Canada: Here comes the G20

Updated:

TORONTO, Canada – The leaders of 20 of the world’s important economies are coming to town, and the residents of this good city are not in a welcoming mood. How could they be?

A sign of the hassles ahead is the security fence that snakes for more than two miles around several downtown city blocks, where the G20 leaders will meet June 26-27. (A day earlier, the more exclusive G8 meets about 140 miles north in a lakeside resort in the cottage-country town of Huntsville, Ontario.)

An estimated 30,000 Torontonians will have to go through security hoops to come in and out of their condos or workplaces inside the fenced-in area. Many business owners have decided it’s easier to just keep their shops closed that weekend. Those immediately outside the 10-foot-high fence are likely to do the same, fearful of the sometimes violent protesters attracted by international summits.

Major theaters and art galleries have also announced they’ll be shutting their doors, and the Toronto Blue Jays, who play in the downtown Rogers Center, have moved their scheduled home series against the Philadelphia Phillies to Philadelphia.

In short, the core of Canada’s biggest city may end up looking like a commercial ghost town. It would make an ironic setting to a summit discussing how to avoid another economic collapse.

And then there is the price tag: Protecting political leaders at both the G8 and G20 summits will cost an astounding $1 billion — a sum that has hit Canadian taxpayers, who are footing the bill, like a vuvuzela blast.

To put this eye-popping amount in some context, security for the Pittsburg G20 summit in September 2009 cost $18 million; security for the London G20 in April that year cost $30 million. Security for the Vancouver Winter Olympics earlier this year — which lasted 14 days — was $900 million.

Here’s some more context: $1 billion is the entire yearly budget for the Toronto police force, plus overtime. $1 billion is what it costs Canada to support its military mission in Afghanistan each year.

Aid groups point to the shocking contrast between the security bill and the Canadian government’s four-year freeze on the level of foreign development aid. Others note that the G8 is $20 billion behind on an aid commitment to Africa made five years ago.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government insists the security price tag is due to the unprecedented holding of two major summits back-to-back. But opposition politicians insist it’s part of a wasteful government track record.

Harper came to power in 2006, defeating a Liberal government that left a $12 billion budget surplus. He proceeded to wipe it out before the recession hit, with tax cuts and lavish spending. It was part of a so far unsuccessful attempt to convince voters that his minority government should be trusted with the absolute power wielded by a majority one.

When the recession came, Harper was forced to billions stimulating the economy. And so, under his economic stewardship, Canadians have come to be burdened with a $56 billion deficit, and are braced for the painful spending cuts that are sure to come.

Adding insult to injury for many taxpayers was news last week of questionable costs beyond security, including $2 million for the interior of a media center that lets the 3,000 journalists covering the G20 experience Canada’s great outdoors, indoors. The pavilion will have an artificial lake, canoes, cottage chairs and the recorded sounds of loons.

Canadians didn’t fail to see the irony: Money was being spent to build a fake lake in a pavilion practically on the shores of a real one — Lake Ontario. Harper’s socialist political rival, Jack Layton, called the affair “Fake Lake-Gate.” Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff dubbed it, “Lake Waste-a-ma-taxes.”

Harper defended the pavilion as a chance “to profile Ontario tourism to the world.”

The prime minister has also come under fire for balking at putting climate change on the official G20 agenda (he did so only after public pressure), for lobbying hard to kill a proposed bank tax — supported by the U.S. — to avoid further government bailouts, and for refusing to fund abortion as part of a maternal health initiative in developing countries.

Canada’s public safety minister, Vic Toews, defended the summit, insisting there are “certain things that can only be done face to face.” Yet anyone who has covered these events knows that whatever agreements emerge are largely hammered out by bureaucratic sherpas ahead of time.

So for many Canadians, the questions remain: Why hold a political meeting in the heart of a city if it means transforming it into an armed camp at a cost of $1 billion? Why not hold it on a military base, or a desert island? Why not opt for video-conferencing? Why hold a summit at all?