Mulcair’s childcare plan addresses a pressing need

Posted on October 16, 2014 in Child & Family Policy Context – Opinion/Editorials – With Canada expected to ring up budget surpluses of $55 billion in the next five years, the time seems right for some nation-building Big Ideas.
Oct 15 2014.   Editorial

For many working families in Canada, there’s no bigger stress than trying to find affordable, quality childcare. For parents on the go it’s a constant, nagging worry and a huge financial drain. It’s also a drag on the nation’s economy.

So it’s good to see New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair determined to make an issue of it in the upcoming federal election. “Canadians want to know where we stand,” he says, and the NDP is starting to deliver well before the writ is dropped.

Mulcair is promising to invest $5 billion in a program to create one million affordable $15-a-day childcare spaces within eight years. It was popular in Quebec, where people paid $5, then $7 a day, and the NDP has every reason to think it will be a hit elsewhere.

Whether it will drain voter support from Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s second-place Conservatives remains to be seen. The Liberals were at 38 per cent in a recent Forum Research survey, compared to 34 per cent for the Tories with the NDP trailing at 19 per cent. Repositioning the NDP as the credible alternative to the Tories will take some doing.

Still, with Canada expected to rack up budget surpluses of $55 billion in the next five years, the time seems right for some nation-building Big Ideas, and to its credit that is just what the NDP proposes. The party is also committed to setting a $15 federal minimum wage, bolstering transfers for health care and investing in infrastructure to help create better-paying, full-time jobs and stronger growth.

As the Star has written before, Canadians will be looking to the front-running Liberals for the same clarity and ambition. Trudeau, too, has cited the need to invest in infrastructure, health, higher education and other priorities. But he is waiting until closer to the election before going into detail. That may turn out to be a risky strategy.

In rolling out his child-care plan this early Mulcair clearly hopes to steal a march on the Liberals, who had their own $5-billion, five-year, childcare program under Paul Martin in 2005 but never got a chance to implement it.

Mulcair has also put some heat on Harper, who has spent $2.7 billion giving families $100 a month for every child under six, whether or not they need the help. While Mulcair says he won’t cancel that benefit it would be better spent on his childcare program. The Tories are also unwisely proposing to spend $3 billion on income-splitting that would benefit some families far more than others. That too would be better spent on child care.

The NDP agenda, in contrast to the Tories’ small-bore tax breaks, is a progressive, ambitious idea that targets a national need.

While nearly three-quarters of Canadian mothers with children age 5 or younger have some kind of job, less than a quarter of children in that age group have access to regulated care. The NDP puts the current need at 900,000 spaces. And families who are lucky enough to get spots have to shell out $12,000 a year in Ontario, on average. That’s a huge bite out of most paycheques.

Canada lags far behind other comparable countries in terms of public investment in early childhood education, and we are paying a price for it in terms of wasted human potential, foregone tax revenues and higher social spending. Studies suggest that for every $1 invested in making sure children get a good start in life governments ultimately get back $1.50 or more. If so, Mulcair’s investment would pay for itself.

The details of Mulcair’s plan have yet to be worked out. The NDP hasn’t said where, exactly, it will find the $5 billion. And the provinces would be on the hook for about $3.3 billion, 40 per cent of the program’s overall $8.3 billion cost, although Quebec and Ontario already are heavily invested in this area. Finally, the proposed $15 fee is just that, a proposed fee, and could change.

Despite these uncertainties, Mulcair is on the right track. As Canada’s economy improves and the deficit turns into a surplus, people will be looking for more than a few gimmicky tax giveaways from their federal parties. The nation has pressing needs. Child care is one. It’s time we started talking about them all.

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