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opinion

Benjamin Shinewald is the president and chief executive officer of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada.

Canada's most famous residence is back in the news, and once again it is for all the wrong reasons.

24 Sussex Dr. is unequivocally in shambles. The official residence of the Prime Minister of Canada now appears to be completely unlivable. "I'm fairly resigned to not live in that house for the entire term," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said recently.

It's easy to understand why. The house Mr. Trudeau's mother once called the "crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system" contains asbestos, is infested with mice and is an environmental disgrace. There are no sprinklers, it is largely inaccessible to people in wheelchairs and it hasn't had significant renovations since John and Olive Diefenbaker lived there.

But wait – it gets worse.

The vacant house is still costing the Canadian taxpayer a fortune. According to CBC, in just five months it cost us $180,000 to heat and light the drafty residence and shovel its snow – almost $40,000 for hydro alone. And that's not counting the hundreds of thousands spent on new fencing, private security and consulting services to figure out what to do with the place.

We're all responsible for this mess. As I've argued, Canadians were so opposed to the slightest whiff of personal benefit for our prime ministers that we took a "pox on all your official houses" approach that prevented even rudimentary maintenance. Through our collective, willful ignorance, we created the national fantasy that, unlike every other structure on the face of the planet, 24 Sussex Dr. somehow simply does not require any upkeep. At all. Ever.

What's worse, our fantasy was rooted in the cockamamie self-righteousness that we were somehow defending the public purse. Did no one realize that deferring maintenance today just means higher costs and lower asset values tomorrow?

Well, the bill is finally coming due, and it will be a doozy. No one knows precisely what it will cost, but decades of neglect, combined with the residence's unique security and business requirements, surely mean we are on the hook for eight figures.

This is exasperating. We need a new approach.

Former prime minister Paul Martin has an idea. Yes, the same Paul Martin who famously had Rick Mercer over to nail plastic sheeting to 24 Sussex Dr.'s windows, just to demonstrate his financial bona fides (no matter that new windows would have saved more money and been far more sustainable).

Today, a remorseful Mr. Martin is calling for an independent, non-partisan commission to oversee our official residences.

It's a great idea.

No matter the stripe, politicians are understandably terrified to spend public money on official residences. By contrast, our world-beating property management industry is perfectly suited to this task. With expert, non-partisan, industry-led oversight and sustainability programs such as the made-in-Canada BOMA BEST initiative, Canada's most important residences can live up to the government's own standards of improving building efficiency and sustainability and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

The opposition backs investing in the residence at least in some manner, so the iron is hot. Conservative MP Erin O'Toole recently tied support for renovating 24 Sussex Dr. to resolving the costs of the Prime Minister's vacation at the Aga Khan's Caribbean home. But Mr. O'Toole, usually a thoughtful and constructive voice on Parliament Hill, seems out of step with his own party.

More importantly, he misses the point: 24 Sussex Dr. isn't the Prime Minister's house. It's ours. The prime minister of the day is just our tenant. No party should hold hostage critical repairs to our national heritage because of a partisan dispute on an unrelated matter.

So maybe there is hope after all: Just leave it to the professionals. Successive governments made 24 Sussex Dr. a symbol of financial and environmental calamity. By contrast, a non-partisan, expert-led commission tasked with managing our official residences for our national benefit would turn 24 Sussex Dr. back into a symbol of financial and environmental excellence. Now that is something that can unite us all.