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The G20 and the $1bn question— Toronto

Preface

In advance of hosting next week’s G20 summit in Toronto, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper has been repeating the words “fiscal sustainability” with mantra-like regularity.

Economics, Fiscal sustainability, G20

12 June 2010

In advance of hosting next week’s G20 summit in Toronto, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper has been repeating the words “fiscal sustainability” with mantra-like regularity. Along with Germany’s Andrea Merkel, Harper will be pushing his fellow leaders at the meetings to adopt aggressive deficit reduction targets as the next step toward combating the global economic crisis.

All this has left Canadians wondering what exactly Harper means by fiscal sustainability – they’ve just learned the summit will cost them $1bn (€800m).

The price tag also includes a comfy G8 huddle at a lakeside resort north of Toronto the day before, but it’s still a far cry from the tabs for previous G20s in London and Pittsburgh – $30m and $18m respectively. Such is the cost of the largest security operation in Canadian history, surpassing the record set only a few months ago when Vancouver put on the Winter Olympics.

Harper justifies the expense, in part, by pointing to the international exposure Toronto will garner as a result.

Unfortunately, Toronto won’t have very much to show off. In response to the security clampdown and the expected disruptions caused by protestors, almost everything that makes the city appealing is shutting down for the weekend. Its major art galleries and museums and many shops and cinemas near the downtown summit area have announced they will close. Even Toronto’s pro baseball team has rescheduled its games for away.

“It’s like the second coming of SARS,” wrote a columnist for the Globe and Mail, “the last time Toronto took a turn on the world stage. A lesson in ways to turn a fairly vibrant town into a desert.”

While the host cities of such gatherings increasingly wonder whether they’re worth the expense or inconvenience, many G20 delegates, and wanna-be delegates, are musing aloud if they’re actually that productive.

The meetings in Toronto will be the first since leaders agreed in Pittsburg that the G20 would replace the G8 as the main platform for decisions on global economic policy, which has prompted conflicting questions of manageability and inclusiveness.

Expanding the group to include emerging powers such as China, Brazil, Turkey and India should enhance the forum’s legitimacy. But why stop at 20, say others still left out. Why not G25? Among the 20, for example, only South Africa will represent a continent whose social and economic development is among the top items on the agenda.

But some of those accustomed to being inside the meetings argue that at a certain point membership becomes so unwieldy that it’s impossible to achieve any meaningful results.

At a pre-G20 conference in Montréal last week, Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said “This is as good as it can get if you combine the question of legitimacy with the question of whether it is manageable.”

Then there is French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, who questions whether the G8, G20 or G-anything is ultimately the proper forum at all, suggesting that more could be achieved through a revitalised United Nations. Which, he says, is what aside from a bank tax the G20 should be focusing on now.

Whatever transpires from the meetings, many Torontonians will be fleeing the city for their cottages that weekend. Most of those left behind will happily be paying closer attention to what’s going on in South Africa and its scheduled slate of quarter-final World Cup matches.

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