To hear the National Capital Commission tell it, 24 Sussex Drive – the official residence of the prime minister in Ottawa – “reflect(s) the nation to Canadians and to foreign visitors.” We couldn’t agree more: The fact that the residence has become a mouldy, rotting, asbestos-filled firetrap that only raccoons and mice could love is a logical result of one well-documented aspect of the national character.
This is a country where a federal politician who betrays a sense of entitlement at taxpayers’ expense, no matter how small, will find themselves looking for other work. Bev Oda, a former Conservative minister who resigned over an expense scandal in 2012, is best remembered for ordering a $16 glass of orange juice at the Savoy Hotel in London in 2011, and not for being the first Japanese-Canadian elected to Parliament.
Canadians simply have no truck with politicians who dip into the public purse for fancy room service, hotel upgrades or home renovations. On the whole, that’s a good, democratic quality. We expect elected officials to watch their pennies, to not treat themselves at taxpayers’ expense, and to never act like they think they are, in the immortal words of David Dingwall, “entitled to my entitlements.”
But when it comes to 24 Sussex Drive, those sound instincts have lurched into madness. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his predecessor, Stephen Harper, have in their own time both been so petrified of triggering voters’ chronic aversion to perceived extravagance that they have unwittingly conspired to let the official home of the head of government of a G7 country decay into what is now Ottawa’s most famous abandoned lot.
Mr. Harper lived there but refused to invest in the needed upgrades, while Mr. Trudeau refused to even move himself and his family into a place that had become a literal firetrap, and a danger to the health of the occupants.
And like his predecessor, he has not authorized the needed repairs on the building. He has also said that he will never live there under any circumstances.
Instead he is encamped in Rideau Cottage, the former home of the governor-general’s private secretary, and has overseen $3.6-million in renovations and security enhancements since he was first elected in 2015.
The NCC, which is responsible for government-owned lands and residences – including Rideau Hall, where the governor-general lives and works – says the bill for the critical maintenance on 24 Sussex that has been deferred for decades has now risen to more than $36-million.
While that estimate seems padded in an Ottawa sort of way, the work itself is undeniably necessary. The ancient electrical wiring is a fire risk, the mechanical systems need replacing, there is lead in the leaky pipes and asbestos in the walls, which are cracked and at risk of falling down. The house is uninhabited because it has become uninhabitable. And it is uninhabitable because of a well-founded fear that the sight of money being spent on rendering it habitable might infuriate voters.
But that failure to act has reached the point where 24 Sussex Drive either gets fixed up, or becomes so dangerous that it is condemned. A prudent Canadian politician recognizes the first of those options as the most politically dangerous.
The silly thing about all of this is that, one way or another, Canadian taxpayers are, and likely always will be, paying for rather swell digs for the sitting prime minister. Rideau Cottage has 22 rooms and 10,000 square feet. It’s no palace, but it’s hardly your average bungalow.
And yet for obvious reasons, Mr. Trudeau knows that if the money spent on Rideau Cottage had been used to instead fix up 24 Sussex, it would have made the news, and not in a good way. Many Canadians would have seen it as personal aggrandizement. Success in politics is often all about knowing your voters.
Canada’s head of government doesn’t need a pile as extravagant as the White House. And yes, there is something charmingly humble about our PM living not in the grandest home in Ottawa, but in a guesthouse on the grounds of the grandest home in Ottawa.
Maybe that’s the long-term – and very Canadian – answer to the question of where the PM should live. But a better solution would be to either fix up 24 Sussex Drive, or knock it down and build anew. Can’t all the parties in Parliament come together and agree to that?
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