Spin Cycle: How viable is the NDP's national child-care plan?

The NDP's Tom Mulcair has been touting his party's $15-a-day national child-care plan at almost every campaign stop. But it could take two NDP terms and a bunch of provincial changes-of-heart to make it happen.

Big hitch is whether big provinces like Ontario, B.C., will sign on

Some provinces, like New Brunswick, are even cutting their daycare programs, in its case to put money in other early childhood initiatives. (Montessori World daycare)

Do you remember "beer and popcorn"?

They were the deadly duo that helped sink Paul Martin in the 2005-06 election campaign.

Scott Reid, the then Liberal prime minister's director of communications, was commenting on the Conservative plan to give families with young children $1,200 a year for child care. The Liberals were promising to spend $5 billion over five years to create 250,000 new licensed daycare spaces.

"Don't give people 25 bucks a week to blow on beer and popcorn," Reid said on a CBC political panel. "Give them child-care spaces that work."

The Conservatives pounced on Reid's remarks, calling them an "insult" to parents. Their argument was that only parents knew what was best for their children, which was why government money should flow directly into parents' pockets.

They had similar objections to the NDP promise at the time to spend billions of dollars to create hundreds of thousands of new spaces in licensed, high-quality, non-profit child care.

Fast forward 10 years and we have a new debate about child care. Although the promises have changed, the underlying philosophical differences remain the same.

The spin

This time, it is the NDP that is leading the way with a bold proposal it claims will create a million new child-care spaces between now and 2024. It would be the biggest expansion of the social safety net in decades.

Costs to parents would be capped at $15 a day, a sharp break from the $45 a day or more that many Canadian parents are currently paying. All parents would be eligible, no matter how much they earn.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair holds a baby as he attends a campaign rally in St. John's, N.L., on Sunday. (Andrew Vaughan / Canadian Press)

The NDP estimates the program will cost $5 billion a year by 2024. Sixty per cent of that will be picked up by the feds, and 40 per cent by the provinces.

Unlike the NDP proposal of 2006, provinces will have some flexibility on how they spend their federal money, including on for-profit daycare

Although the costs are substantial, the NDP argues the program can at least partly pay for itself, citing a study by some Quebec economists that showed that Quebec's $7-a-day program dramatically increased the participation of women in the workforce, which benefited the government through an increase in tax revenue and a decrease in social services. 

And for those parents who still prefer to get their government money directly into their own pockets, the NDP promises to retain the Conservative's Universal Child Care Benefit as well.

The counter-spin

The Conservative position has changed little since 2006.

Candice Bergen, the minister for social development, attacked the NDP plan earlier this year in an article in Policy magazine

"Governments should not tell parents how to raise their children," the minister wrote. "That's why creating new billion-dollar programs that will help only a few parents with child-care needs is not in the best interest of all Canadian taxpayers."

The Liberals no longer talk about spending billions to create hundreds of thousands of new daycare spaces.

Instead, like the Conservatives, they now want to put money directly into parents' hands, although their Canada Child Care Benefit would be tax-free and income-tested, so richer parents would see little or no money from the program.

Apparently the Liberals' fear of money being wasted on beer and popcorn has dissipated over the past decade.

The Liberals have attacked the NDP proposal as a "mirage," although parts of it resemble the agreement negotiated by Paul Martin and all the provinces and territories in 2005 to establish a national daycare program.

That agreement was killed when the NDP and Conservatives toppled the Martin government, and the Conservatives won the 2006 election.

The Liberals now say the NDP will not be able to get the provinces on board, and, indeed, the NDP plan is a very big ask of provincial governments.

The provincial share of the plan could be over $3 billion. Already Ontario and B.C. have expressed reluctance to participate, although that may be partisan jockeying by two provincial Liberal governments.

They may well change their minds when an NDP government in Ottawa waves billions of dollars at them to create child care spaces.

The rinse

Indeed, there are serious questions about whether the NDP proposal will ever come to pass. 

First, there's the eight-year time frame for full implementation. It would require two consecutive NDP majority mandates, and that's far from assured.

As well, all provinces already have child care and/or early education programs in place and may not want to move in a different direction.

The NDP, while allowing for provincial flexibility, has not spelled out what national standards they will expect provinces to meet.

The biggest obstacle to the NDP plan may be premiers, like Ontario's Kathleen Wynne, who have been putting their resources into kindergarten and early-kindergarten students. (Colin Perkel/CP)

It's an important point.

While Quebec has focused on daycare spaces, Ontario has invested heavily in full-day kindergarten.

Ontario has already indicated it might ask an NDP government in Ottawa to consider funding 40 per cent of its kindergarten program, but would that be too much flexibility for a national government to accept?

Also, the same report that the NDP cites to demonstrate the financial benefits of low-cost universal daycare in Quebec also concludes that while the plan might be good for working mothers, it might not be so good for kids.

It finds no evidence that the program has enhanced school readiness or early literacy skills, which was the other stated goal.   

And then there's the question of who will staff a million new high-quality daycare spaces.

There's already a shortage of trained early childhood educators in Canada, perhaps because the job is hard and the pay is poor, about $16.50 an hour.

To attract large numbers of new people into the field, you will have to pay them a lot more, and that could mean an even more expensive program.

The NDP plan has many attractive features, and the popularity of the program in Quebec is impressive.

But there are legitimate questions about whether even $5 billion a year will be enough to pay the bills, and in a federal system where the provinces hold most of the cards, the obstacles to implementation may be high.