Tories Propose Controversial Daycare Plan

THE FEDERAL government's stance on the modern family is shaping up to be a hot issue in the next election, but not for the reason you might think.

Tories Propose Controversial Daycare Plan

THE FEDERAL government's stance on the modern family is shaping up to be a hot issue in the next election, but not for the reason you might think. While same-sex marriage has dominated public debate lately, a clash between Liberals and Conservatives over child care could emerge as a bigger issue by the time of the next campaign, likely in early 2006. After all, like it or not, the courts largely took charge of the marriage question with rulings that, so far, make gay and lesbian marriage legal in seven provinces. But politicians, not judges, still decide how Ottawa should help out parents raising children. The Liberals made childhood strategy a major thrust in last year's election, and are pressing ahead with their promised $5-billion, five-year program to boost regulated DAYCARE. Now, Maclean's has learned that the Tories are preparing to counterpunch with an even costlier proposal that they say would offer parents far greater choice.

The issue pits a high-profile Liberal cabinet member against his rising-star Conservative critic. Social Development Minister Ken Dryden, legendary as a former NHL goalie, is the architect of Paul MARTIN's early childhood policy, and a favourite of the Prime Minister and his inner circle. Edmonton MP Rona Ambrose has taken the lead in designing a Conservative alternative, and she is touted by Stephen HARPER's advisers as one of the next generation of Tory bright lights. Friction between Dryden, 57, and Ambrose, 36, made headlines earlier this year when she suggested in the House that he represented a fading generation of "old white guys" trying to impose an outdated vision for daycare on young mothers. In an interview with Maclean's, Ambrose said she's on more civil terms with Dryden these days - but the new policy she's working on puts the two, and their parties, on a collision course.

Perhaps surprisingly, Ambrose said the Conservative plan would cost "a lot more money, frankly" than the Liberal program. The Conservatives will propose direct payments to all parents, combined with new tax incentives for companies to expand daycare in the workplace. Ambrose wouldn't say how much parents would get under the new social program, promising the details will be made public when Harper formally announces the scheme sometime in the next few weeks. But she defended the core strategy of giving parents money to spend however they like. By funnelling money to the provinces only for regulated daycare, she argued, the Liberals are doing nothing for stay-at-home parents, or for working moms and dads who leave young children with relatives or in unregulated care. "The only equitable way, the only universal way, to address this issue is to give the benefit directly to parents in the form of cash," Ambrose said.

Dryden is a staunch champion of subsidizing regulated centres as the backbone of a nationwide daycare and early learning system. In a major speech late last year, he said only regulated care can reliably deliver high standards for health and safety, staff training, ratios of caregivers to kids, and other elements that are key to early childhood development. But he didn't quite claim that parents are clamouring for national daycare, which he says would rival public education or medicare in its impact on society. Instead, Dryden suggests that creating such a system would generate demand from parents - forcing governments to keep expanding it. "More spaces, higher quality, higher expectations and ambitions, a bigger and growing public appetite, building the pressure on each level of government, to reinforce the commitment implicit in building a system," he said. "We need to paint ourselves into a corner because it's a corner we want to be in and need to be in."

But Dryden has found it difficult to coax some provincial politicians there with him. He tried to negotiate a national agreement with all the provinces earlier this year, but failed. Since then, he has struck bilateral deals with five provinces, and is trying to hammer out similar pacts with the remaining five. But some are demanding more flexibility than Ottawa is inclined to allow. New Brunswick, for instance, wants to use some federal funding to support stay-at-home parents and autism programs - not just the regulated centres favoured by the feds. And Alberta Children's Services Minister Heather Forsyth said she has a verbal agreement with Dryden that would allow her province to spend its share of the federal funding on a wide range of options for parents, even including support for relatives who sometimes care for children in rural communities where daycare isn't readily available. "Right from the beginning," Forsyth said, "we advocated choice for parents."

The Tory plan would end federal-provincial wrangling by giving parents the money and letting them decide where it would go. Current trends suggest many would not spend it buying regulated daycare: a Statistics Canada report in February found that 47 per cent of kids from six months to five years old have a stay-at-home parent. And among the rest, institutional daycare is not the largest or fastest-growing alternative; care by relatives is. Of children being taken care of by somebody other than a mom or dad, 31.5 per cent were with a relative, up 41 per cent over six years. That compares to 25 per cent who are in daycare centres, up 26 per cent in the same period.

Ambrose said choosing relatives to provide care is particularly important to many immigrants. "We find this a lot with people from ethnic minorities," she said. "They want their kids to stay home for the first few years with grandma and grandpa who speak, let's say, Punjabi. It's often the children's only opportunity to learn a language and culture." She added, though, that the Conservative plan would also try to stimulate creation of daycare centres and spaces - but through business tax breaks, instead of transfers to provinces. "Our basic thrust is to offer capital cost writeoffs and tax incentives so large workplaces and employers will create daycare facilities on-site," Ambrose said. "It's an opportunity to work with employers to build infrastructure."

It's shaping up to be a classic ideological battle. The Liberals are struggling to build a system based on government subsidies and regulation. The Conservatives are working on a competing concept that would rely on individual choice and business incentives. Same-sex marriage may be generating more noise for now, but child care could turn into the family-values policy test that matters most in the next election.

Maclean's July 1, 2005