The neglect of 24 Sussex Dr., the official residence of the prime minister of Canada, is one of this country’s pettiest episodes of petty politics. It has gone on for so long that it has moved into the realm of outright stupidity.
The home of Canada’s head of government has been vacant for years because it’s a firetrap. Two-slice toasters are a threat to its ancient wiring. Walls are filled with mould, rot and asbestos. The place is drafty and cold, thanks to outdated windows and insulation. The plumbing is lousy. There are holes in the roof.
If it were on the market, it would be listed “For Sale As Is,” with no pictures. The National Capital Commission (NCC), the Crown corporation that oversees, among other things, six official residences in the Ottawa area, lists the condition of 24 Sussex as “critical.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family are living instead in a home on the grounds of Rideau Hall, the residence of the governor-general.
Why did this happen? Because prime minister after prime minister has refused to be the culprit who spent money on renovations, out of the fear they would be accused of blowing taxpayers’ money on their own creature comforts.
The Conservative Opposition this week played a typical round in the game of hypocritical politics that governs 24 Sussex Dr. when it accused Mr. Trudeau of dithering on repairs for the residence and consequently causing an increase in the estimated cost of fixing it up.
That’s true, of course, but it overlooks the fact that Mr. Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, ignored warnings from the auditor-general in 2008 that the place was falling apart. He refused to approve anything beyond emergency repairs. If he’d done otherwise, he risked attacks from opponents and supporters alike.
Result: What was estimated to be a $10-million repair job in 2008 is now considerably more pricey. Last year, the NCC estimated it would need $34.5-million to renovate 24 Sussex and $38.5 to tear it down and build a new home.
You can bet your last dollar that, had Mr. Trudeau gone ahead with renovations, the Conservatives would have accused him of lavishing those millions on himself.
What is perhaps most perplexing in all this is that neither Mr. Harper nor Mr. Trudeau, two otherwise intelligent and capable politicians, appears to have been equipped with the wherewithal to counter the argument that the only reason a prime minister would spend money on 24 Sussex Dr. would be for his own glory and benefit.
One would think that someone who inherits the use of a public residence connected to their office would be capable of ensuring that his or her successors could also use the place, and would have the vocabulary to explain that notion to voters.
As well, the PM’s official residence is more than just a home, with the majority of the space given over to official functions. By allowing 24 Sussex to collapse, our prime ministers have chosen to send a message of capitulation to small-minded politics.
It would be very adult if Mr. Trudeau and Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer could reach a rhetorical truce and agree that, regardless of the election outcome, money will have to be spent on 24 Sussex Dr., and on the other official residences managed by the NCC.
Of the six, two are in critical condition, according to the NCC: 24 Sussex Dr. and Harrington Lake, the Prime Minister’s summer residence. The Farm, the home of the Speaker of the House, is listed in poor condition. (Does the Speaker need a house? That’s a fair question.) Seven Rideau Gate, used to house foreign visitors, is in fair condition, but is temporarily occupied by Governor-General Julie Payette.
The only residences in good condition are Stornoway, home of the leader of the opposition, and Rideau Hall, where the governor-general normally lives, but which is undergoing renovations.
The NCC estimated last year that it needs to spend $83-million over 10 years to catch up on all the repairs that politicians have deferred, and bring the residences up to good condition. They would be made more livable, not more luxurious.
Reasonable questions can be raised about the most cost-effective way of dealing with all of this. But while prime ministers don’t need a palace, they have to live somewhere.