With the sale of Canada's lavish ambassador's residence in Ireland this 2003 CBC documentary is now topical again. Once valued at up to $35 million, Strathmore sits next door to millionaire rock star Bono's luxury home – but it's much larger.
For years public servants repeatedly recommended that the property be sold, since it was so expensive to run and far beyond the requirements for an official residence. But the minister nixed this plan – in a one-line email. Joanna Gualtieri explains how the system works to perpetuate lavish waste and extravagance.
Strathmore (10 min)
Producer Susan Teskey; Reporter Peter Walsh
Peter Walsh: I’m in Dublin Ireland and I’m on a quest. One that leads me to Killiney Bay, the most exclusive neighbourhood in all of Ireland. It’s where the country’s millionaires live. This is the place where I will find Bono, the lead singer of Ireland’s richest rockband u2.
Peter Walsh: I’m trying to find Bono’s house. Which way do I…
Man: That way, over there. You can always see the gate, sir.
Peter Walsh: Excuse me, which way is to the Bono’s house?
Women: Right there.
Peter Walsh: Thisright there?
Peter Walsh: How do you it’s the Bono’s house.
Women: I got directions. We asked some girls in the train station.
Peter Walsh: You’d expect one of the world’s richest rockstars to live on a fortress. Which makes me wonder, who’s his neighbor? That place gotta be bigger than Bono’s. It’s guarded with all the usual surveillance stuff, surrounded by seven foot wall. It’s topped off with some pretty primitive security features. I guess that’s to keep out the riff-raff like me. Hey! Look at the sign on the gate. Our ambassador lives there. In this neighbourhood? A guy on the street fills me in.
Man: There would be a lot of big houses with a lot of pretty wealthy people, celebrities and everything live in this area.
Peter Walsh: All famous people? What famous people live here?
Man: Like Bono, Chris de Burgh, Enya just up the road has a castle up there and
Peter Walsh: And Canadian Ambassador
Man: And Canadian Ambassador as well, sure.
Peter Walsh: We’re in the middle of … (laughs)
Peter Walsh: If you are wondering, that isn’t the ambassador’s house. That’s just the gate house. The real house is tucked away in the back of his ten acre property. A local land developer tells me that it’s the largest chunk of the real estate around here putting even Bono to shame.
Land developer: He has probably an acre or two acres.
Peter Walsh: We have more property than Bono.
Land developer: More property than Bono.
Peter Walsh: It’s so big, it takes two gardeners to look after landscaped yard full of eucalyptus trees. It even has a name, Strathmore. Canada bought it 1949 for a 141 000 bucks. But today, it’s worth up to thirty five million. I want to get inside. Maybe, rub elbows with my fellow Canadians. Hey, there is the ambassador himself, Mark Moher.
Peter Walsh: You wouldn’t take us in and show us around?
Mark Moher: No, I’m sorry.
Peter Walsh: Okay. I just want a little peek, you know. Nothing serious.
Mark Moher: No, I know.
Peter Walsh: I don’t need to see your bedroom or anything, just I want to look along.
Mark Moher: I appreciate it. Have a good day.
Peter Walsh: Okay, alright, thank you.
Peter Walsh: Seems like a nice enough guy. But does he really need to live in a $35 million house? Well, here’s a thought. Why doesn’t Canada sell Strathmore and buy a smaller house for the ambassador? The government would make a fortune. I wonder if anyone thought of that?
Peter Walsh: What’s this? Oh my god.
Peter Walsh: Turns out, they did want to sell it. For ten years, the government employees said that Strathmore was too extravagant. In fact, it is almost twice as big as ambassador’s home should be. This is my look inside. There is a full time maid, a butler, five bathrooms, nine bedrooms, a wine seller, even an elevator. It costs two hundred grand for a year just to run the place. It needs a bit of work, one point eight million dollars worth. The government employees say Canada should buy a smaller place like here. Like Embassy Row in Dublin. Other ambassadors have their houses here. Derry More (?). Still, a big swanky neighbourhood. Properties are so big that postman even delivers the mail by bicycle.
Peter Walsh: I noticed that most of the houses here have names. Does this place have a name?
Real estate agent: Yes, this place is actually called Argyle house.
Peter Walsh: How hard would it be to buy a house around here anyway?
Peter Walsh: This local real estate agent shows me what he’s got for sale.
Peter Walsh: Why do they all have names?
Real estate agent: Well, I think there is a certain prestige. Number hundred fourty three Argyle road doesn’t sound as quite as well as Argyle house.
Peter Walsh: Oh my goodness, this is huge.
Real estate agent: Isn’t it? It’s surprising. You don’t expect it from the road. So you can imagine from the ambassadorian point of view, you know, for entertaining and all that good thing. It would be lovely for parties.
Peter Walsh: You can see the tent and the cucumber sandwiches with crusts cut off. They’ve been looking to sell Strathmore for ten years. Houses do come available that are suitable for ambassadors every now and then, don’t they?
Real estate agent: Yes, they do.
Peter Walsh: If they wanted to buy one, they could have by now.
Real estate agent: And also, if they went knocking on few doors with, you know, five, six, seven, eight million to spend, I think they find reasonably receptive respond from some people.
Peter Walsh: You would be interested in selling the house.
Real estate agent: I’m would exactly be delighted to say.
Peter Walsh: In fact, Canada almost did buy a place around here ten years ago, called Clog moore (?).
Peter Walsh: I could live here.
Peter Walsh: In the end, they never bought it. Six years later, they were looking to buy a house again. Real estate was skyrocketing. Canada could have made twenty million bucks by selling Strathmore. But, again, they never sold it. I’m confused. Why not sell it? Then I find something small but important among all the pages. It’s an email from Ron Irwin, the ambassador back in 2000. It says Minister Axworthy, that’s Llyod Axworthy, does not want the Dublin official residence sold. Well, why not? Can Axworthy and Irwin just swat aside rules and waste all those years of planning?The answer leaves me to Ottawa. This is where I will find people who manage embassy properties around the world. I’ve been told about someone who used to work at the bureau of physical resources at foreign affairs. She was hired after the auditor general said the department was wasting money. It was her job to find ways to save it.
Peter Walsh: So I had a lot of reading to do while I was over in Ireland and I have a lot of questions.
Peter Walsh: Joanna Gualtieri gives me an insider’s take on all these documents.
Joanna Gualtieri: Listen. This is a fraction of the paper that was generated. You have a fraction of it. We just generate papers. It’s incredible because it’s all part of bureaucratic regime. It looks like we are doing something but in reality, we are doing nothing. It’s status quo.
Peter Walsh: I don’t know. It’s almost impressive. They just, you don’t know what’s happening.
Joanna Gualtieri: It’s one of the classic ploys that they use to do nothing. Study the problem to death. So they study it, they regenerate it the same ideas year after year and in the mean time, nothing gets done.
Peter Walsh: How do you get away with doing nothing for ten years? The answer? Have a great PR strategy. If you are asked why you didn’t buy Clog Moore (?), just say property value rose. That makes sense.
Peter Walsh: Maybe it was too expensive to buy another property.
Joanna Gualtieri: Yes, but if the other properties went up, I suggest to you that so did our property, so it’s all relative. Market is going up but in fact, our property going up at even higher rate because it was such a prized and special property. So, that doesn’t wash.
Peter Walsh: If they had no intention of selling it, why not just say that?
Joanna Gualtieri: Because that would be defying auditor general. That would be defying their commitment to be cost effective in the way they manage that property. It would be basically saying, “we are not going to do it because we like our lavish lifestyle.” They won’t say that.
Peter Walsh: Well, if they won’t say that, how did they do it? It says here that the Bureau of Physical Resources is supposed to be in charge of all the properties.
Joanna Gualtieri: The bureau is reaffirmed as the single point of accountability for property matters in the department .
Peter Walsh: Which means that you have the power to sell things if you deem that that’s the thing to do.
Peter Walsh: Or maybe not. One line that drops the minister’s name in an email from the ambassador changes everything .
Peter Walsh: How come Ron Irwin can write this email and says the minister doesn’t want it sold. Who’s in charge?
Joanna Gualtieri: Well, again, I answered that email by saying, why, how can he write… He writes it because he can and he knows he can get away with it. Now on paper, the bureau is accountable but in reality, the minister and his deputy minister and assistant deputy ministers have the power.
Peter Walsh: But it’s so subtle. It’s just one line. It’s amazing.
Joanna Gualtieri: But, Peter. He didn’t have to write more than one line. The proof is in the pudding. It had the effect. The bureau backed off. We are now 2003 and you visited the property 1 day ago.
Peter Walsh: And it’s still there like ten years ago.
Joanna Gualtieri: It’s still ambassador’s residence.
Peter Walsh: Today, the foreign affair minister is Bill Graham. He didn’t want to talk to me but his PR person told me that there are no plans to sell Strathmore, but as always, it’s under review. I’ve got one last place to go. This is it. To the department of foreign affairs itself. Maybe they have a job board where I can check into a cool foreign assignment. I wouldn’t mind living in a fancy house, maybe next door to a rockstar.