Daycare tops Liberal agenda

TheStar.com – News/ParentCentral/Education
February 02, 2010.  Susan Delacourt  Ottawa Bureau

A national child-care program will be put in place by a future Liberal government, no matter how bare the fiscal cupboard may be, leader Michael Ignatieff has promised.

“We will find the money, because it seems to me an excellent investment,” Ignatieff told reporters in Ottawa on Monday. “I am not going to allow the deficit discussion to shut down discussion in this country about social justice.”

Ignatieff’s promise represents one of the clearest differences between his party and the Stephen Harper government and it immediately drew criticism from Conservatives keen to paint Liberals as reckless spenders.

A government spokesperson challenged Ignatieff to explain to Canadians how he would pay for such a program given the country’s fiscal position.

But even advocates of a national program may be cautious with their optimism.

Past Liberal governments repeatedly delayed delivering on their long-promised child-care programs while the country’s finances were in the red in the 1990s, and even when they moved into surplus, progress was slow on putting a national system in place.

But Ignatieff unequivocally declared on Monday that if he becomes prime minister, there will be no delay in delivering a national program – and lack of money won’t be an excuse.

“This is the number one social priority of an incoming Liberal government,” Ignatieff said during a break in an all-day discussion on poverty and homelessness in Canada. Child care is a key part of that discussion, the Liberal leader said.

Ignatieff acknowledged he’s making the promise in the midst of a $56 billion current deficit and a budgetary climate, by Conservative government estimates, that will remain in the red until at least 2015.

“I haven’t made a dozen promises. I’m aware of the hole this government has dropped us in,” Ignatieff said.

“But one (promise) I will not drop under any circumstances is an investment in our kids, because I’m absolutely convinced this is the game-changer.”

The Liberal leader wouldn’t put a price tag on his child-care promise, but Ryan Sparrow, a spokesman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, said $6 billion is the current estimate for such a program, as requested by the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada in its recent, pre-budget brief to Ottawa.

“At a time when Canadian families can least afford it, Michael Ignatieff wants to impose a $6 billion one-size-fits-all model of daycare,” Sparrow said. “He needs to come clean with Canadians about how he is going to pay for this costly scheme.”

Ignatieff argues, echoing the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and others, that a national child-care program actually helps the economy and the country’s long-term productivity. Just last week, the chamber posted a resolution it recently reached, calling on the federal government to usher in national child care.

“A universal early childhood development program is a prudent investment and is financially justified,” the chamber’s resolution states. “Federal support for such a program promises a very high rate of return that will benefit Canada’s global economic standing.”

Ignatieff called child care “an investment” in productivity and social justice for the country.

“It’s also the best anti-poverty program. I want every single child in Canada to have the opportunity to get a square meal when they come to daycare; to get loving care and tender care,” he said.

“A lot of children in our country, we don’t like to admit it, start in very turbulent difficult environment at home. The great thing about these programs is they give kids an equal start.”

Education has been looming as a potentially major piece of any future Liberal election platform. But it’s also been a big part of past Liberal policies – a $5 billion national child-care program was among the big-ticket promises in the 2005-06 election, in which the Liberals were defeated.

And when the Conservatives came to power, Prime Minister Stephen Harper implemented instead a $100-a-month payment to parents for child care, arguing that it gives parents choice to either stay at home with their kids or send them to an early-education program.

Sparrow restated this view on Monday when asked about Ignatieff’s proposal.

“We believe that parents know what is best when it comes to raising their children and that is why we are providing choice in child care,” he said.

According to Sparrow, the Conservatives’ child benefit provides the $100 benefit to more than 2 million children each year.

As well, Sparrow said, the government has provided $250 million to provinces, which have announced the creation of over 60,000 new spaces since March 2007.

Ignatieff has said in the past he would keep in place the $100-a-month subsidy for parents.

Ignatieff said the Liberals were able to manage the economy and bring down child-poverty levels while they were in power – and that this past would guide any future policies, too.

“You can slay a deficit and you can do social justice. That’s how Liberals think about their responsibilities in government and we will not let Canadians down.”

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