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Budget watchdog wants to pore over $1-billion summit security bill

Military helicopters fly, April 20, 2010, in and out of a DZ right beside the doors of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in preparation for the June 26/27 meetings of the G20 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Norm Betts/Special to the Globe and Mail

Parliament's budget watchdog is turning his careful financial eye to the massive $1-billion security bill estimated for the next month's G8 and G20 summits.

Kevin Page confirmed this afternoon his office is debating the objectives, approach, timing and dimensions of an investigation into the costs, which appear to have dramatically escalated over several months, to secure the summits that will take place in Huntsville and Toronto over only three days.

Mr. Page and his office are responding to a request from the NDP to investigate, which they received Wednesday. He told The Globe today his office will debate internally different questions, including:

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» Is this a fiscal transparency issue?

» Has the government been transparent about the cost (are there hidden costs)? Was it highlighted appropriately in the budget?

» Will the fiscal framework be adjusted for higher than anticipated costs (the question of fiscal prudence)?

» Is this an area where governments can keep their financial cards close to their chest (limited access to detailed financial information to ensure public protection)?

» Is this an operational efficiency issue?

"Assuming we know the total security bills, does this look expensive," Mr. Page asks. "What are appropriate benchmarks - past summits in Canada; recent summits elsewhere at the G8 and G20 levels?"

He added that from this point his office will "scope out an informational request with timelines that we will post on our website."

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Mr. Page is a constant thorn in the side of the Harper government for his intense scrutiny of fiscal matters. In the past he has attacked the credibility of the government's budget predictions, arguing Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's plan to balance the books was about $10-billion short. He also maintains the government has a structural deficit, which Mr. Flaherty disputes.

In his letter to the budget watchdog, NDP public safety critic Don Davies says he is "deeply concerned that there may be inappropriate budgetary practices and/or expenses being included in these figures."

He notes the initial cost proposed in the Main Estimates - tabled by the government last March - was $179-million. That figure has since ballooned to $930 million, which was contained in the Supplementary Estimates that were tabled this week.

The NDP has also asked Auditor-General Sheila Fraser for an "urgent" review of the security costs. The Liberals, meanwhile, have done the same, sending their own letter to Ms. Fraser formally requesting an audit into the security costs.

"While we do not dispute the fact that effective and efficient security is vital when world leaders are involved, we believe this amount to be excessive," Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland writes.

Both Mr. Holland and Mr. Davies note that the security estimate for the three days of summits is more than the cost for the entire Vancouver Olympic Winter Games. "We believe the cause of this skyrocketing security bill is the result of improper planning and foresight," Mr. Holland says.

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The Liberals have argued that the decision to try to hold he summits in Huntsville was a bad one, given that it was deemed too small to accommodate the G20 summit, which then had to be moved to Toronto.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews defended the costs Wednesday in the Commons during Question Period. He said they were the result of an "unprecedented event" with two back-to-back summits.

"And we believe the experts when they say this is the necessary level of security. I understand that the Liberals don't believe in securing Canadians or the visitors here. We are different," Mr. Toews said.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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