The problem with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s recent election promise to create more child care spaces, and cut parent fees, is the federal government doesn’t run child care — the provinces do.
Like health care and education, provincial governments fund, operate and make the rules around publicly funded child care, including what level of fees parents pay. The feds have nothing to do with it, other than to try to horn in from time to time, offering provinces cash in exchange for some loose and barely enforceable conditions.
Federal politicians do it because they seek relevance. Health care, child care and public schools are some of the most important services governments provide. Federal politicians desperately want to be part of them, not just by sending transfer payments, but by trying to get directly involved in policy decisions.
The attempts to encroach on provincial jurisdiction are more show than substantive public policy. They’re mostly about photo ops and image building.
That was on full display Monday, when Trudeau used children as props during his announcement — as politicians from all political stripes do — when pledging to make child care more accessible and more affordable for parents.
Trudeau promised to boost child care funding to the provinces by $535 million a year through its existing Early Learning and Child Care Framework. He claims it would allow provinces (if they agree to the terms of the funding) to create up to 250,000 more spaces for before and after-school child care (under the age of 10). He also claims the feds would lower parent fees by 10 per cent across the country.
The federal government has no ability to lower fees, by any amount. Provincial governments would have to agree to lower fees in exchange for their portion of the $535 million. Provinces would also have to agree to open new spots for before and after-school students.
There are all kinds of problems with making generic policy on the fly, especially when it’s one level of government making promises in the jurisdiction of another.
For starters, the child care spots Trudeau is proposing to fund may not be the ones of greatest need in some provinces, or any province. Provinces may have pressures in other areas of child care, such as a shortage of spaces for infants or a lack of resources to pay child care workers decent wages.
Each province has its own needs. And since the provinces run the programs, they know how best to spend the child care dollars they have.
Which is also why telling provinces they have to cut fees across the board is folly. Each province has its own child care programs with its own fee schedules. It may not be in the best interest of a province to cut fees across the board (which would reduce revenue for cash-starved care centres).
Some provinces may want to provide lower-income families with greater subsidies. Some may want raise fees for those who can afford it to ensure higher-income families pay a more equitable share. (Parent fees in Manitoba have been frozen at $20.80 per day for pre-school children since 2013, and have only gone up $2 since 2002.)
Probably the biggest flaw in attempts by federal politicians to encroach on provincial jurisdiction with short-term offers of money is: what happens when Ottawa’s cash runs out?
If the federal government gives a province money to open more child care spaces and a province does so — including paying for the bricks and mortar — who’s left holding the bag when Ottawa decides one day it’s no longer going to pay the operating costs? The provinces.
The best policy would be for the feds to transfer more tax points to the provinces (where Ottawa vacates a portion of taxation and allows provinces to raise theirs by a commensurate amount) to help them pay for health care, child care and public schools. That would allow provinces to make the best decisions for their specific jurisdictions, while still being accountable to taxpayers.
Federal politicians don’t like that approach because they wouldn’t get the photo ops. So they opt for bad, one-size-fits-all policies, such as Monday’s announcement, instead.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.