Genuine choice in childcare is one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s key election promises – and perhaps the most contentious, as his minority government faces off against three socialist parties in the new Parliament. Indeed, the Conservative promise to provide parents a $100 monthly allowance for each child under six years of age became a hot-button issue during the campaign, when two of then-Liberal leader Paul Martin’s top aides scoffed that parents would spend the allowance on “beer and popcorn.”
Since the election, new Liberal opposition leader Bill Graham has promised to give the new Conservative government a rough ride and oppose Harper’s agenda at every turn, while the NDP has served notice it will fight efforts to dismantle federal daycare funding. Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, however, said his party will likely support the government for the foreseeable future, as he supports the Conservatives’ plan to decentralize some federal programs. Regardless, Duceppe says he believes Canadians do not want another election right away.
Currently, the federal government sends a little over $5 billion to the provinces annually to subsidize daycare facilities. While the Conservative plan would see that funding maintained for one year, Harper has served notice that the funding will end in favour of direct subsidies to parents.
Saskatchewan Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott told The Interim he is genuinely excited about the Choice in Childcare plan. He said, “It is one of the things that makes me proud to be a Conservative. We made the promise and we’re going to deliver. At the beginning of July, the first payments are going to go out to families.”
Vellacott said he’s not worried about passing the measure in the House of Commons. He believes Canadians gave the Conservatives a mandate to pursue the measure. “Our program is pretty reasonable. Even (former Liberal deputy prime minister) Sheila Copps has endorsed it. We will get a little bit of ‘push back’ from the other parties, but I think it would be suicidal for them to try and stop this. Really, the only individuals truly lamenting this are in the daycare industry,” he said.
Indeed, to the large majority of people in Vellacott’s riding, which includes a large rural area, the former Liberal daycare plan is useless. He said, “All the farm folks are excluded from the daycare program. It’s too far to drive into the city. But our program will serve all these families.”
While the immediate concern of the Conservative government is putting dollars back in the hands of families, Vellacott says the Choice in Childcare program may also be helpful as the nation tackles the longer-term problem of a falling birthrate. “Our birthrate is abysmal. We have a problem with declining population and we won’t be able to sustain our social programs. We need to do more to encourage families. I think families will appreciate this allowance,” he said.
The Conservatives will almost certainly make the plan part of their budget package, to be introduced in April or May, and avoid the risks involved in attempting to pass the measure as stand-alone legislation. Budgets are confidence bills, meaning that a majority vote against the upcoming budget would defeat the government and precipitate a snap election. Given the Bloc’s tentative indication of support for maintaining the Conservatives in office, it seems likely Choice in Childcare will soon be the new Canadian reality. Cheques could be in the mail as early as July 1.
While $100 monthly may not seem like much, Canadians may have more to look forward to in future budgets. By cancelling the $5 billion annual daycare transfers, the Conservatives may be able to double the allowance to $200 monthly as soon as next year. Of course, the government is currently being coy about its plans for the $5 billion, as those savings may play a key role in their platform for the next election, which may be as soon as next spring.
Brian Rushfeldt, executive director of the Canada Family Action Coalition, told The Interim he’s “very encouraged to see the Conservatives breaking past this socialized daycare. We’re encouraged to see a government that will let parents decide on the type of childcare they want for themselves, rather than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.”
Rushfeldt says the childcare issue became a central element in the election campaign, when the Liberals made their “beer and popcorn” comments. He said those were “one of the key comments in the whole campaign. It showed the true colours of the Liberal ‘wise men.’ It exposed their belief that they know how to raise children better than parents do. It was a turning point that made a lot of people pay attention.”
The resulting Conservative victory and the new Choice in Childcare allowance will ultimately benefit Canada’s children, says Rushfeldt. “Children are the ones who will benefit in the long term, as they avoid these daycare factories and whatever socialist agenda would have been pushed on them.”