By Martin Regg CohnPolitical Columnist
Wed., Sept. 15, 2021timer4 min. read
updateArticle was updated 8 mins ago
For the third time in two decades, Ontarians have the chance — arguably a last chance — to make child care affordable and available.
Or they can let it pass them by yet again, letting $10-a-day daycare die on the vine for lack of votes, lack of interest, lack of priority, lack of urgency. Or all of the above.
In fact, the verdict is in, even before voting day: Daycare doesn’t rate.
Not only is it not a vote-determining issue at the ballot box, it barely merits a mention. Asked to rank their top issues, voters put affordable child care near the bottom of the list in this election — with affordability of everything else uppermost, a testament to the power of the pocketbook at the ballot box.
Which is exactly what happened in the last Ontario election. Then-premier Kathleen Wynne argued that child care is both an economic and social issue, a force for increasing productivity while lowering poverty, creating a virtuous circle by virtue of freeing up a pent-up female workforce.
But voters weren’t buying what Wynne was selling. Outside experts gave the Liberal plan top marks, but NDP Leader Andrea Horwath mocked it as too little too late — just in time for Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives to take power and consign it to the dustbin of daycare history.
In the 2006 federal election, then-PM Paul Martin argued that child care’s time had come, but voters weren’t believing what he was saying either. The NDP’s Jack Layton dismissed the national plan as not credible or consequential — making way for Stephen Harper’s Tories to take power and relegate it to the rabbit hole of tax credits that buy votes but not spaces.
Those missed opportunities in 2006 federally and 2018 provincially broke the hearts of Liberal apparatchiks who thought they’d landed on a winning wedge issue. Not so fast.
This time, the Liberal brain trust seemed supremely confident that a true “she-covery” anchored by daycare would finally win the day with working women voters. Not so much because it’s 2021, but because of COVID-19.
They even got buy-in from business executives who saw the economic costs of female workers weighed down by child-care duties in mid-pandemic. But what seemed like a winning issue at the time is once again a non-issue.
For their $30 billion in promised spending the Liberals have won precious few votes, according to the latest Leger public opinion survey: Child care was singled out by a mere 2.7 per cent of voters, who overall ranked it 12th — well behind the cost of living, high taxes, housing costs, climate change, rising deficits and pharmacare.
Nor are the federal Conservatives paying a price for planning to kill the child-care program yet again. Despite a pre-election agreement between Ottawa and Quebec to hand over more than $6 billion for their existing program, Premier François Legault is telling his province’s voters that the Tories are still a better bet.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was basking in the glow of that endorsement when he visited the Toronto Star’s editorial board Tuesday, describing how he has nurtured his relationship with Legault. When I asked about the comparative silence from Ontario’s premier during the campaign, O’Toole mused that his father knew Ford’s father, that he has “great friendships with other premiers” and will be “partnering with all premiers” as PM.
Could it be, I continued, that Ford is keeping his powder dry in order to keep his options open for a future bilateral deal on child care, given that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have already signed with eight other provinces? Ford might be only too happy to take Ottawa’s money — having killed Wynne’s initiative after the last provincial vote, the shape-shifting premier could cheerfully claim credit for reincarnating child care ahead of next June’s Ontario election.
O’Toole gamely talked up his own alternative of a refundable tax credit that, he argues, gives parents more choice. That said, he glossed over the gap between the $30 billion Liberal plan and his own party’s allocation of a mere $2.6 billion over five years (the average family in Toronto would receive $500 to $1,000 a year back in Tory tax credits, versus a savings of roughly $11,000 under the Liberal plan).
The Conservative leader recognizes the importance of the issue — he confessed that his own family has had challenges finding a spot in the GTA. But paying lip service isn’t the same as paying up, given that his own plan allocates less than a tenth of what the Liberals have proposed.
The question today is whether voters will care enough about child care cash flow to make it the ballot question — and on the early evidence from pollsters, it matters as little in 2021 as it did in 2018 and 2006. On child care, it seems, voters who don’t learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat their votes.
If the Tories triumph, it will be the third and assuredly last time child care is proposed and disposed of in an election. Should the Liberals somehow retain power after Monday, it will be on the strength of other issues that rate higher — and the child-care gambit will have survived a close call not by design but by default, an accident of history and democracy.
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