COLUMN: Does Surrey have a back-up plan for economic summit?

If any evidence was needed to prove how far Surrey has come in recent years in terms of growing into a powerhouse of a city both regionally and globally, look no further than the line-up at this year’s economic summit.

Former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush will be the keynote speakers at the annual Surrey Regional Economic Summit on Oct. 20.

This is quite the coup.

Organizers of the annual event have set the bar high. Previous summit speakers include former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

But this year’s Clinton/Bush pairing packs even more punch.

However, the choice is not without risk.

To be sure, Guiliani and Blair brought along their fair share of baggage (Guiliani’s tumultuous personal life, and Blair’s support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq).

And while Clinton may have been the second president in American history to be impeached (later acquitted) for the Monica Lewinsky scandal, his charm and charity work have largely redeemed him.

There is a palpable and prolonged public dislike of Dubya that has failed to fade since his time in office, most likely due to his U.S.-led military campaign that launched years of violent conflicts that continue to kill soldiers – and civilians –today.

But unlike Blair, who is widely criticized for his political leadership that saw the U.K. partner with the U.S. in the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, derision for Bush goes deeper.

In an email this week, Leader reader Grant Rice makes some interesting observations. He writes:

“Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and Councillor Linda Hepner would be wise to reconsider their choice of speakers for the October 2011 Economic Summit. President Bush just cancelled a visit to Switzerland where he was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a charity gala dinner on Feb. 12 in Geneva.

“According to the Huffington Post, the New York-based Human Rights Watch and International Federation of Human Rights said the cancellation was linked to growing moves to hold Bush accountable for torture, including waterboarding. He has admitted in his memoirs and television interviews to ordering use of the interrogation technique that simulates drowning.

“It is unconscionable to offer a suspected war criminal a six figure appearance fee to speak at an economic summit. George W. has admitted sanctioning torture during his ‘war on terror’ but Surrey politicians seem willing to overlook his human rights abuses to receive economic advice…”

While some (including Bush in his memoirs Decision Points) would argue techniques such as waterboarding are necessary to save innocent lives, groups like Amnesty International point out they are prohibited under international law.

No matter where you stand on war, terrorism, torture techniques, sexual shenanigans, or American fiscal policy for that matter (isn’t the U.S. trillions of dollars in debt?), there is no question Clinton and Bush are controversial figures whose presence will provoke much debate.

Which is not to say Surrey should back away from contention. Quite the contrary; big cities must grapple with the tough stuff.

But does it have a back-up plan should growing dissent threaten or even quash the 2011 summit speakers’ appearances?

And, perhaps even more intriguingly, who’s on deck for next year?

Maybe Prince William and his new bride Kate would oblige.

pcarlson@surreyleader.com

Surrey Now Leader

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