The WEF debate goes on

I don’t think there’s been an issue that has generated so many letters to the editor, not to mention petitions and advertising, in the last decade as the World Economic Forum debate. And yet it is hardly the biggest issue to face Whistler in the last 10 years.

Perhaps that’s a sign the town is maturing and people are becoming more involved in decision making; maybe it’s a reaction to the way this issue was handled and frustration over other issues, such as the Olympic bid. The WEF also seems, to many people, to be an easy issue to say no to, and many have done so, some with palpable anger.

As a final decision by Whistler council has now been twice delayed, and the debate twice prolonged, in order to gather and consider more public input, counter arguments in favour of the WEF meeting are starting to come out, including from some unlikely sources.

All of this is healthy for democracy and future decision making in Whistler, including decisions about what Whistler is or wants to become.

The next three pages are full of mostly reasoned, mostly sound arguments for and against the WEF meeting. Below are a few more points to consider prior to the April 22 meeting when council is scheduled to debate and decide on the WEF meeting.

• Security is the issue. By security I mean how people’s freedom to move around town is or isn’t constrained, which will have an impact on local businesses both large and small. Security also includes how protesters are handled, the risk of violence and the risk of bad publicity for Whistler. These are all real concerns. Apparently there is a plan to address these issues, if any of it can be shared with the public that would help the debate.

Some people have suggested that they would welcome the WEF meeting if only it was held in June or some other off-season time. But if security is the issue, and there is a risk of violence and bad publicity for the resort, that is an issue regardless of what time of year the meeting takes place.

• Most of us are debating something we have little or no first-hand knowledge of. Some concerns are justified, some are based on fear and projections.

Many people have cited Davos’ experience, and the reason the WEF went looking for a new location for its annual meeting was because some in Davos had grown tired of the disruption the forum caused. But there is no more unanimous agreement on the WEF in Davos, than there is in Whistler. And it should be noted the town of Davos has had second thoughts about losing the WEF annual meeting and has renovated its conference centre and encouraged development of new four-star hotels specifically to keep the WEF in the Swiss village. Whistler can take some lessons from Davos, but it has to make its own decision.

• The World Economic Forum is 1,000 of the world’s most successful companies. The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting involves executives from those companies but also more than 1,000 NGOs, academics, union leaders and political leaders from around the world, including Third World countries.

The WEF annual meeting is an exclusive, private meeting for the world’s elite, but it’s about much more than international corporations and profitability. This may be a relatively new development in the WEF’s 30-year history, but the social agenda was at least as important as the economic agenda at this year’s annual meeting in New York. To dismiss the meeting as simply a right wing corporate retreat is to ignore the facts.

• The argument has been presented, more than once, that the WEF is "not who we are" or is not "what Whistler is all about." We are human beings, fortunate to live in one of the best places in the world. Many people in this world are facing some desperate times right now. The WEF annual meeting isn’t going to resolve all the world’s issues, but it does bring together many of the people who have the power to begin to resolve those issues. Resolution starts with dialogue.

The WEF annual meeting will take place, whether it’s in Whistler, Davos, New York or somewhere else. Whistler can decline the invitation to host the annual meeting for legitimate reasons – financial concerns, disruptions, impact on jobs and businesses, fear of violence.

There are also reasons for offering to host the meeting, beyond getting conference centre renovations paid for and improving Whistler’s international profile. They include an obligation we all have to do, in our own way, what we can to improve the world. Whistler is attempting to do its part through, among other things, the sustainability initiative. The question is, can or should it do more.

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