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It's time to tear down 24 Sussex

January 15, 2019
It's time to tear down 24 Sussex

(This column originally appeared at the Huffington Post)

Imagine your house was 150 years old, and hadn't seen major renovations in 50 years.

Imagine it still had asbestos in the walls — that are also cracking in at least six spots — and that there's water damage throughout. Imagine ancient electrical wiring and deficient plumbing. Imagine it being too hot in the summer, and too cold in the winter. Imagine spending hundreds of thousands of dollars just to keep the heat and lights on, and the snow in the driveway shovelled.

Welcome to 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of Canada's prime minister.

To be fair, 24 Sussex Drive is only where our prime minister is supposed to live. Understandably, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has opted not to subject his young family to his crumbling childhood home. Instead, he's opted, for the time being at least, to live at Rideau Cottage, located just down the street on the grounds of the Governor General's residence, Rideau Hall.

This temporary arrangement may become a permanent one for the simple reason that there are no plans to actually fix 24 Sussex Drive. Trudeau himself has been quite candid, noting that "no prime minister wants to spend a penny of taxpayer dollars on upkeeping that house" for fear of public backlash. Recently, even the New York Times took note of the absurdity of the situation, describing the dilapidated building as "unfit for a leader or anyone else."

A review of the historical record shows just how long spending taxpayer money on the PM's residence has been controversial: private donors financed the installation of a swimming pool during Pierre Trudeau's time; the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada paid for renovations when Brian Mulroney was the occupant. When Paul Martin lived there, the building's state of disrepair was the subject of a Rick Mercer skit where he accompanied Martin to a hardware store to procure do-it-yourself supplies. And Stephen Harper simply ignored any and all advice to fix the building.

Generally speaking, fear of political fallout for wasteful spending can serve as an excellent deterrent to politicians with a tendency to play fast and loose with taxpayer money, and it's definitely preferable to the alternative of widespread public indifference. But when it comes to government buildings, there's no getting around the fact that putting off repairs just makes the final bill bigger in the long run.

What should be done, instead, is to build a new residence at 24 Sussex Drive.

Contrary to the prime minister's comments, we're already paying for the house due to the exorbitant cost of upkeep. It's a tab that will go on forever, and only grow larger over time.

A recent estimate by the National Capital Commission put the cost of building a new house at $38.5 million, compared to $34.5 million to fix up the current building. But imagine the kind of new house that could be built for even half that price. And it's not as if we'd be losing a unique architectural gem, either: Maureen McTeer, wife of former prime minister Joe Clark and an author of a book on official residences, describes the building as "completely lacking in architectural value."

As to the cost, the sky can't be the limit. But setting a reasonable budget and holding a competitive bidding process, culminating in a fixed-price contract, could help ensure that taxpayers don't get bulldozed along the way.

With bigger-than-promised deficits and no sign of a balanced budget any time soon, the Trudeau government hasn't exactly been tight-fisted since coming to power and there's a long list of areas where they need to get spending under control. But when it comes to 24 Sussex Drive, the can has been kicked down the road long enough, and the delay is getting too expensive. It's time to make a decision.

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