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Unfortunately, the PMO kyboshed a fundraising initiative to refurbish 24 Sussex Drive proposed by Harper and Chretien 

Michael Taube24 Sussex Drive, a 19th-century home that’s been the Prime Minister of Canada’s official residence since 1950, is in desperate need of repairs. The cost to taxpayers will be exorbitant. Certain options have been considered, and various suggestions have been made. (I proposed speaking with builder/contractor Mike Holmes in a 2018 column.)

With the clock slowly approaching midnight, two new saviours have potentially emerged. They’re both high-profile figures. They have vast networks of friends, colleagues and potential donors. They’re intelligent, hard-working, strategic and determined to make this joint effort a great success.

Who am I talking about? Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper, of course!

Hold on. To paraphrase Gary Coleman’s classic line from Diff’rent Strokes, “Whatcha talkin’ about, Taube?” Well, I’ll be glad to tell you all about it in this very special episode … err, column.

How former Prime Ministers Chretien and Harper could preserve 24 Sussex Drive

24 Sussex Drive
Photo courtesy National Capital Commission

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Many Canadians were probably surprised to learn last year that Chretien and Harper, both former Prime Ministers, get along quite well. This wasn’t a secret in certain political circles – I’ve known about it for years – but their respect and friendship was far from common knowledge.

“How could Chretien, a Liberal, and Harper, a Conservative, enjoy spending time together?” some may have thought. “How could they co-exist in the same room together without tearing each other from limb to limb?” others may have wondered.

If you haven’t spent much time in the world of politics, it wouldn’t make a lick of sense. If you have, then you’ll understand.

Take the friendship of two former U.S. Presidents, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. They were two politicians with different political, economic and ideological outlooks. They came from different generations. They ran against one another in the 1992 presidential election, with Clinton coming out ahead.

How could they ever become friends?

They had shared experiences as presidents and world leaders. They understood the inner workings of a powerful political role that few Americans would ever assume. They felt a love of country and its people. They maintained a firm belief in the importance of public service. They had mutual respect for the hard work, determination, and commitment each one had made to the job of a lifetime.

Clinton and Bush may have had significant political differences, but they began to respect one another when those old battle wounds healed. They were not only part of a unique club of former U.S. presidents but also believed in the old-school mentality that political rivals can find ways to build friendships and identify patches of common ground. It doesn’t happen in all cases, but it can sometimes happen.

Chretien and Harper never battled in a federal election, but their story is remarkably similar to Clinton and Bush’s.

They both have different political, economic and ideological outlooks and come from different generations. Nevertheless, they were strong political leaders, strategic thinkers, powerful communicators, fierce warriors in Parliament and in campaigns – and more.

Their respect and admiration for one another is the genuine article.

Chretien and Harper now have a unique opportunity to help preserve their old political residence for future generations.

The National Capital Commission’s 2021 report suggested it could cost $36.6 million to refurbish 24 Sussex Drive. (One would safely assume this number has increased slightly in the past three years.) That’s a lot of taxpayer money to earmark at a time when many Canadians and their families are struggling to make ends meet.

Former Liberal MP Sheila Copps “got the ball rolling on a multiparty initiative for a restoration,” according to the Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin. She initially approached former NDP leader Ed Broadbent. He reportedly drafted a letter that would have been co-signed by other political leaders, but he passed away on Jan. 11. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who would surely have joined this effort, also passed away on Feb. 29.

Copps’ former boss, Chretien, “was keen and came up with a plan to raise the money.” He wanted Harper to join this initiative, and they agreed to work together. The two former PMs would do the work for $1, raise donations from individuals and corporations and set a limit on contributions. The goal would be to have the renovation of 24 Sussex Drive completed within two to three years.

The Prime Minister’s Office was apparently receptive to this offer at first. Alas, they rejected it a few days later.

Chretien and Harper’s initiative would have relied on private funds, donations and philanthropy rather than taxpayer money. It would have helped preserve this heritage building, which was built between 1867 and 1868 but has fallen into disrepair and has been unoccupied since 2022. It would have been a way for Canadians from all walks of life to come together to make the PM’s official residence a source of national pride once more.

It’s a win-win situation all around.

I don’t know if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically turned down the Chretien-Harper proposal. To begin with, it’s not clear whether he was even aware of it.

He is now – and he should approve it.

Wouldn’t it be something if, in an age of political rigidity, two former Prime Ministers with different political ideologies came together and raised money to save 24 Sussex Drive? Let’s see if Chretien and Harper can make the impossible possible.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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