G20 –Was It Worth It?

World leaders had been planning for a G20 meeting in 2010 for over a year, when Stephen Harper changed the plan. The 2010 G20 meeting was planned for November in Seoul, South Korea. It will still take place in November in South Korea. The June Toronto G20 was an add-on. Why the Prime Minister chose to add a G20 in Toronto to the planned G8 in Huntsville is a question to which Canadians deserve an answer. It is the $1 billion + question.

The extravagance of taxpayers’ money that was the G8/G20 summit received most of the media attention. The ‘fake lake,’ the restored steamboat in Tony Clement’s riding that is still not in the water—among various amusing and infuriating examples of pork-barrelling—will be fodder for electioneering, but far more substantive aspects of the event need to be discussed and reviewed.

These questions fall into two categories: what did the leaders actually accomplish (at a cost to Canadians of $50 million/hour), and were there options to avoid the street clashes that will be the enduring memory of Toronto last weekend?

The most substantive achievement from the G8/G20 meetings is the $5 billion maternal healthcare commitment. Canada’s contribution is generous, especially in contrast with the other donor nations. We have committed $1 billion to maternal health, or slightly less than what the summit cost. Our generosity is tainted by the Harper government’s refusal to allow our funding to include provision of safe and legal abortion services, such as are available to Canadian women, to the poorest women in the world. Nevertheless, despite this offensive and illogical stance, we must hope that the Canadian contribution of $1 billion will help alleviate suffering and improve health services.

Efforts to confront the problem presented by financial institutions which rely on being viewed as ‘too big to fail’— but never ‘too big to bail out’—were something of a wash. Those nations committed to create a tax on banks will proceed individually.

The larger potential for a tax such as that envisioned by the late James Tobin, Nobel Laureate in Economics, to reduce the destabilization of currencies through speculative trading was only noted as deserving further study. The Green Party fully supports the Tobin Tax as well as regulation to ensure banks maintain an embedded capital contingency fund. Such a fund would essentially require them to ‘bail themselves out’ without turning to the taxpayers.

Deficit reduction became the big story, with G20 leaders agreeing that developed countries will cut their deficits by half by 2013. The instability in global markets, the risk that the recession is not over, may lead the world leaders to re-think the rigidity of this commitment. Certainly, we would not want deficit reduction to result in greater recessionary trends and serious cuts in social programmes around the world. Unemployment is still worryingly high in many countries. We, in Canada, have been spared the worst of the recession, largely thanks to the fact our banks were denied the ability to ‘go global’ when former Prime Minister Jean Chretien rejected their requests for mergers in the 1990s. Mr Harper likes to take credit for our superior banking system, and conveniently forgets that he agreed with the banks in their bid to merge and engage in the same global financial risky behaviour of the Big Boys, like Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers.

Some world leaders have argued that more stimulus is needed to address persistent unemployment. Certainly, for Canada, we should move to reduce the deficit as soon as possible. We should not proceed with further corporate tax cuts. I presented the Green deficit reduction plan in January to the Parliamentary Budget Officer. We were the first party to do so, and we remain the only opposition party to have worked up detailed approaches to deficit reduction and shared them with the PBO.

We can also cut in certain areas where growth in budgets has increased deficits. Chief among these globally has been military spending. In the last ten years we have seen a 50% increase in military budgets up to a worldwide total of $1.5 trillion (US$). This increase in military spending is a big part of the reason our deficits have grown; however, not one word was uttered at the G20 about cutting military budgets as a means of reducing deficits.

Nearly invisible in G20 reports was the new nuclear trade deal brokered between India and Canada. I was certain this move violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, and contacted our former Ambassador for Disarmament, former senator and MP, the Honourable Doug Roche, OC for comment. He had this to say: ‘The Canada-India nuclear trade deal bypasses the fact that Canada is prohibited under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty from entering into nuclear commerce with non- NPT parties, in this case India. Instead of throwing its weight behind the gathering movement in the world for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, which would be a treaty banning all nuclear weapons, Canada has chosen to expand its commercial interests through the weakening of its disarmament efforts.’

This deal is all the more galling in that in 1974 India violated the requirements in Canada’s 1956 gift of a nuclear research reactor by using spent fuel to build a nuclear weapon. Former Minister David Emerson, in re-opening talks with India, said ‘India’s been in the penalty box long enough.’ Now, the Harper government has moved Canada into the penalty box alongside India as a nation undermining non-proliferation goals.

Lastly, and perhaps most disappointing, is the absolute lack of progress on the climate crisis. The one silver lining is that climate was mentioned at all, given the Harper government’s efforts to keep it off the agenda. Nevertheless, this communique has the weakest, least helpful climate language from either the G8 or G20 since the late 1970s. It does nothing to create momentum for the Cancun negotiations in late November-early December. Let us hope that the South Korea meeting can do better. That nation’s top diplomat, UN Secretary General Ban Ki- Moon, is certainly aware and committed to global climate action and may assist the host government in making up for ground lost in Toronto.

The second aspect of the G20 that bears mention is the questions raised by the huge costs of security and the acts of vandalism on the streets of Toronto. My sense, although I was not present at the G20, was that the police themselves were extremely restrained and performed well under pressure. Still, the orders from the top need to be reviewed. Why were police told to allow vandalism, without interference or arrest, but to charge and arrest people who were non-violent? The practices employed by the Toronto police, creating cordons and ‘sweeping the streets,’ appear very similar to those of the London police in last year’s G20, which resulted in false arrests and charges of police brutality in the UK. One year later, charges are being dropped as UK juries have found alleged provocateurs to be innocent bystanders caught up in the melée. Can we learn lessons from the over-militarized approach to security and the possibility that such displays of militarized force increase the risk of violent clashes? Can we learn from the Toronto Summit and provide advice to other governments of the best way forward to balance the needs for freedom of expression, protection of private and public property, and security for the leaders themselves?

Due to the serious allegations of unacceptable erosion of civil liberties connected with the summit, the Green Party has called for a public inquiry. Canadians deserve to know why the summit cost so much, accomplished so little and left an impression of Toronto as a war zone. Perhaps there were no alternatives once world leaders were invited. For the future of us all, we have to hope that there are indeed acceptable alternatives.

Elizabeth May is leader of the Green Party of Canada and has participated in G8 summits, both the official and Peoples’ Summits, since 1995.