With 24 Sussex Drive closed and work to remove asbestos set to begin this spring, half of Canadians say they oppose renovating the aging home, according to a new poll.
However, the poll from the Angus Reid Institute shows that a plurality of Canadians—41 per cent—believe that spending an estimated $36-38 million to renovate the prime minister’s official residence is the best solution.
The question of what to do with the historic Ottawa home has taken on a new dimension now that the National Capital Commission has closed it down.
The house has not had a prime minister living in it for years. Justin Trudeau and his family have been living in Rideau Cottage, on the grounds of nearby Rideau Hall, since he was elected in 2015.
But household support staff were still accommodated at the official residence, and the NCC was still spending money on routine upkeep.
That changed this fall, with the National Capital Commission closing the house and announcing that an abatement work to clear asbestos and other aging infrastructure would begin in the new year.
The Angus Reid online survey found that half of Canadians don’t agree with renovating the home.
When asked whether they support or oppose spending an estimated $36-38 million to renovate Sussex Drive, 50 per cent said they either opposed or strongly opposed the idea.
Another 41 per cent supports or strongly supports the renovations. Nine per cent said they weren’t sure.
Those who don’t support renovations fell into two camps. More of them, 33 per cent, favors knocking it down and rebuilding a modern home and office. Twenty-six per cent favors knocking it down and not rebuilding anything.
Fear of political backlash to blame
Successive prime ministers have been reluctant to put money into repairing the home for fear of being seen as feathering their own nests. But the decades of neglect have plunged the home into disrepair.
A 2008 auditor general’s report estimated it would cost $10 million to renovate the home at that time. Since then, the potential cost has only grown. Last year, the NCC estimated that it would cost nearly $37 million for “extensive and urgent” repairs.
The building systems at 24 Sussex Drive have reached the point of imminent or actual failure and require replacement,” the 2021 report said.
“The age and condition of the electrical systems poses a fire hazard, and the plumbing systems have failed on a regular basis. The building has no permanent air conditioning system; window air conditioners are run in every room in the summer, which poses a security risk and is disruptive and costly.”
The Angus Reid poll sheds light on the political considerations. Two-thirds of Canadians (64 per cent) said they believe recent governments have failed to maintain the residence “because they are afraid of the public backlash.”
However, 43 per cent of those who accuse federal governments of being afraid of political fallout also say they are against spending the money to renovate 24 Sussex.
The survey also found little appetite for taxpayer-funded homes for Canadian political figures other than the prime minister.
Seven-in-ten (69 per cent) believe the government should foot the bill for a house for the prime minister, but fewer believe the governor general (39 per cent), leader of the opposition (25 per cent), or the speaker of the house (19 per cent) should receive publicly funded housing.
Former Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick says the impasse about the future of the residence is embarrassing.
“It’s always an option for the government to kick the can down the road. They have bigger problems like health care and climate change and the war in Ukraine and there is no incentive really to settle this issue in the short term,” he told CTV News Ottawa.
“It’s a shame because we’re talking about a one-time investment in a building that would be there for decades and serve a dozen future prime ministers.”
Wernick, who is now the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Management at the University of Ottawa, says the $38-million price tag is a bit on the low end because of modern security issues.
“The prime minister is a target and you have to worry about drone attacks and snipers and assaults, as we saw on Parliament Hill, and to make a building safe not just for a prime minister but a family, it requires certain structural improvements, which would be very very difficult to do in a building of the age of 24 Sussex Drive.”
Wernick says he is of the view that the prime minister’s residence should be built somewhere else.
The online survey was conducted from Jan. 13-16 among a representative randomized sample of 1,602 Canadian adults who are members of the Angus Reid forum. For comparison purposes, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
You can read the full report here.
–With files from CTV’s Tyler Fleming.