24 Sussex: A national embarrassment

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National Post, Friday, May 9, 2008

The prime minister's official residence, 24 Sussex, is the most famous address in the country. But truth be told, it's a dump inside and badly in need of repairs throughout.

The Auditor-General has just provided the much needed political cover for fixing the place up, saying it will cost nearly $10-million and take at least a year. The occupants will have to move out while the 140-year-old house is gutted and modern amenities, like central air conditioning, are installed. If the work isn't done soon, warns Sheila Fraser, it will cost even more later on.

Stephen Harper says no thanks. The house as is suits him and his family just fine.

He is making a mistake, but he's also making a political calculation -- no one's going to catch him spending millions of tax dollars on the residence, even under the imprimatur of the Auditor-General.

The last time any major renovations were carried out at 24 Sussex was in the summer and fall of 1984. John Turner never lived there, and spent most of the summer on the road in the election campaign. On the few nights he was in Ottawa, he slept at the prime minister's country residence at Harrington Lake.

When Brian Mulroney was sworn in as prime minister in September, 1984, renovations were still under way, and he lived with his young family at Harrington for the first three months of his tenure.

At one point in November, he even swung by 24 Sussex with an aide to check things out for himself. He couldn't get in the house, so he peered in the front window.

When he finally saw the bill -- nearly $1-million for a new copper roof and electrical wiring -- he practically fainted on the spot. "Don't move in," advised Mulroney's press secretary, Bill Fox, knowing his boss would take a hit in the headlines,

even though the work had been approved by the previous government. Mulroney wrote a personal cheque for $200,000, but was still criticized for the cost of the renovations. Subsequently, redecorations of 24 Sussex by the Mulroneys, even including the size of shoe closets, became the object of leering media scrutiny.

Small wonder that Jean and Aline Chretien, in the decade they lived there (1993-2003), refused to spend anything on upkeep and preferred furnishings already in stock. When Paul and Sheila Martin moved in, they complained the house, with its lack of air conditioning and temperamental heating, was too hot in the summer and too drafty in the winter.

When Stephen Harper moved to 24 Sussex in February, 2006, he declared in his first interview as prime minister: "It's a gorgeous, beautiful house, and personally I don't know how anyone could complain about living there. Let's put it this way, it's the best public house I'll ever live in."

The Harpers are the first occupants of 24 Sussex to actually invite the press into the house at Christmas, and, seeing the interior for the first time, many journalists have been underwhelmed. There is no art on the walls by Canadian painters of any distinction. The sun room in the back, overlooking the Ottawa River, is furnished no better than a cottage in the Gatineau. In this most public of houses, there is still no wheelchair accessibility.

And this is where we invite the Queen and the president of the United States for lunch.

Who's to blame for the run-down state of what is, after Rideau Hall, the most important representational house in the land?

There are two principal culprits. First, the media, who have been conducting drive-by shootings for more than 20 years, confusing access to information with investigative reporting. Second, opposition parties, who have been gleefully complicit in being shocked and appalled at the cost of maintaining official residences.

Only in Canada you say? Pity.

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