Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Stoicism, Grace and 24 Sussex

It is reassuring to be reminded that there are still people left who can resist the temptation to whine about anything and everything, and instead demonstrate graciousness and forbearance. Why does this seem so rare these days (or is it just the sum total of the stories we're so often fed)?

Laureen Harper has a letter in the National Post this morning. She writes:

This story about the Auditor-General's report on the state of 24 Sussex Drive, the prime minister's official residence, states that my family finds the house "uncomfortable." This is not true. The house is a beautiful heritage property and is well-suited to our family. While Calgary is our home, we will be grateful to live at 24 Sussex as long as my husband is prime minister.

This could be just an example of stoicism, but I don't think so. It sounds more sincere than 'stiff upper lip'. No, I actually think phrases like "beautiful heritage property", "well-suited to our family", and "grateful to live at 24 Sussex" suggest someone who counts her blessings, not her burdens, and is appreciative of those blessings. Would that more of us could do that.

Still, there seems to be a growing consensus that the Prime Minister's residence is desperately in need of major renovations. L. Ian Macdonald, in the National Post (24 Sussex: A National Embarrassment) remarks that "it's a dump inside and badly in need of repairs throughout." Noting that Stephen Harper, like Laureen, says that the house suits their family's needs just fine, Macdonald suggests that this is a mistake. Similarly, the Toronto Star calls for 24 Sussex to be repaired and upgraded, noting that Auditor General Sheila Fraser found the residence to be "in a dangerous state of decay with outmoded electrical, ventilation, plumbing and wiring systems." The repairs may take as long as a year (which might well mean longer), and could cost upwards of $10 Million (which probably means the final bill will be more).

Both papers suggested that the Prime Minister may not want to be politically linked to 'lavish' spending on his personal residence. Especially in a minority government situation, with a possible election looming, it's not difficult to imagine how the question of renovations could be subject to political calculus. In fact, other PMs before have faced the same dilemma. Remember the Martin's complaint that the house was drafty and cold in winter. Remember also how the Mulroney's faced media and voter snarkiness after what was depicted as lavish spending on upgrades (some of which was apparently paid by the PC Canada fund). Remember also the swimming pool installed for Pierre Trudeau, and the similar snarkiness that greeted that upgrade. And remember Aline Chretien fending off an intruder with an Inuit soap stone carving (okay, I've always thought that was kind of funny, as an image of quintessential canadiana).

Beleaguered taxpayers will always on some level resent public money being spent on what they regard as a private perk for a public servant, even if that public servant is the prime minister. But let's think about this for a moment. 24 Sussex is a national heritage structure. It belongs to all of us in trust. Built in 1866, it was acquired by the Canadian government in 1943 while Mackenzie King was prime minister. It was prepared for occupancy, and Louis St. Laurent took up residence in 1951. Since that time, no major structural, electrical or heating and cooling renovations have apparently been done.

Now, some may consider sleeping in a stately (but drafty and creaky) old mansion to be a significant perk. But, remembering former Prime Minister and Mrs. Martin's experience, I can't help but think that it sounds more like what some crazy uncle requires you to do as a condition of his will.

So, gracious or stoic, the Harpers would just as soon not have the renovations done during their tenure. I'm inclined to believe Sheila Fraser's assessment of the state of repair and the need for major work. And I'd like to think that Canadians would not exact a political price for having them done. But that brings me back to the preponderance of whiners and partisan opportunists in our midst. This should not be a partisan issue. This is not about one prime minister; this is about our common heritage. Just a thought.

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