Canada’s longest-running housing crisis – that is, the fate of 24 Sussex Drive – is back in the news because of a recent Radio-Canada report that says Ottawa is considering abandoning the dilapidated prime minister’s residence altogether and building a new one from scratch.
It’s a decision that could come this fall if the Trudeau government sticks to a previously announced timeline. We’ll go on the record as saying this is highly doubtful, given the optics at play.
Those optics were neatly summed up last week, for better and for worse, when a reporter asked Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre what he thought of building a new residence for the holder of the office he one day hopes to win.
Solving the 24 Sussex riddle would be the very last thing on his priorities list were he elected PM, he said. “We don’t need a new home for the prime minister, we need a new home for working-class Canadians.”
Well played. If you throw a softball to a hardball hitter, it’s going to be swatted out of the park. But then, Mr. Poilievre being Mr. Poilievre, he had to take it too far.
“The Prime Minister,” he said, “has had one mansion where his food is cooked, another mansion where he lives, a third mansion on a lake, and that wasn’t enough for him, so he built a second lakefront mansion with our money at Harrington Lake. He’s been so focused on building mansions for himself that he’s forgotten to build homes for hard-working Canadians.”
Mansion No. 1 is 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of Canadian prime ministers since 1951. It is uninhabitable and undergoing abatement work to remove rat carcasses, rat feces, asbestos and other unpleasant things, but until last November its kitchens provided the meals for Mansion No. 2, a.k.a. Rideau Cottage, where Mr. Trudeau has lived since first elected in 2015. (See description of Mansion No. 1 for the explanation why.)
Mansion No. 3 is the prime minister’s traditional summer residence at Harrington Lake, in use since 1959; No. 4 is a guest house at Harrington Lake that the National Capital Commission, which oversees all these properties, fixed up in 2020, and which Mr. Trudeau and his family have used while the main building undergoes renovations.
So no, Mr. Trudeau hasn’t been building mansions for himself; it’s more fair to say the opposite – that he has been letting 24 Sussex Drive rot into the ground. Mr. Poilievre, who lives the “mansion” lifestyle rent-free at Stornoway, the official residence of the leader of the opposition, knows this.
But that didn’t stop him from resorting to the populist libel, spread by politicians of every stripe, about selfish prime ministers building taxpayer-funded castles for their personal use – a sordid bit of politicking that has paralyzed past and current office-holders and caused the official residence of the leader of Canada’s government to become a running joke.
Frankly, there may be no way out of this paralysis. It might well be time to let 24 Sussex Drive go, even if it has served as the prime minister’s residence since 1951, and start over without its baggage.
One big problem with fixing up 24 Sussex Drive is the cost, which the NCC estimates will be close to $40-million. That doesn’t include new security requirements, which have become more complicated.
Among other things, the PM’s residence needs a reinforced roof to protect those inside from drone attacks, according to an anonymous source who spoke to Radio-Canada. It also has to be on a private road with bigger grounds than are available at 24 Sussex Drive to protect it from truck bombs.
Mr. Poilievre did make some sense when talking about the issue. He acknowledged that the prime minister needs “a very basic, secure place” that can “receive dignitaries,” at “a reasonable cost to taxpayers.”
That’s true, but it clearly won’t be simple, or cheap, any more. Still, Mr. Poilievre has at least created an opening for a reasonable bipartisan solution to building a residence appropriate to the leader of a Group of Seven country.
With both Tory and Liberal support, appointing an all-party committee that could recommend specifications, budget and a timeline should be straightforward.
And then the tidied-up 24 Sussex Drive could be sold off to the highest bidder, perhaps even raising money for its replacement. That would be a win-win for Canadian taxpayers.