The federal Liberal government generated a political firestorm at the end of July by resurrecting a 1993 campaign promise of universal daycare, along with other childcare proposals that require the state to expand its role in childrearing.

The health department report went beyond simple recommendations, antagonizing parents by suggesting that they aren’t competent. “It is increasingly unrealistic to expect that parents can undertake the task of ensuring early child development outcomes without systematic and structured support … the tasks are just too complicated and the competing demands on parents too engaging,” wrote Health Minister Allan Rock’s bureaucrats.

Walter Robinson, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, who normally limits his comments to economics issues, honed in on this criticism in his response to the report. “Don’t you find it just a touch offensive that some bureaucrat in Ottawa has deemed that raising your children is just too hard for you?” he asked.

Across the political spectrum, politicians acknowledge that there is greater stress on families today, much of it because so many families have both parents working. The feds presuppose that this situation is the result of voluntary and eager decisions by parents who, therefore, need help raising their children.

Those on the political right argue that most families – at least those with pre-school children – would prefer to have one parent at home, and would do so if such a decision was affordable, hence the push for tax relief.

A 1998 poll for the Alberta-based National Foundation for Family Research and Education (NFFRE) showed that 82 per cent of Canadian families with pre-school children wanted one parent to be able to remain at home. This was consistent with the results of a number of earlier studies.

The overall response from pro-family groups on this latest health department report has been muted, suggesting that they are not sure whether to take the government seriously. Gwen Landolt, vice-president of REAL Women of Canada, though, told The Interim that she thinks pro-family Canadians should make themselves heard. REAL Women has, therefore, put out an alert urging Canadians to contact their politicians.

Mrs. Landolt is doubtful that the Liberals will pursue universal daycare and the health department’s other controversial recommendation to expand kindergarten because she doesn’t think Finance Minister Paul Martin wants to spend his entire surplus all in one place. Secondly, she says, they have to think about winning the support of the provinces, since most social policy – especially health and education matters – falls within provincial jurisdiction.

“There are less controversial ways for the Liberals to proceed: pre-screening children at risk, nutrition programs, cutting income taxes, tax credits for mothers at home. All those things I think would be much more palatable and saleable,” she said.

Mrs. Landolt likes the ministry’s idea of screening for children at risk and to provide nutrition programs for mothers.

That said, she still doesn’t trust the Liberals and expressed concern about Jane Stewart being given the human resources development portfolio in Jean Chrétien’s recent cabinet shuffle. Jane Stewart is not a friend of the family, Mrs. Landolt said. With Ms. Stewart in HRD and Allan Rock in health, it’s “bad, bad news” for the family, she added.

A program which increases state intervention rather than liberating parents also runs the risk of dividing the Liberal caucus. In the last Parliament, the Liberal backbench and the Reform Party passed a motion (M-33), introduced by Liberal backbencher Paul Szabo, which recommended a tax credit for families who care for their own needy members at home. Though the motion passed, the Liberal cabinet voted against it.

Mr. Szabo drew significantly from research by NFFRE. In March of this year, NFFRE took issue with comments attributed to a social development “expert who apparently told a parliamentary subcommittee on children and youth at risk that we don’t know a lot about what works for kids.”

After summarizing the conclusions of a wide body of research, executive director Dr. Mark Genuis concluded, “The available evidence suggests that even moderately good parenting in a stable home … is likely to produce healthy, well-adjusted children. Government efforts to play the role of parent or to supplement parental care are, on the other hand, rarely effective.”