G8 infrastructure spending questioned

Infrastructure spending for the G8 summit in Ontario cottage country is not being scaled back despite the decision to cut the meeting to one day and move the larger G20 summit to Toronto this June.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks with local MP Tony Clement in Huntsville, Ont., host the 2010 G8 meetings, in June. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Now that the G20 will be meeting in Toronto this June, a planned three-day G8 summit in cottage country north of Toronto has been scaled back to a one-day gathering.

What's not being scaled back, however, is the $50 million in federal infrastructure money the government says is still needed to get the region G8-ready.

Millions of dollars in infrastructure spending have been flowing into Huntsville, Ont., and surrounding towns for months now. The funded projects include several road and water upgrades, a $20-million expansion to a community centre and a new $9-million building whose purpose has yet to be decided, although it will likely be the site of a youth summit.

Another $6 million has been spent on parks, playgrounds and street beautification.

If both the G8, which includes the leaders of the world's eight richest countries, and the G20, made up of finance ministers and central bank governors of the G8 plus several other industrialized and developing nations, were to be held in the town, it would be a good deal, says Huntsville Mayor Claude Doughty.

"The good news is this amortizes those fairly extensive costs over two events, so what a good deal for the taxpayer," he said.

But last month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed what many anticipated: the G20 will be held in Toronto because Huntsville is too small. That has even Doughty questioning the plan.

"So, it begs the question now, where's the good deal here?" he asked. "Because they have to do a full security plan for Huntsville concurrently with a full security plan for Toronto, and there's not that many surplus officers in the province. So, I know they're struggling with that."

Others are asking even more pointed questions about the $50-million G8 Infrastructure Legacy Fund announced in last year's budget.

Kevin Gaudet of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said the government should have foreseen the need for a larger venue.

"I think this is a fairly classic example of government's failure to properly plan, which is a problem which runs amok for all of the stimulus spending," he said. "They should have known in advance where this was going to occur.

"Instead, they make a relatively last-minute decision, change their minds, and they've already sunk tens of millions of dollars, and we're on the hook for it."

No plans to scale back projects

Still, not everyone thinks the plan was flawed from the start.

John Kirton, co-director of the G20 research group at the University of Toronto, argues that the government could not have foreseen the arrival of the G20 when it first planned the G8. That's because the G20 really only became a prominent institution after the world economic meltdown of 2008 prompted the G8 leaders to include emerging economies in their discussions.

Kirton said the G8 was long planned for Muskoka in keeping with a Canadian tradition for G8 meetings to be held in more intimate, out-of-the-way settings. He said organizers also needed to try to keep the two meetings separate, even though they will be taking place over the same weekend in June.

"It was very important … to show the world and to have the world know that the two institutions were really quite separate and distinct," Kirton argued. "That's why doing them back to back but in two separate locations made sense as the solution to both of those important considerations."

Kirton also said the decision to hold the G20 in Toronto will actually save money.

"You still have in place the biggest, best-trained, most professional police force in Canada free to do the security basically at very little additional expense," he said. "It's an enormous cost saving for the Canadian taxpayer in particular."

Still, the opposition believes local politics played a role — not least because the Muskoka region forms part of Industry Minister Tony Clement's riding.

Gerard Kennedy, the Liberal infrastructure critic, said he believes the government knew that a G20 meeting was likely long before last year's budget.

"I think immediately the writing was on the wall that this meeting was going to take place somewhere else," he said. "So, what you basically have now is a drive-by taking place instead of a full summit for the G8.

"And you have $50 million worth of facilities, which is great for that area, but clearly, it continued — in terms of the size of the expenditures — because it was in [the] political interests of the government, not because it was [in] the national interests of Canada, or the public interest, or even the needs of an international summit."

At this point, the government says, it has no plans to roll any projects back. A government spokesperson said the projects will benefit the area of Parry Sound-Muskoka for years to come.