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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

The siege mentality of back-to-back summits will cost us dearly Add to ...

There was a time, when Gerald Ford was president of the United States and Pierre Trudeau was prime minister of Canada, that seven world leaders gathered informally once a year.

The meeting was called the G7 summit, and the countries formed a cozy club of Western democracies. The leaders brought a handful of aides, didn't make grandiose declarations, but rather talked among themselves about the issues of moment. They got to know each other better, and that was no bad thing.

The world has mightily changed since those mid-1970s days. With those changes came the expansion of the G7 to the G8, courtesy of the admission of Russia, and the creation of the G20, whose leaders will gather in late June in Toronto.

Mark these words, based on briefings from officials from four participant countries: The G20, at least for the Canadian media, will be the most grossly over-covered event of 2010.

It is the fact that 20 leaders are in Canada, rather than anything that they will do while here, that presumably will make "news." This G20 summit is a transition between the one held last year in Pittsburgh, where some decisions of importance were taken, and the one later this year in South Korea. As a result, the meeting will be of slight consequence in the worldwide scheme of economic policy.

The holding of the back-to-back G8 and G20 summits in Canada will cost taxpayers here, however, almost $1-billion, according to the latest figures from Ottawa. Most of that cash will be for security.

Put that money in context. Think about how many Canada Excellence Research Chairs we could get for that money, or how many clean-energy projects we could launch, or how many aboriginal kids we could help, or how many cultural groups we could assist, or whatever.

Spending $1-billion to play host to two summits is preposterous, a case of bureaucracy gone wild, or planning gone crazy, of fear sinking itself into every official's and security person's heart.

It's the same mentality that infects thinking about lots of security questions, as anyone who has passed through an airport knows. No discretion is shown at the airport security checks, so 85-year-old women in wheelchairs are treated the same as everyone else, which means the full treatment.

As the Americans just saw, and as Europeans and Canadians found out when terrorist cells were disrupted in their countries, people intent on doing nasty things can and do sprout domestically more often than trying to blow up a plane.

The guy who tried to blow up Times Square, the gang of young terrorists in Toronto, the people who bombed the buses in London and the subway in Madrid were right there, in those countries, living and sometimes working, and they posed a more mortal threat to security than airplane terrorism.

Of course, terrorist incidents have happened in the sky, but they are more likely to occur in other ways and other places. Yet security officials in the United States, with Canadians trailing along, have banished discretion and applied worst-case scenario thinking in a blanketed way that costs a fortune and inconveniences people much more than is necessary to meet the tests of safety.

Worse is coming, what with the federal government's decision to buy a slew of body scanners for airports, following new regulations by the half-crazed U.S. Department of Homeland Security, whose impositions have undone much of the useful border liberalization under the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement.

This siege mentality has now been used in preparing for the G8 and G20, with everyone fearing some major terrorist attack against the leaders, or against one of them. A corner of Muskoka is being turned into a militarized zone, downtown Toronto shut off, baseball games moved out of town, thousands of police and security agents mobilized, to say nothing of helicopters, planes and, for all we know, submarines in Lake Ontario.

The siege mentality then joins the explosion of staff that now accompany leaders to such events to create events of nightmarish bureaucracy. Canadians officials have been camped out in Toronto for almost two months working on the myriad of logistical details to make this extravaganza happen.

The whole thing is over the top and way too expensive for three days that bid fair to be a non-event in substance.

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