Politics·Analysis

Home games: Why the state of 24 Sussex may become an election issue

There is all-party political paralysis over the future of prime minister's official residence. But that isn't stopping the Tories from trying to make it an election issue.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, centre, addresses the media outside 24 Sussex Drive in 2007. The National Capital Commission estimated that it will cost at least $34.5 million to renovate the now empty official residence. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

It's been more than 1,360 days since a Canadian prime minister has lived at 24 Sussex Drive. The way things are shaping up, we won't see one move back in for years — if ever.

The crumbling, 34-room official residence on the banks of the Ottawa River hasn't seen serious renovation since 1951. It now requires new windows and plumbing and a complete overhaul of its heating and cooling system. The house also lacks a kitchen and dining room big enough to fulfil what should be one of its main functions: hosting state dinners.

Its dated security provisions have hardly kept up with the dangers of the times. Its walls and ceilings are shot through with carcinogenic asbestos and its electrical system has been identified as a "major life safety" threat.

Small wonder, then, that Justin Trudeau and his family chose instead to live on the grounds of neighbouring Rideau Hall.

But the biggest risk surrounding the permanent home of Canada's prime ministers now seems to be a political one, since there are few votes to be won from feathering the PM's nest.

This week, the Conservatives tried to turn 24 Sussex into an election issue, accusing Trudeau of dithering over the needed repairs and promising that Andrew Scheer would find "innovative ways" to end the "debacle."

The "nearly $100 million" price tag the Tories are throwing around is a bit of a stretch. Last fall, the National Capital Commission (NCC) reported that it needs $83 million over 10 years to deal with the backlog of required fixes for its six official residences — including Scheer's current home as opposition leader, Stornoway, and 'The Farm' in Gatineau Park where he lived when he was Speaker of the House of Commons.

There's no question, however, that saving 24 Sussex is becoming a more and more expensive proposition.

Back in 2008, then-auditor general Sheila Fraser put the cost of the "urgently-needed" renovations at slightly more than $10 million, but Stephen Harper refused to move out, saying that the aging house was still "adequate" for his family's needs.

This past fall, the NCC revealed that the bill has grown to $34.5 million thanks to another decade of deferred maintenance, construction cost inflation and add-ons like geothermal heating and solar panels. And that figure doesn't include repairs to the mouldy pool house, or upgrades to the grounds, or security enhancements.

Canada's leader shouldn't have to live at the YMCA- Arthur Milnes, a former Stephen Harper speechwriter

All of which suggests it might somehow be a better deal to build a completely new prime minister's residence at an NCC-estimated cost of $38.5 million.

Early indications are that the Tories have latched on to a live election issue.

On Tuesday, the National Post published a front-page column calling on the government to knock the building down and turn the lot into parkland, or simply give it away in order to end "this gormless pantomime." The Globe and Mail ran an editorial lamenting that 24 Sussex has become the "official home of petty politics." The Winnipeg Free Press called for a comprehensive redevelopment plan, perhaps featuring a jury-driven architectural competition for a replacement residence. 

This Google Earth view shows the location of the prime minister's temporary home, a 22-room "cottage" on the grounds of Rideau Hall. (CBC) (CBC)

So what would it take to remake the home of Canada's leader?

"We've got to take the politics out of it," said Leslie Maitland, a former Parks Canada architectural historian and past-president of Heritage Ottawa. "Just bite the bullet and strike a committee. Canadians love committees."

Maitland said renovating 24 Sussex would be worth the investment, since the 150-year-old home is "part of the landscape of Canadian history," regardless of who lives there.

Arthur Milnes, a Kingston, Ont. historian who wrote speeches for Stephen Harper and helped Brian Mulroney research his memoirs, said Canadians need to adopt a different mindset when it comes to the official residence.

"This conversation wouldn't even be happening in the U.K. with Chequers, or 10 Downing Street, or in the United States with the White House," he said. "Canada's leader shouldn't have to live at the YMCA. It's not his or her house. It's our house."

He's also calling for the establishment of some sort of commission to break the political paralysis over the renovations.

For its part, the NCC says it continues to work with its federal partners to develop a plan for the future of 24 Sussex that takes into account both the home's historic importance and the needs of modern politicians.

"It is important for Canadians to know that the property comprises four acres of land and five buildings, including the main residence," NCC spokesperson Jean Wolff wrote in an emailed statement. "This adds complexity to the evaluation of future needs, in particular when it comes to ensuring security requirements are met."

While the challenges may be daunting, Canada's federal parties have managed to find common ground on conserving heritage buildings in the past. More than $1.7 billion has been spent already on the ongoing refurbishment of Parliament Hill; the renovations to Centre Block, which will last at least a decade, have started without any sort of price tag.

And the parsimony over the prime minister's residence only seems to extend to its repairs — not its operations. An RCMP security detail is still based on the property and household staff use the kitchen almost every day to prepare meals for the Trudeau family.

Taxpayers are already footing hefty bills for heating, electricity, snow clearing and other maintenance at both 24 Sussex and Rideau Cottage, the PM's temporary home — bills totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

Sixty-eight years after Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent reluctantly moved in, 24 Sussex remains a potent symbol — perhaps not the way politicians originally envisioned.

About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.

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