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Letter From Toronto
Fake Lakes vs. Real People
by ANANYA MUKHERJEE-REED

If you have been to Toronto, you must have noticed that it lies on the shores of the vast and beautiful Lake Ontario. On this eve of the G20, the Lake looks perhaps especially blue and beautiful, as if with a vengeance, it seems to me. But this is not the lake Canada’s leaders want the world to see. As you may know, Premier Harper and his men have built a fake lake – to adorn the ‘marketing pavillion’ created especially for the summits. The ‘puddle pool’ – as some have called it – and its accompaniments come at a cost of $2million, over and above the costs of militarization of downtown Toronto. Together, they add up to over a billion dollars. As today’s Toronto Star has calculated, this is rather expensive 48 hour conversation costing the Canadian taxpayer some $416,000 a minute.

This at a time, and in a city where visits to the food bank have crossed the one million mark, and many working Canadians are increasingly faced with a choice between food bills and rent. On the other hand, Canada’s big five banks have earned a ‘modest’ second quarter profit of $5.01 billion, a slight drop from the first quarter’s $5.09 billion.

Given this backdrop, Harper’s fake lake dollars are well-spent, one might argue. They have achieved exactly what he intended to achieve. The media and the public are focused almost exclusively on the fake lake and Fortress Toronto. There is endless talk of security – and fear-mongering about “the protestors”, as if they were a class of aliens descending on the city. Even more endless is the talk about the logistical difficulties imposed upon downtown Toronto, which are real of course, but perhaps pale in comparison with the difficulties the G20 is about to impose on the globe.

It wouldn’t have really mattered if we had to forego a concert, or a kid’s soccer practice, or take our dog on a different route to do her business, if the G20 leaders appeared to us as real people with a relevant agenda. But they don’t.

The focus has therefore been quite successfully shifted away from any substantive questions, and their apparent irrelevance is saving them from having to engage their citizens on matters of substance.

Regarding that substance, there are two opinions that are doing the rounds. One sees the G20 process as nothing short of a revolutionary, seismic shift in the configuration of global power. The other sees it is as irrelevant, because it is premised on the illusion of declining US power and the phony rise of fake emerging powers.

Both are equally dangerous. The seismic shift hypothesis is dangerous in that it assumes that the inequality of power between nations can change without any change in social relations within nations. It refuses to see how this ‘gaining-a-seat-at-the-table’ is a reflection of the compromises national leaders are ready to make: compromises that involve actions their citizens abhor.

The obvious example is the rejuvenation of the IMF and the World Bank – at a time when the case for its demise or radical reform could not have been stronger. Yes, there is a demand for voice reform to enhance the voice of the executives of certain countries. But that will deliver little to the people who have paid – and are still paying – for the IMF’s draconian policies. Not only is such a demand absent, the G20 leaders have ‘underscored’ their ‘resolve to ensure the IMF has the resources it needs so that it can play its important role in the world economy’. And in addition, they “will ask the World Bank to advise us on progress in promoting development and poverty reduction as part of rebalancing of global growth.” (The Busan Communique)

None of this is unexpected perhaps. But this new legitimization of the globally hated twin institutions by the G20 is not a trivial matter. Quite apart from the implications for policy, it implies a deep democratic deficit of the G20 vis-a-vis the people they collectively represent. As well, it reveals the very specific interests the leaders of each country represent at this key international policy forum.

The issue with the bank tax is a case in point. Given the clout of the banking sector in Canada, it is hardly surprising that Harper’s men went around the world campaigning against it. India joined as its greatest collaborator in this campaign, with the claim that regulation can do the job. That regulation, which ‘saved’ India from the crisis, was the result of hard-fought battle by bank unions and some sections of the public against the reformers. Yet, the credit now is theirs. That aside, while on the one hand regulation and divergent banking practices are touted as reasons to shelve the bank tax, the G20 agenda is still geared to the Basel Committee reforms without much change.

More importantly, there is no alternative at the table to bring bank profits even minimally in line with their contribution to the economies from which they make their money. In Canada, the financial sector takes 25% of profits while employing only 6% of the workforce. The recession saw their shares rise. Not surprisingly then, there is much anger in Canada about the banks. What better forum than G20 and which better partner than India to protect those interests?

The Conservatives’ passion for protecting finance stands in stark contrast with the attention to issues that matter most to common people. Food is the most glaring instance. In the communiqué that came out of the Busan meeting on June 5, food security features in only one of the nine clauses. Dumped together with it in that single clause – are four issues of prime import: food security and agriculture, financial inclusion, small and medium enterprise and the cancellation of Haiti’s debt. Aren’t the connections obvious?

Some astute Sherpa must have noticed those holes at the last minute and rushed to close them.

What does all of this mean? Is the G20 not better than G1? Or G2? Or G8? It is better in that it certainly holds greater potential – both for legitimizing the ‘illegitimizable’ and for challenging power inequalities within and between nations. Right now, one of those projects is winning.

ANANYA MUKHERJEE-REED teaches Political Science and Development Studies at York University Toronto, Canada

 

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