Back in the days when Derek Burney was Canada’s Ambassador to Washington, he used to tell a story about how to tell the difference between Canadians and Americans.
If you took two pots of water, and put them on a stove with Canadian lobsters in one and American lobsters in the other and turned up the heat, there was an easy way to tell which was which.
As the heat rose, a smart lobster would climb over the others to try to escape. In the Canadian pot, the others would reach up and pull him back down to his egalitarian death.
That pretty much sums up the attitude Canadians have towards two essential pieces of national infrastructure: 24 Sussex, the Prime Minister’s official residence, and the executive aircraft the PM and cabinet ministers use for international travel.
It’s immediately evident to any visitor that 24 Sussex is a dump, full of knob and tube wiring, asbestos and, yes, vermin. Its roof leaks like a sieve and is so poorly insulated that it is stifling in the summer and freezing in the winter. Successive PMs have been paralyzed with fear at the cost of putting it right.
It’s much the same problem with the prime ministerial executive aircraft that is rapidly becoming an embarrassment, just as its predecessor was 30 years ago.
We got here because successive political leaders and followers have obsessed with scoring petty political points on each other over these two issues. No cheap, self-serving shot was ever too low.
When Pierre Trudeau lived at “24”, he spent $24,000 on a new kitchen and $18,000 to overhaul the second-floor family room. John Diefenbaker raged that he was “spending money like a drunken sailor.” Later, the Mulroneys put some Conservative Party money, as well as public money, into cosmetic changes in the house. They were subjected to widespread ridicule and personal abuse for their troubles. Liberal MP Don Boudria attacked the “Imelda Marcos-like closets.”
Ten years ago, the auditor general estimated it would take $10 million to properly fix the house. It’s probably a lot more than that now. When you don’t maintain a house for 50 years, the fixes are going to be expensive. Also, if the bad guys can crack the computers in the Privy Council Office as they did a couple of years ago, they can go anywhere, so cybersecurity is going to cost a bundle. That’s the world we live in today.
We have a similar sad and self-defeating history with executive aircraft.
When Brian Mulroney went to New York in 1984 for his first speech to the UN, his Canadian Forces 707 was forced to land in Newark, New Jersey, as opposed to the airports in New York. Our 30-year-old bucket of bolts made so much noise and exuded so much pollution that it was banned from any airport in the state of New York.
Years later, the old 707 was finally retired after it blew a hatch over the South Pacific and depressurized, scaring the bejesus out of the Canadian delegation on board. Its replacement was a used Airbus Polaris, purchased in 1992. The Mulroney government fitted it out for executive travel with a shower and fold-out beds in the front cabin.
Then Opposition Leader Jean Chretien called it the “Flying Taj Mahal,” and refused to use it when he became prime minister.
Taj Mahal or not, it’s still flying in 2018. RCAF 001 features 40-year-old technology and amenities, huge fuel consumption, a large pollution footprint and wonky internet access. Journalists traveling with the prime minister are required to finish and file their work on the ground before departure because they can’t transmit their stories to their newsrooms in Canada from the plane. In the “luxurious” forward cabin, senior cabinet ministers and staff rack out on the floor on international flights and are expected to be at the top of their game when they land.
Canada is a G-7 country. We shouldn’t have to use Airbnb to find a vacant place to warehouse our prime ministers and their families, and we shouldn’t be flying them overseas using the best technology of the last century.
There may be a breakthrough coming on the housing front. The National Capital Commission is proposing to fix all of the state houses—24 Sussex, Stornoway, Harrington Lake, the Farm (the Speaker’s residence) and 7 Rideau Gate (the government’s guest house for official visitors). At least that approach should lessen the possibility of partisan attacks over necessary renovations.
Or maybe not. Just last week, Conservative MP Erin O’Toole said his party will only support the costs for renovating 24 Sussex if the PM pays back all the costs resulting from his trip to the Aga Khan’s island home.
There’s just no escaping those Canadian lobsters!