A Week on the Hill
The week was dominated by the little things. Finally getting into our office on Monday- after the vote for the Speaker on Thursday and the Speech from the Throne on Friday. Finding my seat in the House on Thursday, in the back corner of the Opposition benches. There are 308 Members of Parliament. In some magical way, my seat is 309. Somehow it reminds me of Platform 9 ¾.
The week also involved the big things. Figuring out how to work with the rest of my fellow Parliamentarians, as I am determined to avoid making assumptions about people who ran under different coloured banners. Making connections through social gatherings and between debates. And finding ways to speak far more often than pundits had expected. So far in six days of sitting, I have been recognized by the Speaker four times. More than most in any party.
The biggest news of the week was the long-awaited report of the Auditor General (AG). Too bad the government was defeated before the AG report came out. It was due in April but delayed by the election. As an officer of Parliament, when that body is not in session, no report can be presented.
The issue most seized upon by the rest of
the Opposition was the so-called G8 Legacy Infrastructure Fund. The government
told Parliament that money they wanted for Tony Clement’s riding (a
multi-million “thank you” for hosting the G8) was for "Border
Infrastructure" -- to reduce congestion at borders. Thus, $50 million was approved for
border infrastructure without telling Parliament the intended plan was to spend
it 300 km from any border. Making matters worse, there was no accountability in
the process of how to spend the money. Tony Clement told the mayors in
the Huntsville area to come up with projects and they approved them with no
paper trail indicating criteria, weighing of benefits, any possible
rationale. They just doled out the money. That's what paid
for the washrooms that were miles from the summit, the gazebo, the famous steamboat,
flowers and fountains and on and on (although the “fake lake” came from a
Amazingly, the Prime Minister told Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae in Question Period that if Rae had been more familiar with the Border Infrastructure Fund, he would have known that money gets spent away from the border a lot of the time.
Meanwhile, the AG also found that the G20 meeting costs had been massively over-estimated. The picture that is painted is one of last minute, panicked decision making. And no wonder. The G8 summit planning had begun in spring 2008. The decision to add on a second, more complicated summit of the G20 was made more than a year later – in fall 2009. There was less than a year to plan for the Toronto G20. The Auditor General’s audit functions merely drilled down on how the money was spent. It determined that over one billion was budgeted for a summit that cost far less in the end -- $661 million. Of course $661 million is far more than other governments have ever spent in hosting the G20. The early mistakes and rushed decisions led to over one million being spent to reserve the Toronto Convention centre, even though it was never used. Panic and a blank cheque lead to wasted money.
What I hope we can get to in the House of Commons is a discussion of the G20 that goes beyond wasted money. Why did we offer to host a June 2010 G20 at all when there was already a regularly scheduled G20 for November 2010 in South Korea (one that took place a few months after the Toronto fiasco)? Why did the federal government fail to consult the Toronto municipal leaders about where the G20 leaders should meet? Why were they in downtown Toronto?
More fundamentally, we need to investigate the abuses of civil liberties.
Why were police told to allow vandalism, without interference or arrest, but to charge and arrest people who were non-violent? The practices employed by the Toronto police, creating cordons and “sweeping the streets,” appear very similar to those of the London police during the 2009 G20 meetings, which resulted in false arrests and charges of police brutality in the UK. Charges were dropped as UK juries found alleged provocateurs were innocent bystanders caught up in the melee. Can we learn lessons from the over-militarized approach to security and the possibility that such displays of militarized force increase the risk of violent clashes? Can we learn from the Toronto Summit and provide advice to other governments of the best way forward to balance the needs for freedom of expression, protection of private and public property, and security for the leaders themselves?
Due to the serious allegations of unacceptable erosion of civil liberties connected with the summit, the Green Party has called for a public inquiry. Canadians deserve to know why the summit cost so much, accomplished so little and left an impression of Toronto as war zone.
We now know how money was wasted. We still need to know why the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was collateral damage. The second question is more critical than the first.
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