Opposition wants watchdogs to probe security tab for summits

OTTAWA – Canada’s security costs for the G8 and G20 summits were denounced Thursday as a "billion-dollar boondoggle" as two opposition parties fired off letters to federal spending watchdogs asking them to investigate the anticipated $930-million tab.

The NDP wants Auditor General Sheila Fraser and Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page to probe the "incomprehensible and inexcusable" costs, and the Liberals wrote Fraser asking her to examine the estimated spending, which far exceeds security bills for past world summits.

Page confirmed that his office already has started to work on the matter and will put together terms of reference to carry out an analysis.

"We are having some internal discussions on objectives, dimensions, approach, and timing," Page said.

He will, among other things, consider investigating whether the government has been transparent about the bill, whether there are hidden costs, and whether the costs are excessive when compared to past summits in Canada and recent G8 and G20 meetings in other countries.

Canada’s estimated price tag dramatically exceeds costs for past G8 and G20 summits, including last year’s G20 gathering in London, in which news reports pegged security about $20 million. Security for the 2009 G8 summit in Italy was estimated at $359 million.

In the House of Commons question period, the government defended its cost projections amid persistent accusations from the Liberals and NDP that the government has mismanaged its summit plan and is spending money it does not have while cutting other needed programs.

The opposition is billing the summits, to be held in Toronto and Huntsville, Ont., in late June, as the most expensive three days in Canadian history.

NDP Leader Jack Layton described the cost as a "billion-dollar boondoggle" and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff accused the government of "reckless spending" and massive disorganization.

"The handling of this issue is comical, they couldn’t figure out a location, they couldn’t nail down an agenda, they couldn’t figure out who to invite, you wouldn’t organize a children’s party this way," said Ignatieff.

Layton predicted that other countries will start questioning whether they can afford to host world summits after learning about the price tag for Canada’s gathering.

Canada was originally supposed to host only the G8 in Huntsville, but the federal government opted to expand the summit to include G20 leaders after it became clear that the larger organization was the dominant one for dealing with the world financial crisis and other economic priorities.

The government says it is basing its security spending on what Canadians experts say is needed to keep Canadians and world dignitaries safe.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews cited the example of a fire bombing at an Ottawa bank last week as a reason for tight security, after the anti-establishment group that claimed responsibility warned it will attend the summits.

"This is a prime example of the reason we need to prepare, to face thugs and terrorists who threaten our safety," said Toews.

The government will not reveal a detailed breakdown of its costs until after the summit, he said.

The money is being spent by the RCMP, the Public Safety Department, and National Defence. More than half -$450 million – will be spent by the Mounties.

The security detail is expected to include thousands of police officers, private guards and soldiers, intelligence analysts, aerial surveillance, closed-circuit cameras, motorcades of up to 50 vehicles, expansive three-metre-high security fences erected around the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and the Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville and airport-style security checks within wide security perimeters.

U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will be among the world leaders to attend.

Newspaper editorials on Thursday raged against Canada’s expected tab, with some writers calling for the summits to be held annually in an already-secured site, such as the United Nations, and others suggesting it’s time to consider other ways of getting together, such as video conferencing.

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