COVER

OF BUDGETS AND BABIES

Is this the year that Ottawa gives working parents a break?

ROBERT SHEPPARD March 1 1999
COVER

OF BUDGETS AND BABIES

Is this the year that Ottawa gives working parents a break?

ROBERT SHEPPARD March 1 1999

OF BUDGETS AND BABIES

Is this the year that Ottawa gives working parents a break?

Paul Martin barely tipped his hat to the politics of the family in the budget speech last week—just a couple of sentences dealing with the well-being of young children. But that mere nod was enough for Liberal MP John Godfrey. “They were like code words,” the ebullient Godfrey says of the finance minister’s modest pronouncements, “markers for next year, markers for healthy children.” Chairman of the Liberal’s National Children’s Agenda Caucus (Senator Landon Pearson, a long-time children’s rights activist, is vice-chairman), Godfrey is also, at 56, a first-time parent of a four-year-old, so he might be excused a little wishful thinking. Since the recession of the early 1990s, issues such as day care, parental leave and tax help for working or stay-at-home moms have taken a back seat to fighting the debt or fixing health care. But there are now signs that the politics of the family is heating up.

In the era of the thematic budget, Godfrey is among those in official Ottawa who say that if last year was the education budget and last week the health-care budget, then next year—the millennial yearought to be the children’s budget: the chance to set the tax and policy agenda for early nurturing and job-stressed parents. Add to this the fact that last September, the Reform Party launched a three-pronged attack in Parliament—stressing family values, fair taxation for homemakers and respect for parental authority. The result: the makings of a sharp-edged fight. “We support the authority of the Canadian family,” says Calgary Reform MP Eric Lowther, “not this vague notion of children as some sort of free-floating entity.”

Provinces, also, are laying down markers. Two with a social-democratic bent, Quebec and British Columbia, have created superministries for children and the family to highlight their intentions. And conservative Ontario appears to be shifting its weight behind a set of family-centred reforms. Premier Mike Harris recently mused aboutl950s-style respect for parents in what many saw as an election-theme trial balloon. More intriguing, Maclean’s has learned that the Ontario cabinet has just received a commissioned report from Fraser Mustard, former head of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Mustard won’t say exactly what he has told the cabinet. But his views are well known: he says the human brain is mostly fixed for life by age six and the biggest determinant of successful kids is intimate parenting— time spent with the kids. “You can park your children in front of Sesame Street and they will learn,” says Mustard. “But there is not nearly the same impact as if you stay with them and watch.” Mustard and others, like Godfrey, argue that the family debate is changing because the issue is no longer simply financial distress but what many call time poverty—stressed-out families with two working parents—right across the socio-economic scale. While this holds out the opportunity for fresh coalitions, the solutions can be tricky: helping young moms stay at home to nurture will require some delicate shifting for those governments such as Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick that have spent the past decade pushing single welfare moms out to work. Three issues rise to the fore: more flexible parental leave, more sophisticated child care attached to the local school or place of work (likely through incentives), and a more equitable personal taxation system for families with children.

In November, two researchers with the C.D. Howe Institute argued convincingly that the Canadian tax system shifts a weightier burden onto families with one breadwinner and a stay-at-home parent. While true, adds Robert Glossop, executive director of The Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa, making it easier to stay at home will only work for some: the economic imperative of two wage earners “is still there and still there in spades.”

Europe, with its interventionist strategies and pro-family ministries, is sometimes seen as a model. But even in Europe, says analyst Kathy O’Hara with the Canadian Policy Research Networks, there are vast differences in attitude and approach: Germany skews its system to favour stay-at-home parenting; the approach in France and Sweden, which offers one year of subsidized parental leave and 120 days of flexible leave (at 75 per cent of salary) for parents with children under 12, is designed to support women’s choices. According to polls, Canadians, Americans and the British are more ambivalent about working mothers than most Europeans, one reason that the demand for direct government intervention has often been sidetracked.

Quebec, with its $5-a-day fees for day care, and push towards greater parental leave, is by far the most European of provinces, researchers say. And that’s the beauty of an aggressive national strategy, argues Godfrey. About to go public in the next few weeks with the National Children’s Agenda, the Liberal caucus has been studying a variety of schemes, including Liberal thinker Tom Kent’s proposal to give families up to $7,000 a year per child, depending on income. Godfrey would prefer to funnel that money to the provinces through the new Social Union pipeline, using Quebec’s advances as an implicit model. ‘We’ve a long way to go yet,” says Godfrey, who likens the project to a wild, backwoods horse race. “Our little pony didn’t do so well this budget,” he added. “We will be a lot stronger the next time out.”

ROBERT SHEPPARD