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Summit security costs put federal priorities under microscope

Military helicopters fly, April 20, 2010, in and out of a DZ right beside the doors of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in preparation for the June 26/27 meetings of the G20 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Norm Betts/Special to the Globe and Mail

The Harper government's decision to spend $930-million on security for two global summits - even as it freezes foreign assistance levels for four years - is a distressing contrast in priorities, the head of a major aid group says.

"It is painful to think a billion dollars is being spent on the security for a three-day event when we are capping commitments to international aid for the next several years because we can't find the money," Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada said.

"It just speaks to our priorities and the fact that when we choose to, we can mobilize resources and when there is a lack of political will, we fall short."

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The Conservative government is on the defensive this week after revealing that the full cost to police and secure two back-to-back world summits in Ontario this June is swelling to nearly $1-billion. The figure appears to far outstrip what other countries have spent protecting similar events, even if calculations account for two meetings instead of one.

The Group of Eight meeting of world leaders starts on June 25 in Huntsville, Ont. It will be shortly followed by a more hastily planned Group of 20 gathering in downtown Toronto, which is about 200 kilometres by road from Huntsville. This second, bigger summit will include discussion of everything from foreign aid to the need for government restraint.

Sensing political opportunity in the surprisingly large security tab, the opposition NDP and Liberals are writing to federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser, asking her to probe the matter.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews declined to provide a breakdown of how the money is being spent, saying on Wednesday it wouldn't be accurate to divulge figures until the final bill has been tallied.

He acknowledged the huge security bill raises a "good question" about whether big summits are worth the money - adding however that he still supports them.

"Quite frankly, whenever you have a situation where many heads of states gather, the costs are quite simply very expensive, so the question then becomes are these types of meetings necessary," Mr. Toews said Wednesday.

"I think they are. Because there are certain things that can only be done face to face."

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The security bill represents a significant commitment by Canada, one that in terms of dollars spent is nearly equivalent to one year of fighting the war in Afghanistan. Canada's direct costs there amount to about $1.1-billion annually.

It's also about one-fifth of the $4.4-billion the Harper government has set out to save on foreign aid spending by freezing international assistance for four years starting in 2011-12.

Oxfam's Mr. Fox said he doesn't want to begrudge security spending but adds the big outlay puts more pressure on world leaders to deliver. He notes that by its own admission, the G8 is $20-billion behind on a five-year-old commitment to Africa. "There had better be real results," he said. "If not it's a complete waste."

The RCMP says spending includes community relations work, leader protection, marine and aviation security, traffic management, intelligence gathering, accreditation screening and verification and logistics for police officers such as accommodation, meals and transportation.

Mr. Toews said that in some cases, the money is being used to buy durable assets that security operations will use during the summits but can be passed on to local police forces later.

"In certain cases, they get the full asset and in other cases ... they have to pay 50 per cent, I think."

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The total $930-million security price tag will surpass the protective and policing bill for the 17-day Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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