Welcome to the first Campaign Catch-up from First Policy Response. Each week leading up to the federal election on Sept. 20, we’ll highlight news and debates about recovery-related policy issues that surface on the campaign trail. We’ll recap the policy proposals put forward by the main national parties and hear from researchers and practitioners about what it will take for those ideas to work on the ground.

One big issue: Child care

The background

Experts and advocates have been calling for a national child-care strategy for more than 50 years. While child care is primarily a provincial responsibility, there is scope for the federal government to play a role — for instance, by providing earmarked funding to provinces. In 2017, the most recent Liberal government introduced a Multilateral Early Learning and Child Care Framework that would contribute $7.5 billion to child care over 11 years and build 40,000 new regulated spaces, among other commitments. But the issue took on added urgency three years later during the COVID-19 crisis, when child-care centres were forced to close and women’s employment subsequently suffered.

 

Where the parties stand

Liberal Party: In the April budget, the Liberal government pledged up to $27.2 billion over five years to help the provinces create more high-quality child-care spaces with lower fees for parents and guardians. The goal is to reduce average fees by half by the end of 2022, and to an average of $10 a day by 2026. So far, seven provinces and one territory have signed on to the agreement: Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and Yukon.

Conservative Party: In their platform released in the first week of the campaign, the Conservatives announced they would replace the Liberal child-care plan with a refundable tax credit that would cover up to 75 per cent of child-care costs paid, modelled on Ontario’s current provincial program. The biggest refunds would go to the lowest-income households, in a departure from the current Child Care Expense Deduction, which pays out a set amount per child.

NDP: The NDP is also promising $10-a-day child care, more spaces and a “fair, living wage” for child-care workers. The platform also includes a relief fund for non-profit child-care centres so they can reopen spaces that they were forced to close because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Green Party: While platform details have yet to be announced, the party supports federally funded universal child care and early childhood education (ECE) programs.

 

The reaction

One week in, the child-care debate pits the Conservatives vs. everyone else. Those who oppose it say it doesn’t do enough to address the structural issues that currently plague the early learning and child-care sector, such as long waiting lists, unaffordable fees and underpaid staff. According to Monica Lysack, an early childhood education professor at Sheridan College:

“The Conservatives’ tax credit plan amounts to offering a coupon for a product that’s fully sold out. At least they’re acknowledging that there is a child-care crisis that is hurting women, working families and our economy, but tax credits do nothing to create desperately needed spaces or attract and retain qualified child-care workers. The Liberal agreements provide the resources and flexibility for communities to develop high-quality, affordable spaces that meet their unique needs, whether culturally inclusive, rural and remote, or extended-hours care.”

However, people who like the idea of the Conservatives’ child-care benefit say it offers more flexibility than the Liberal strategy — for example, for parents who work shifts or irregular hours. In an analysis for FPR, Brian Dijkema of Cardus praises the Conservative plan as being more inclusive of parents who either can’t or prefer not to use child-care centres:

“A glance at the available details of the CPC plan suggest that it is expansive, equitable, comprehensive, remarkably progressive, and takes significant steps to modernize child-care and family policy in Canada. … Perhaps most importantly, the CPC plan would apply to 100 per cent of parents who pay for child care of any sort, rather than a $10-a-day plan, which is focused almost exclusively on the minority (32 per cent) who use centre-based care.”

For her part, Lysack dismisses the suggestion that the Liberal child-care agreements are one-size-fits-all as “nonsense,” saying: “Saskatchewan’s operating grant that provides additional operating funds for extended-hours care is an example of a successful policy solution that can happen when resources are available.”

And British Columbia’s $10-a-day child-care pilot program, operating since 2018, currently applies to spaces in home-based daycares and other non-centre settings. The province’s newly signed partnership with the federal government will prioritize “non-profit/public organizations, Indigenous-led, and home-based child care in locations where $10-a-Day Prototype Sites are not available.”

Dijkema also notes that in Quebec, which has provided sub-$10-a-day child care through provincial subsidies since the late 1990s, more spaces were created after a child-care tax credit was introduced. However, writing for Policy Options, Université TÉLUQ researcher Sophie Mathieu says those spaces have primarily been in for-profit child-care centres, which research shows are of lower quality than the non-profit, subsidized early childhood education centres known as CPEs (Centres de la Petite Enfance) that have more staff per student. And in an analysis of the Conservatives’ platform, the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives (CCPA) points out that for-profit child care in Quebec is still more expensive than subsidized centres, even after the tax credit: “Flooding more money into the private care market only drives up costs for parents and it does nothing to build affordable high-quality services in communities that need it most.”

University of Calgary economist Lindsay Tedds, in a Twitter thread, welcomed attempts to reform CCED, which she called “a very antiquated treatment of child-care expenses.” But she goes on to say,

“The idea that [tax credits] should be the only policy intervention in the child-care market is bad. We’ve been doing demand interventions forever. They don’t help supply, they don’t help quality, they don’t help accessibility, they don’t help ECE workers.”

By the same token, CCPA economist David Macdonald wrote earlier this year that lowering child-care fees should only be one component of the plan, as it risks creating increased demand before adding the necessary resources, which could end up exacerbating waiting lists. “A reduction in fees alone, without the other pieces, has the possibility of making a real mess of things.”

This reflects what we’ve been hearing from people working in the child-care sector. In both our Video Town Hall and a series of interviews, ECEs and child-care operators told us they want a national child-care system to include purpose-built spaces, better pay for ECEs to improve recruitment and retention, higher standards for staff qualifications, and support for non-profit child-care in lower-income neighbourhoods. In the words of Diane Daley, who leads Family Day Care, an organization that runs child-care centres throughout the GTA:

“We need a sustainable systems approach to build a strong, accessible, high-quality child-care system. A systems approach is critical to ensuring accountability and improving access to address the vast disparities across communities. A plan for child care must be expansive and cannot focus on just one component.”

Up next: Affordable housing

Housing prices have surged out of reach across Canada since the pandemic started, as remote work has driven people out of the major cities and into suburban and rural areas where prices have traditionally been lower. In some cities, the lack of affordable housing has been thrust into the spotlight by housing encampments in public parks, which in places like Toronto and Halifax have been forcibly removed by the police.

This week, the NDP said it would build 500,000 homes and offer $5,000 in annual rent subsidies to tenants. The Conservatives presented plans to create one million homes, in part by repurposing some federal buildings and offering incentives to developers to create more rental units. The party would also ban foreign investors from buying property for at least two years, and expand eligibility for mortgage insurance so that would-be buyers in high-priced real estate markets don’t need to save 20 per cent for a down payment.

We’ve been talking to experts about these proposals and we’ll share their thoughts in our next roundup.

 

More from the campaign trail

Arts and culture

The Liberals made a few promises for the hard-hit arts and culture centre, including an Arts and Culture Recovery Program that will match ticket sales for performing arts, live theatre and other venues to compensate for the reduced capacity needed to maintain distancing, as well as a transitional support program to for workers from the creative industry who continue to be affected by the pandemic. Louis-Etienne Dubois, associate professor of Creative Industries at Ryerson University, said:

“The matching ticket sales proposal is certainly interesting in the sense that it provides an incentive for venues to re-open, but it may leave many of them with a gap if they are forced to — or chose to — operate below 50 per cent capacity.

The proposed measures are interesting as a whole, but do not answer calls for some form of basic income guarantee coming from the arts and culture sector. Many artists and creators remain concerned about future perspectives once these support measures come to an end.

In addition to these ‘arts for arts’ sake’ measures, I would expect to see a greater understanding of the sector’s contribution to Canada’s overall well-being, especially with regards to mental health. Channelling some of the health sector’s budget towards arts and culture initiatives that support people’s recovery would send a strong signal.”

Dubois and Shawn Newman of the Toronto Arts Council and Foundation shared an alternative proposal for how to help the arts and culture sector earlier this year. Read their piece for FPR here.

 

Employee Ownership Trusts

“I know it’s not going to make massive headlines, but the Conservative platform including a pretty specific mention of Employee Ownership Trusts was certainly interesting to me!” Jon Shell of Social Capital Partners told us in an email:

“The Conservatives came out strongly in favour of Employee Ownership Trusts (EOTs), committing to establishing them in their platform. EOTs are a mechanism for owners of private companies to sell to their employees and have been very successful in the U.S. and U.K. at broadening ownership to people who would never have access. The Conservatives join the Liberals in supporting EOTs, as Budget 2021 called for Finance Canada to investigate how to remove barriers to implementation in Canada. The Conservatives go a step further, though, by addressing two of the main ways to drive adoption of EOTs. They call for tax incentives to encourage owners to choose selling to their employees instead of competitors or private equity firms, and for the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to support these sales with loans. Both could be very effective, so we see their approach as a good starting point for developing a robust policy.”

Long-term care

The Liberals said they would spend $9 billion to help the long-term care sector that was ravaged by the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. That would triple the amount promised in the April budget. The proposal would train 50,000 more workers and raise their wages to $25/hour, and implement new national standards. As with child care, long-term care is a provincial responsibility, so the federal governments would have to reach agreements with the provinces to make the changes.

Like the Liberals, the NDP has pledged better pay and working conditions for long-term care workers and a set of national standards. The party also said it would end private, for-profit long-term care.

The Conservatives platform earmarks $3 billion for infrastructure funding for long-term care over the next three years. They also pledged to add more care workers, in part by accepting more immigrants working in long-term care or home care, but didn’t specify a number. Rather than introducing national standards, the Conservatives would work with the province to develop best practices.

 

Do you work on the front lines of policy issues — such as child care, long-term care, small business, mental health, poverty reduction, creative work, settlement services or anything else? We would love to hear from you. Send us your thoughts about how the campaign promises would affect you and the people you serve at policyresponse@ryerson.ca.

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Stephanie MacLellan is the managing editor of First Policy Response.