When the wrong political party is in charge, it is outrageous how much the government spends on indulgences and perks for the executive branch. Limos, luxury hotels, personal photographers and stylists – they’re all too much when the prime minister is wearing the wrong-coloured tie. Yet these frivolous wastes of taxpayer dollars somehow morph into necessary government expenditures when parties switch places. Indeed, it’s funny how suddenly perspective changes and memories fade as soon as a party is seated to the Speaker’s right.
The Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney spent $56-million in 1992 for a “flying Taj Mahal,” as then-opposition leader Jean Chrétien called his upgrade of Can Force One, along with lavish renovations of the prime minister’s official residence at 24 Sussex Dr. and the country residence Harrington Lake, which became known as “Gucci-gate.” A more recent Conservative government was attacked for doling out taxpayer dollars for former prime minister Stephen Harper to bring his makeup artist along on international jaunts.
This same Conservative party was aghast that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hired two nannies for his children on the taxpayers’ dime, and that Canadians had been billed $215,000 for the Trudeau family to vacation on the private island of the Aga Khan. The Liberals, having recovered from the trauma of learning of Mr. Harper’s stylist, defended the necessity of Mr. Trudeau’s taxpayer-funded expenditures.
It is against this backdrop of cheap, hypocritical political shots that the issue of appropriate comforts for those in political service has morphed into something truly unseemly. It should be a non-partisan view that political service demands extraordinary dedication and personal sacrifice, and so small comforts – even perks – should be included with the job. Instead, it’s a see-saw of partisan bickering and shifting standards, where no one wants to be seen as overindulging, so they spend on themselves in ways that can’t be easily noticed from the sidewalk (which might explain the enduring neglect of the asbestos-filled 24 Sussex Dr.).
The quiet upgrades to the prime minister’s Harrington Lake retreat would seem to fall into that category. As reported by The Globe and Mail’s Robert Fife and Steven Chase, restoration of the 16-room main cottage had been under way for $6.1-million, along with the construction of a $2.5-million rebuilt guest cottage, which was previously located across a main road. Bizarrely, a spokesman for the arm’s-length National Capital Commission (NCC) denied the construction of what is effectively a new, bigger building through the relocation of the “Caretaker’s House,” although he eventually conceded that, yes, the structure is a new, expanded residence with integrated heritage components.
Weeks ago, prior to confirmation from the NCC, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre tweeted satellite images of the apparent before and after at Harrington Lake, asking, “Did Justin Trudeau secretly build himself a brand new lakeside mansion at Harrington Lake with our money?” Mr. Poilievre was resoundingly mocked for conspiracy theorizing, including from fellow MPs such as Liberal Adam Vaughan – yet Mr. Poilievre was indeed right (although he conspicuously did not mention the role of the NCC in these decisions, and glazed over the fact that the “lakeside mansion” isn’t exactly Mr. Trudeau’s to keep). And while the information on the new build was not entirely secret, it did require parsing, particularly after the NCC’s denial.
If the political ecosystem in Canada was one in which we could have measured, grown-up conversations about reasonable accommodations for leaders, perhaps the partisan bickering could make way for something of a middle ground. That is, perhaps we could settle upon a shared understanding that, no, the prime minister and his family should not live in an asbestos-filled official residence. That ministers who spend an inordinate amount of time in the air should not have to fly budget airlines. That we want our prime minister focused on international diplomacy abroad – not whether he packed the right suit or proper hair products. And that, of course, we should not let Harrington Lake fall into disrepair.
But maybe, in the spirit of moderation, we could also agree that spending $2.5-million to move and rebuild a structure on a 5.4-hectare property that already has multiple residences is a bit over the top – particularly when the prime minister’s official residence continues to fall into disrepair. Indeed, if Mr. Chrétien wore a different colour tie, he might label this project the “Taj Mahal of Harrington Lake.”
If nothing else, government and its agencies ought to be more upfront when doling out millions of dollars worth of taxpayers’ money, particularly when it comes to personal amenities for elected leaders that the average person will never see or get to enjoy. Canadians are smart enough to decide whether the expenditures are reasonable. Covering them up often implies the costs are not.
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