Sussex is a dump -- fix it
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by L. IAN MacDONALD
Sun Media, Friday, July 22, 2011
It's now more than three years since the former auditor- general, Sheila Fraser, recommended a $10-million renovation to 24 Sussex, warning that if nothing was done it would only cost more to repair the prime minister's residence.
The house is as old as Confederation, built between 1866 and 1868 by lumber baron Joseph Currier.
Even with the cover provided by the AG, there was no way in a minority parliament that Stephen Harper would approve a $10-million reno for fear his address would become the scene of a drive-by shooting in the media.
Now that he's home and dry with a majority, it's probably the right moment to get on with it. But even a majority is no guarantee there won't be flak.
The last major reno at Sussex began during the summer election of 1984, and wasn't completed until months later. When Brian Mulroney finally moved in, just before Christmas that year, he was so offended by the $2-million bill that he wrote a cheque to cover part of it himself. Even with that, he still took a hit in the media.
There is one way for Harper to bullet-proof the renovation, and that's to get Opposition Leader Jack Layton and Liberal Leader Bob Rae to sign off on it, meaning it would never come up in question period.
To someone peering through the gates of 24 Sussex, it appears to be a splendid house. But inside, the place has been falling apart for years. There's no central air conditioning and as Paul Martin once complained, the place is "too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer." There isn't even an access ramp for the handicapped.
The Queen and successive American presidents have all dined there, but not recently -- it's a dump.
But even if Harper were to approve a home reno, the question would be where the PM and his family would live during the "12 to 15 months" Fraser estimated would be needed to complete the job.
Harrington Lake, the PM's summer residence across the Ottawa River in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec, is one possibility. It's fine in the summer. But it really wouldn't work during the school year for the Harpers' children, Ben and Rachel.
And since the break-in at 24 Sussex in November 1995, when the Chretiens held off a potential attacker until the Mounties arrived to belatedly get their man, security around the PM's residence has been a major consideration.
Any discussion of a temporary residence usually begins with a fence around it. Which rules out 7 Rideau Gate, an official residence usually used for TV interviews or visiting VIPs.
Stornoway, the opposition leader's residence in Rockcliffe, is a gracious home, but has no fence or gate. Besides, it's occupied by Layton and Olivia Chow.
There is a residence on the grounds of Rideau Hall, normally occupied by the secretary to the Governor General. It's big enough for the Harpers' family needs and it's a very secure location.
That would solve the problem, though there might be optics to be managed around the prime minister being the guest of the GG.
But let's act like a major league country and get on with it.
The prime minister shouldn't be ashamed to have people over for dinner.