As originally published in The Globe and Mail.
While heading to a dinner in Ottawa, I recently drove past 24 Sussex Drive – the official residence of our prime ministers. The home sat dark and desolate, as it has for the past four years. In the moment, it struck me that 24 Sussex has become a metaphor for the country and a cautionary tale about neglecting our country’s critical infrastructure.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that 24 Sussex is an architectural treasure. Its Norman revival, Victorian-style exterior is no more impressive than other homes built during the same period. Its value is symbolic, not stylistic. It’s a tangible example of how and why Canada has allowed our national infrastructure to fall into a state of disrepair.
For years, 24 Sussex Drive has been in dire need of extensive renovations. There are some who even argue it should be razed to the ground and rebuilt altogether. So, how did it get this bad? Put simply, our political leaders have preferred to ignore the home’s rapidly deteriorating condition instead of investing in its preservation and upkeep.
More specifically, successive governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have calculated it would be politically unpopular to move ahead with the repairs and renovations needed to keep the home livable. Few disputed significant restorations were urgently required, various engineering reports confirmed it; it was just the political optics.
Tragically, we’re seeing similar neglect in relation to critical infrastructure assets across the country. Successive governments, again Liberal and Conservative, have calculated it wouldn’t be politically popular to move ahead with the repairs and renovations to our energy and export infrastructure needed to keep Canada competitive.
This isn’t about the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, although it’s an obvious example of how delay and denial have contributed to the worsening state of our energy infrastructure. As others have noted, the broader issue concerns our roadways, railways, seaports and airports. We’re a trading country without the ability to get our exports to international markets.
Both the World Economic Forum and the World Bank have tracked a gradual decline in Canada’s trade and transportation infrastructure, as reflected in our tumbling rankings in their respective competitiveness indexes. Fortunately, organizations such as the Canada West Foundation have offered practical solutions to reverse these trends.
Yet, I would argue the biggest problem is that these types of infrastructure projects aren’t seen as being particularly visionary or exciting. Political leaders aren’t praised by the public or in the press for allocating substantial sums of taxpayer dollars to what some might uncharitably characterize as routine maintenance – so they don’t.
If we think of Canada as a family home, not unlike 24 Sussex Drive, the situation the government is facing is one that many of us have faced as homeowners. We have a major appliance or a furnace that’s a few years past its effective life cycle. We nervously cross our fingers every time we have to turn it on – wincing as it makes worrisome noises.
Maybe we can get one more winter out of the furnace, we say. Perhaps there will be an end of season sale a few months from now. Plus, if we upgrade it today, it would probably mean cutting back on Christmas gifts or taking a far more frugal vacation for March Break – decisions that would be extremely unpopular with our families.
This is analogous to the situation we face with much of our energy and export infrastructure. What we’re using now is aging, if not antiquated. It may be working, but just barely – and most of it has no capacity to support any meaningful growth. We might get another season out of it, but with a nod to Game of Thrones: Winter is coming.
Moreover, the idea that it would be cheaper or easier to repair or upgrade our energy and export infrastructure at some point in the future is fanciful. For decades – in some cases generations – we’ve not kept up with the kind of preventative maintenance that minimizes future costs. The longer we wait, the more expansive and expensive the work.
Repairing, restoring, renovating or rebuilding our country’s critical infrastructure will come at a cost – both financial and political. It will require government to make tough trade-offs that could be very unpopular with certain constituencies. But unlike with 24 Sussex Drive, Canadians can’t just move out and go live somewhere else.