First there was the G6, a gathering of the heads of the six most powerful industrial countries formed in 1975 at the behest of France. Canada joined France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US the next year, making it the G7, and Russia in 1997, firming up today’s G8. In its early days, the heads of governments sat down with each other accompanied by no more than 15 aides.
Then there was the G20, originally a conclave of finance ministers and central bankers that got started in 1999. It’s since morphed into a body rivalling the G8 in influence and this year its Summit meeting in Toronto on June 26-27, hard on the heels of a G8 meeting in the Ontario resort town of Huntsville, will be attended by heads of governments from around the world.. Some are bringing upwards of a thousand people, most of whom will sit around waiting to be called on for their special expertise. Most will never get the call.
But first there was the United Nations, the organization that was to bring an era of peace to the globe after two horrendous world wars. It grew out of a wartime idea by President Franklin Roosevelt that the victorious Allies would “defend life, liberty, independence, and religious freedom, and preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands.”
These principles were at the root of the Atlantic Charter, the document signed by FDR and Winston Churchill aboard a warship anchored in Ship Harbour, Newfoundland.
Canada has hosted four meetings of the G7/8, but none set loose the furor that is enveloping this year’s G20, and to a lesser degree the G8 meeting. Together they will will cost Canada over a billion dollars, most of it for an insanely elaborate security clamp-down that is sending thousands of police into the downtown of Canada’s largest city to man several square blocks hidden behind a 10-foot steel fence. The fact it denies the citizens of the city access to their own most vital locale seems beside the point.
Probably up to another billion dollars — there’s no way of counting the bills — will be lost by private businesses as a result of the G20. Restaurants are closing, cultural sites shutting down, theatrical events cancelled, major league baseball play suspended. Financial institutions are closing their doors and telling their employees to work at home or elsewhere offsite.
The proud boast that the G20 will “showcase Toronto to the world” has turned into an empty idiocy. G20 officials will see very little of Toronto and tourists will be in short supply, especially after a U.S. State Department travel advisory that warned Americans to stay away from Toronto.
Someone who’s been through a G20 meeting is editor David Sherman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He had this to say in today’s Globe and Mail:
Think of this as an employment program for police officers, although maybe no one else. (Unless you sell barbed wire, in which case this is the month you’ve been waiting for.
For many in Toronto, the logistics disaster of holding the G20 in the downtown core of a metropolitan city is just another example of the ineptitude of Prime Minister Harper.
But have a heart — feel sorry for the guy. He figured to win lots of small town voters by shipping the G8 leaders into Ontario’s rural cottage country, the Muskoka district where his Industry Minister, Tony Clement, has a tenuous hold on his seat. When the G20 suddenly reared its ugly head , Harper was left to dance around a pair of equally unpalatable decisions. Cram them into bunkbeds at the Deerhurst Inn in Huntsville, or ship them off to Toronto.
The G20 meeting raises a whole lot of difficult but important questions. Are these meetings really necessary? Aren’t all the decisions hammered out by staff before the Heads of Government get together? Has nobody heard of video conferencing? Is all that security really needed?
(Of course, it’s a win-win for the security forces. If nothing happens they can take credit — if there’s big trouble, all the cost and bother is proven needed. The fact a city has been militarized and people have been denied access to their homes and jobs doesn’t count for much.)
Okay, so there’s nothing like face time, no matter the cause. The worlds might not have survived WWII if C hurchill and Roosevelt hadn’t gotten to know each other in private meetings.
As the host of this weekend’s G20 meeting, Prime Minister Harper has called on the leaders to show “solidarity” in managing the global economic crisis.
What’s wrong with using the United Nations as a venue for that message? There’s 17 acres of international territory housing the UN on the East River in New York. It’s a secure site accustomed to receiving heads of government . Turning the UN over to the G20 once a year might, at the very least, restore a little of the world body’s blemished hope and glory.