An economist in Pittsburgh — where a G20 summit last year cost $18 million — is agog at the costs for Toronto and Huntsville.
It’s a good thing for British newspaper reader Reuben Camara that he doesn’t pay taxes in Canada.
The Lancashire resident was outraged last year at the price-tag for an April summit that brought the G20 leaders to London for two days. Billed in some quarters as the “budget” summit, the meeting cost an estimated $30 million.
“I’d hate to think what a full-blown summit would cost,” Camara complained on the website of the London Daily Standard.
Come to Canada, Ruben — and don’t forget your cheque book.
Ottawa initially allocated $179 million for the G8 and G20 summits — three days of talks that are now expected to set taxpayers back at least $1.1 billion. Most of the money, about $930 million, is for security.
“How you can get to $930 million is beyond my comprehension,” said Antony Davies, an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. “That seems impossibly large.”
For the G20 gathering in Pittsburgh, organizers rented the seven-year-old David L. Lawrence Convention Center, located on the banks of the Allegheny River in the city’s business and entertainment district. The Toronto summit will be similarly conducted at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
“They shut down the entire downtown,” Davies said of the Pittsburgh gathering. “It went very well.”
At the April, 2009, G20 summit in London, total costs were $30 million (U.S.), according to a research report completed this month at the University of Toronto. Security cost $28.6 million.
The U of T report estimated costs for all similar international meetings going back to 1981, in the case of the G8. With just one or two exceptions, the Canadian gatherings are vastly more expensive than other meetings. Only one other G8 meeting held since 9/11 had security costs greater than $124 million (U.S.). That was in Japan in 2008.
“This really comes down to incompetence,” fumed Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland about Canada’s billion-dollar summits. “There is no justification.”
Comparisons are tricky because accounting may differ from summit to summit, and figures for Canada may include costs not reflected in the figures for other gatherings.
Public Safety Minister Victor Toews has promised to break down the expenses after the summits.
He conceded expenses could have been reduced if the military, rather than police, had been recruited to provide the bulk of security.
“Canadians understand that in a democracy you have the police rather than the army in the streets,” Toews said. “And so these are political decisions you make.”
According to Ward Elcock, former head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, summit organizers will deploy about 19,000 security personnel over the three days of meetings that begin Friday. They will have to be fed, housed and paid considerable sums in overtime.
By comparison, about 4,000 police were on duty for last fall’s Pittsburgh G20 meeting. There were about 5,000 for the G20 gathering in London.
“You’ve got roughly five times the police force,” said Davies in Pittsburgh. He roughly multiplied that city’s $18 million summit costs by five. “That takes you to about $80 million.”
What about the remaining $800 million?
“Maybe someone added on an extra zero?” suggested Davies.
Summit expert John Kirton at the U of T, who helped produce the report on summit expenses, says the projected Canadian costs are reasonable. He attributes them in part to the complexity of holding two meetings in two locations.
“For the first time in world history, we’re holding G8 and G20 summits as twins.”
He said the estimated costs for last year’s G20 meetings in Pittsburgh and London do not reflect the higher investment the U.S. and Britain make in day-to-day military security compared with Canada.
“There are military bases everywhere in the United States,” he said. “Americans pay for it everyday. It’s billed to the Pentagon.”
“That could account for some tens of millions,” he conceded. “But not a billion.”
A definitive explanation for the seemingly extraordinary cost of the two Canadian meetings will probably have to await the verdict of federal Auditor-General Sheila Fraser.
At least some portion of the high costs may reflect a stark Canadian reality in the post-9/11 world: when it comes to security, this country has little choice but to be even more vigilant, perhaps far more vigilant, than anybody else — or risk losing U.S. trust.
As for subsequent economic gains that might flow from an international summit, Davies said Pittsburgh’s experience has not been encouraging.
“The financial benefit appears to be negligible.”