National childcare – why not?

2 minute read

Federal Liberals have been signalling for weeks that there will be a childcare investment in today’s budget. As a result, they have been roundly criticized for making similar promises dozens of times in the past and never following through. This time, however, things feel different.

To understand why and how things have changed, it is important to consider the barriers to implementation. The most prominent barriers to national childcare are cost and Canadian federalism. Both have ended up trumping political will since the Liberals first floated the idea in the early 1990s.

The federal government has more incentive now than at any point in the past to deliver a national childcare program. Given the strength of the Bloc Québecois and the opportunity for gains at the expense of the NDP, it makes political sense. Canadians also appear to be relatively comfortable with historic deficits and record debt, so what’s a few more billion dollars.

Flanking the NDP on progressive measures has been part of the Liberal Party’s electoral calculus since their defeat in 2011. Steadily, measures like legalizing cannabis, pushing forward on medical assistance in dying, and even committing to modest deficits in 2015 have made it harder for the NDP to make inroads with Canadians. The NDP’s loss in Quebec was the Bloc Québecois’ gain in 2019, but it also came at the expense of the Liberals.

The Liberals see Quebec as a critical part of their path back to a majority government and believe that childcare is a way to do it. They will, however, have to tread carefully. Québec has a well-regarded and affordable childcare system. Dismantling or adjusting would be unpopular. This is why Quebec voters will likely see a national program that brings their bills down by creating more spaces, adding resources, and reducing operational costs. While it won’t go back to the $5 a day it started at, the savings for Quebec parents will be designed to be politically profitable for the Trudeau Liberals.

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