Canadians instinctively do not pity Toronto, but charitable ones should search their hearts this week. The country's largest city is in for a big downer.
The Toronto G20 meeting is about to become for summitry what the Montreal Games were for the Olympics: an example of what not to do.
No other country, except the most vainglorious, will do a G20 like this again.
Central Toronto is already looking like a fortress, with concrete barriers and high fences. When the summit begins, office workers will be sent home, GO trains disrupted, expressways blocked, streets cordoned off. The Blue Jays will be vacating the Rogers Centre, playing a "home" series in Philadelphia.
These are among the uncounted hidden costs, to be added to the price tag that already exceeds $1-billion for the G20 in Toronto and the G8 in Muskoka. By no rational standard is the importance of these meetings worth that cost.
Toronto boosters and Canadian officials might believe that summits will showcase their city and country, so fake lakes and other follies are invented. Forget it. The officials and media from other countries will largely stayed cooped up in fenced-off areas and their hotels. Take that assertion from a summit veteran.
Future hosts presumably will learn some obvious lessons. Don't play host to summits that run into each other in two separate locations, as the Canadians are doing with the G8 near Huntsville, Ont., and the G20 in Toronto. Hold summits where security needs can be met without closing parts of a country's major city. Keep the size of the delegations modest. And don't let security people run the show, because if they do, then cost will be no object.
Club membership demands a price, so no one should object to Canada playing host to summits. But no reasonable population should expect this kind of financial burden for two meetings over three days that is roughly the same as the one for playing host over a month to the Winter Olympics and Paralympics.
Clearly, somebody in Ottawa (does a certain political leader come to mind?) lost track of these events, and is now trying rather desperately to justify the cost. It's a tough, even impossible, sell.
That a G20 is even happening in Canada raises questions. A G20 was held in Pittsburgh last year. Several took place at the beginning of the financial meltdown. Another is set for South Korea in the fall.
Canada sort of pressured everybody for a G20 here, to elide with the G8, although another G20 was really not needed, except perhaps for domestic political reasons.
Two summits - G8 and G20 - meant additional costs. Choosing downtown Toronto drove the costs up again.
Summits are to protesters what honey is to bees. They flock to these events, not because they have the slightest impact on the deliberations, but because they and the media have a symbiotic relationship. A few of them also like to break windows, throw objects and generally cause physical trouble. Their presence gets police and security worried, as much for the damage they will do to property as for genuine threats against leaders.
Then there are the countries themselves. They cannot apparently retrain themselves. Instead of bringing 10 officials, leaders bring many times that number, as if not to be outdone by other countries. So they bring chefs, security aides, briefers, press aides and various other factotums.
Host countries are tempted, as the Harper government has demonstrated, to invite various countries not formally part of the group. The G8 took to inviting a bunch of other leaders to some of their meetings in the pre-G20 era, so that the G8 looked like a G13.
Now, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has invited the Netherlands and several African countries as "observers" to his G20. You can imagine the French next year inviting several French-speaking African countries. And don't forget the Scandinavians, who give so much foreign aid feel that they should be present.
The whole G20 operates without a secretariat, whereas one could be useful in bringing some pre-summit order. Countries cannot constrain themselves, so the host country loses control of overall numbers and costs. Security trumps common sense. Tourism officials let boosterism cloud judgment. The leader of the host country sees domestic political glory.
And so we get a Toronto-style extravaganza, a downer never to be repeated.
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