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Billion dollar boondoggle

People are calling it a "billion-dollar boondoggle," and for once they're not talking about the Yukon government. The cost for Canada to host the G8 and G20 leaders' summits in Ontario this month has soared to $1.

People are calling it a “billion-dollar boondoggle,” and for once they’re not talking about the Yukon government.

The cost for Canada to host the G8 and G20 leaders’ summits in Ontario this month has soared to $1.1 billion, according to government reports. The events will take place in Huntsville and Toronto respectively, and both will enjoy impressive logistical support. For example, more than 10,000 Mounties will be deployed and it will cost $50 million just to build what one Canadian security boss describes as the “trailer park” to house security personnel. As has become typical with summits, there is also a vast bureaucratic effort complete with logos, pre-meetings, youth summits, press kits, media tours and cultural events.

The reported cost of April 2009’s G20 summit in London was $30 million and the one in Pittsburgh last September was $18 million. Even if those figures don’t include all the true costs (the federal government’s G20 security co-ordinator said they weren’t “apples to apples”), they still suggest something has gone horribly awry.

The unreported costs are also significant. Toronto’s financial district will be significantly disrupted, and we should all remember that’s where a significant portion of our tax revenue comes from. Plus, as a former foreign service officer, this columnist shudders at how this event must be distracting Foreign Affairs, National Defence and the Privy Council Office from their day jobs.

The cost wouldn’t matter if we were convinced the G8 and G20 meetings actually accomplished something. Summit boosters point to the value of face-to-face relationships developed at these meetings; undoubtedly it’s useful for a Canadian prime minister to better understand what Brazilian and Indian leaders are thinking about. The joint communiques always sound good. The one for the Washington G20 summit in 2008 announced massive, co-ordinated fiscal stimulus packages to attack the global economic crisis.

But there is long-standing skepticism about the value of these events. London’s Daily Express called the first G7 summit (actually G6 since Canada wasn’t invited) the nonevent of the year. At the 1982 summit at Versailles, a bored Ronald Reagan apparently wrote a note to his secretary of state saying, “We should be out swimming in that fountain.”

Take the Washington summit for example. Most countries would have introduced stimulus packages anyway, and most of the work preparing them was done before the summit. It’s impossible to tell what role the upcoming summit, and the pressure it puts on leaders, will play in making good things happen. Anti-summit cynics say that, of course, worthwhile things happen at summits; it’s impossible to get thousands of officials to work on a summit for months and spend a billion dollars without something useful happening at some point along the way.

Cost has also been a perennial pain point. US former president Jimmy Carter ordered his delegation out of London’s posh Claridge’s Hotel into the downmarket Britannia in 1977. Various heads of state have attempted over the years to trim the summit baggage, generally with little success.

It’s clear to this columnist that the Prime Minister’s Office and our senior federal officials failed to manage this event properly. It is absurd that we will defend Muskoka and Toronto with a larger armed force than we attacked Nazi-held Dieppe with in 1942. It is a shocking waste that we are erecting security perimeters around two separate locations for the G8 and then the G20 a few days later.

Taxpayers will be wishing some high mucky-muck in Ottawa had the gumption a few months ago to order the summit organizers to scale back the spectacle, cut their budget and cause less trouble to regular working Canadians.

Judging by the Olympics, Canadian governments are pretty good at organizing these grand showpiece events. Hopefully the Ontario summits turn out to be something that at least makes the country look good, even if it does add a billion dollars to the national debt.

And hopefully our leaders in Ottawa have put as much effort into thinking of positive policy proposals for the summits as they have into security cordons and banquet menus. Otherwise, as they say in Stephen Harper’s hometown, the G8 and G20 summits will be all hat and no cattle.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s

adventure novels.