CANADA

Taking care of the kids

April 13 1987
CANADA

Taking care of the kids

April 13 1987

Taking care of the kids

CANADA

The tone was decidedly fatherly. Last Oct. 26, Liberal Leader John Turner appeared on the CBC television show The Nation's Business, telling voters that he knows what it is like to raise four children. Explained Turner: “I know that morning can come awfully early when you have a three-year-old who thinks 6 a.m. is the perfect time to start a very active day.” That message was designed to show that Turner not only knows how to change diapers but is cognizant of the need for more affordable and accessible day care. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent are also being fatherly as they gear up for a major electoral fight over the day care issue. Said Lynne Westlake, co-ordinator of the Canadian Day Care Advocacy Association: “It’s a politically popular issue.”

In fact, all three federal parties have vowed to make day care an integral part of their next election campaigns.

And, unlike many national issues where party lines are virtually identical, each of the parties is forging a distinct day care policy that will give voters a clear choice. That split was evident last week as an all-party Commons committee on child care, fractured by partisan squabbling, was forced to issue three separate reports because of the philosophical gulfs separating Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats. Said Angus Reid, president of the Winnipeg polling firm Angus Reid Associates Inc.: “This may be one of those kinds of issues that give voters a chance to differentiate between the three parties.”

Day care itself will not be an important issue in the next election, some political analysts contend. What will count is the perception that voters have of the parties as they talk about social issues such as day care. Said Ian McKinnon, vicepresident of the Toronto-based poll-

ing firm Decima Research Ltd.: “People will draw conclusions about the nature and priorities of each party.” Reid said that equal pay and job opportunities for men and women were still much more important politically than day care. But the issues are all inextricably linked. Added Reid: “If you cast child care in a

broader sort of perspective, on the role of government in providing women with the opportunity to take part in the workforce, then it becomes a big issue.”

The Tory report,, released last week by committee chairman Shirley Martin, MP for the Ontario riding of Lincoln, proposed that the federal government initially spend about $700 million annually on child care. The bulk of those funds, $414 million, would be earmarked for tax credits designed to put cash into the hands of the poorest parents needing child care. A modest tax credit—$200 for

the first child, $100 for the second and $50 for each additional one—was also proposed for families where one parent remains at home to care for the children. Said Martin: “For too long government has failed to recognize the sacrifices made by families that choose to have one parent remain at home.” Most of the remain-

ing funds would be spent on grants to day care centres.

The government made no official response to the report. However, the general philosophy of the document appears to fall in line with recent statements by Health Minister Jake Epp. Epp has been negotiating with his provincial counterparts to find a mutually agreeable national policy. A draft report is expected to be completed by the end of April, but it will not be made public until June.

Day care is currently considered to

be a provincial responsibility, although Ottawa last year spent $105 million subsidizing the day care expenses of low-income families. The federal government’s total spending on children’s programs, ranging from family allowances to tax breaks, was about $5 billion last year.

The Conservative MPs’ report was roundly condemned by opposition MPs, day care lobbyists and other non-governmental organizations. Their chief complaint: that the Tories had emphasized aiding consumers instead of increasing the supply of day care spaces. Said Liberal MP Lucie Pépin, who issued her own report: “I don’t think there’s any point in putting money in the hands of parents when there are no spaces to buy.”

There were just under 200,000 day care spaces last year, but opposition spokesmen contend that as many as 1.9 million spaces may be necessary to accommodate all children who need supervision because of working parents.

Barbara Kaiser, 37, operator of a Westmount, Que., day care centre called Garderie Narnia, was a particularly strong opponent of the Tory report. Said Kaiser: “The child tax credit is a joke. It’s just a token gesture. If they gave the money direct-

ly to the centres instead of letting the parents decide what to do with it, we could hire more teachers or at least raise salaries to a more decent level.” But Kaiser said that the committee’s work will not be wasted. “If nothing else,” she said, “it has drawn public attention to the problem.”

The NDP’S report, issued by Vancouver East MP Margaret Mitchell, stressed the need for Ottawa to give direct grants to provinces to build more day care facilities. The long-term NDP goal is for day care to become a universal right, like education or medicare. The Liberals, taking a stand between the Tories and the NDP, are calling for programs to subsidize both the construction and use of day care centres.

Day care only emerged as a nation-

al political concern after the 1984 election campaign. Before that it was often considered to be a women’s issue. But it now ranks with unemployment, tax reform and free trade as a hot political topic, of interest to a wide spectrum of voters. And increasingly, said advocate Westlake, politicians are gaining awareness of the “critical need” for more day care spaces. Statistics Canada 1986 figures show that 56 per cent of all mothers with children aged three years or less now work—and that figure is increasing by two percentage points annually.

The motive in raising the profile of the day care debate is not entirely altruistic. After two years of budget squeezing, Conservatives are anxious to give the government what Senator Norman Atkins, the party’s chief election planner, called “a social conscience.” Indeed, since last summer, Tory energy has been spent as much on social as on economic issues. Pollster Reid noted that universal medicare and old-age pensions are firmly in place, leaving day care as “one of the last frontiers for governments to actually seem to be doing things for people.”

Day care has also become important to the Liberals—and to Turner. He has privately told associates that he regards day care as a winning issue for him, and that he will exploit it for as many votes as he can get. While Turner often calls for more accessible and affordable day care, he has put forward only vague proposals for change and has not yet put a price tag on those changes. Some of Turner’s critics have accused him of fence-sitting. Said Westlake, after reading the Liberals’ child care report last week: “It’s a little hard to sort out what they’re getting at.”

The NDP’S Broadbent is clearly the most comfortable with the issue. His party has been promoting it for many years. Day care fits in nicely with the NDP’S plans for a campaign during the next election to woo what the party calls “average Canadians.”

But average Canadians seem to be divided as to what kind of a day care policy they really want. In a Gallup poll conducted last August, 48 per cent of respondents said that child care costs should be borne by parents themselves if both are working; 41 per cent said costs should be split be-

tween parents and governments. Only eight per cent said the government should carry all the costs.

The public, however, will be forced to reach a consensus during the next election when the three federal parties detail their approaches. In the meantime, Canadians can expect to see more of Brian Mulroney, John Turner and Ed Broadbent reminiscing about fatherhood. Westlake, who spends much of her time lobbying politicians on day care, says that the prospect pleases her. Added Westlake: “Generally, there is a real willingness to move.” □