so forthright about the need to resist protectionist impulses. Worse, a successful conclusion to Doha might yet founder on a Democrat-controlled Congress.

The overall tenor of the communiqué, however, seems to lean more heavily toward more regulation rather than better regulation. We’re in for a proliferation of international regulators, fora and “colleges”. The issue is dormant now, but eventually there’ll be problems over how much national regulatory sovereignty is ceded to these bodies, and the extent to which they’ll become political footballs in domestic politics. Australia’s politicians already play games over the OECD, which only exists to churn out pointless piles of paper.

Nonetheless, the world’s leading economies held a talkfest and managed to produce something faintly resembling an outcome, even if it is more or less an extensive to-do list. Treasury and finance bureaucrats from Canberra to Beijing to Paris to Tokyo won’t be having much time off this Christmas.

Peter Fray

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