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G20 Protests: Is this What Harper Wanted?

PM's disastrous decision to hold the summit in Toronto: a cunning plan?

By Michael Byers 28 Jun 2010 |

Michael Byers teaches political science at the University of British Columbia.

Clone troopers swept rebel forces off the streets of Coruscant this weekend, as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine presided over a meeting of the Galactic Senate.

Does reality imitate art?

Was Stephen Harper's decision to hold the G20 summit in the heart of Canada's largest city a stupid mistake or a cunning plan?

The prime minister does make spectacular errors from time to time.

In December 2008, Harper's move to cut public funding for political parties prompted Stéphane Dion to partner with Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe in a coalition agreement that would -- but for a controversial decision by the governor general -- have brought his government down.

One year later, Harper's move to prorogue Parliament again caused his popularity to plummet, quite possibly costing him a rare chance at a majority government.

Harper makes these mistakes because he does not tolerate advice that contradicts his pre-established views.

Civil servants who speak their minds -- from Linda Keen, president of Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, to diplomat Richard Colvin -- are peremptorily fired, or slandered under the protection of Parliamentary immunity.

The RCMP and CSIS must have seen the folly of Harper's decision to hold the G20 summit in downtown Toronto. They knew the venue would attract anarchist gangs, place the police in a situation where they could not protect G20 leaders, private property and public safety concurrently, and add $1 billion in security costs to an already burgeoning federal deficit.

But emperors, whether stupid or cunning, always have clothes.

Steady march to conflict

Even if the choice of summit location was just another Harper SNAFU, the consequences were severe.

Millions of Torontonians had their lives interrupted by the largest security operation this country has ever seen. Tens of thousands of well-intentioned, peaceful protestors had their messages drowned-out by the criminal actions of a few. Thousands of front-line cops spent the weekend sweating inside riot helmets and gas masks, watching the all-important trust between the public and their profession slip away.

And the hundreds of people involved in decision-making about security must resent being place between the proverbial rock and several hard places: a demanding U.S. Secret Service intent on protecting the greatest assassination risk since JFK; an interventionist Prime Minister's Office obsessed with optics; a Black Bloc relishing another chance to exploit the urban domain; and millions of law-abiding folks whose safety, civil liberties and property the police exist to "serve and protect" -- at least on non-summit days.

The security planners made mistakes, too.

Building a three metre-high security fence was an error, since it provided a visible target for protestors. Showing off rubber bullets and sound cannon to the media in advance of the summit was a mistake, since it made the police seem committed to conflict. Sending officers in riot gear to meet and redirect peaceful protests was foolish; ordering them to done gas masks before violence broke out was insane.

And mistakes were made once the violence began. Holding off on arrests until after the worst of the property damage had occurred was an error, since the anarchist leaders had left by then. Abandoning police cars in the path of protestors was at best stupid, and at worst an invitation to set them aflame.

Widespread violations of Charter rights on Saturday afternoon and Sunday will tie up the courts for years. The police were likely ordered to do something, anything, by an angry PMO.

Why not Huntsville?

The shame of it all is that alternative venues were readily available. Eighteen national leaders were actually present at Huntsville for the G8 summit, along with 10 leaders of international organizations, which shows the G20 could have been accommodated there. If necessary, the size of the delegations could have been limited, with extra staffers being flown in-and-out each morning and evening if necessary.

But what of the possibility that Harper's decision on the G20 location was actually calculated to lead to chaos on the streets?

Could it all have been a diversion, intended to distract from what actually happened at the summit -- or, more accurately, did not happen?

The summit that couldn't

The summit failed on numerous fronts. It failed to take strong and meaningful action on climate change, on the impact of the financial crisis on real people, and on the ongoing risk of unbridled financial speculation. Harper succeeded in securing a consensus on less government rather than more, on "no we won't" rather than "yes we can."

In other words, Harper rallied the other leaders against Barack Obama, who sought agreement on ending fossil fuel subsidies, on continuing stimulus spending, and on a global bank tax.

It was strange, even bizarre, seeing our Republican prime minister beat up on the Democrat president.

Obama looked tired, impatient, bereft of true friends. Knowing about the confrontations on Toronto's streets will not have helped his mood.

For civil society, which is Obama's organizing and electoral base, stretches across national borders. Canadian and American environmental, labour and social activists share vision, inspiration and energy. And this weekend, in Toronto, they were brutally swept aside, their voices silenced by an entirely predictable confrontation between criminals and police.

All of which makes me wonder: Is Harper more than he seems? Are strange forces at work? Will the Dark Side prevail?  [Tyee]

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