Far from setting the right example as the host country, Canada’s lavish G8 spending shows the Harper government knows neither restraint nor sound judgment as it asks other nations to cut their deficits.
It is a time when, we are told, when most nations of the world are, or should be, focusing like a laser on curbing the growth of government debt and stemming excessive expenditures. It is ironic then that when the leaders of the G8 nations descend upon Muskoka this week for their summit in the heart of Canada’s cottage country, they are unlikely to see the thick blanket of public spending hypocrisy that covers a land of pristine rocks and lakes. It is not the only anomaly that makes Muskoka a strangely disconnected place for a G8 summit.
For reasons that defy logic, but evidently not crass political expediency, some $50 million has been doled out to communities and local councils throughout the region in the name of the G8 summit. Canada’s Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, calls it the G8 legacy infrastructure fund. Under this plan, towns and villages, some of which are an hour or more from the site of the G8 meeting, have been given vast sums to spend on public washrooms, new roofs, elaborate town welcome signs built out of stone, and garbage cans — lots and lots of garbage cans. The larger symbolism of associating litter bins with the G8 meeting does not seem to be something that occurred to the Harper government or to the local communities that sprouted all those garbage cans.
One town was given $1.5 million to improve its main street after spending close to that amount five years ago — on its main street. It has some very fancy designs embedded into the pavement and brand new garbage cans — lots and lots of garbage cans. In fact, there appears to have been a peculiar outbreak of fear throughout Muskoka that has prompted the need for a sudden increase in litter bins, which can be seen lined up like sentries every twenty feet or so on the main streets of several of the region’s hamlets.
Another town had so much money thrown its way that it was unable to fully spend its allotted $1.2 million by the deadline. It did manage to buy more garbage cans though — lots and lots of garbage cans — as part of what it calls its G8 legacy project. Of course, no G8 leader will ever set foot in any of these outlying communities, much less make use of the public washrooms, the newly shingled arena or even a single garbage can.
Few in Muskoka, where billionaires and American film stars make their summer homes and luminaries like conservative commentator David Frum can been seen dockside debating against a quickly melting ice cream cone, seem terribly bothered by this display of largesse. In fact, Muskoka could be a location that other politicians come to for tax and spending lessons. Local taxes have soared by more than fifty percent over the past four years. Water rates have risen by at least that. Some councils have racked up a level of debt in the same period that is triple their total annual operating and capital budgets. The head of the regional government has been in office longer than North Korea’s Kim Il Sung. Like Mr. Kim, he is not elected by the people. He is appointed by other members of the regional government. There is little appetite for change. In Muskoka, it is not uncommon to find local elected representatives holding office for a quarter century. Most local communities don’t have any effective ratepayers advocacy and the vast majority of citizens don’t bother to vote in municipal elections. Local councils frequently hold meetings behind closed doors.
Muskoka is known for many things — family cottages, dazzling lakes, the haunting late night call of the loon — but leading the way in transparency and accountability, the twin forces that are transforming governance around the world, does not appear to be among them. That alone makes the location for the G8 rather peculiar. Nor does the idea that fiscal restraint and deficit reduction, acknowledged by governments everywhere as a key to economic survival, appear to be something the Harper government thought should be applied to the G8 meeting in Muskoka, even though his government is running a $50 billion dollar deficit. It should be borne in mind that the security and logistics costs have to be duplicated in Toronto for the G20 meeting that is to follow. Estimates of more than a billion dollars have been given by government officials as the price tag for G8 and G20 security alone. Smart use of scarce resources is a challenge facing all government as they enter a new era of fiscal constraints. With all its duplication and unnecessary spending, the handling of the G8/G20 by their host country under Stephen Harper seems not to be the model to follow.
A $50 million spending spree may be small compared with the other costs of the summits. But it is emblematic of the wrong signal being sent at just the wrong time. If Canada wants other nations to commit to cutting deficit spending, it cannot put itself in the position of mindlessly throwing money around when the notion strikes it.
Whatever else may be said about it, the G8 in Muskoka will be remembered for its record costs and for the easy slush fund it created for towns and villages when the focus of the world is on exactly the opposite direction in public spending. And it will be remembered for all those garbage cans — lots and lots of garbage cans, which, to many, may be an apt symbol after all.