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Matt Spoke: Conservatives should end $10-per-day child care

Commentary

It’s been well over a year now since Trudeau’s child-care policy has taken effect in most provinces across the country. Naturally each province, through negotiations with the federal government, has approached its implementation of the program slightly differently.

The program promised three definitive outcomes: quality (a subjective measure, but one worth unpacking), accessibility (i.e. more spaces), and affordability (i.e. less expensive spaces).

Quality

To start with the most nuanced, let’s consider quality. In order to measure the quality of a program, one first needs to understand the policy objective that the program aims to accomplish. 

In reality, there are two quite different schools of thought when it comes to this area of policy. Simply put, you might call the first “child care” and the second “early childhood education.” In most of the country, these terms have become seemingly synonymous. In fact, we refer to licensed staff at child-care centres as “early childhood educators.”

So what’s the difference? Well, as the name implies, child care is for the purpose of having someone care for your child so that you might go to work. You might think of this similarly to hiring a babysitter while you’re out at night. A responsible adult needs to be present to ensure your child (or children) is safe. Put differently, the beneficiary of child care is not the child, but rather the parent.

Whereas early childhood education is for the purpose of educating our children. Decades of research support the idea that a strong foundation in early childhood education is one of the biggest determinants of future success. In this context, the beneficiary of early childhood education is clearly the child.

Although it’s plausible to combine child care with early childhood education, it’s important to clarify which outcome a set of policies intends to solve for. Are we designing a system to provide what amounts to institutionalised babysitting for parents, or are we designing a system that educates our kids and sets them up for long-term success?

Where does the Trudeau government’s plan land on this question? Has it designed a policy of child care or of early childhood education?

One doesn’t have to look much further than a regular media appearance of the prime minister or the finance minister to hear them cite the increase in women’s participation in the workforce as the primary measure of success of their child-care policy. The problem, as discussed above, is that this policy goal can be at odds with one focused on child outcomes. The experience from Quebec for instance certainly signals a tension here.

Accessibility

This measure of success is quite easy to measure. Have the number of available spaces at child-care centres increased or decreased as a percentage of the relevant population of children? A slightly more nuanced analysis would also consider the geographic distribution of those available spaces and whether they are in fact accessible to all socioeconomic groups equally. On the latter point, Rahim Mohamed covered this in a great piece last year for The Hub.

The more superficial measure of accessibility should be quite easy to measure, although any recent and relevant national statistics are lacking. So instead, we can look at recent anecdotal headlines to get a sense of where the sentiment of operators in the industry is on the question of accessibility.

CBC News in Toronto recently covered a 100-year-old child-care centre with 175 spaces announcing its closure, citing the provincial subsidy program as the primary cause. Similarly in Alberta, “rolling closures” of child-care centres are expected across the province. In Saskatchewan (as in other provinces), the province is falling well behind its commitments of opening sufficient new spaces. 

All in all, across the country the consistent story is that waitlists are increasing, staff shortages are getting more severe, and child-care centres are not able to make ends meet within the prescribed formulas of their respective provinces. 

On accessibility, it’s hard to argue for anything but a failing grade.

Affordability

This term is often significantly misunderstood. Whether in the context of groceries, housing, or child care, it’s important to think of affordability as a relative measure. Put differently, a $10 gallon of milk can be extremely unaffordable to a low-income family on a tight budget, but not make a real dent in the budget of an upper middle-class household. 

What’s perplexing about this policy is its emphasis on $10 per day as an arbitrary measure of affordability, rather than considering the means of the family benefiting from the program. 

Are there families paying less for child care today than before the program existed? Yes.

Are families with the greatest need disproportionately benefiting from the program? No, and in fact early data is suggesting the opposite: higher-income families are disproportionately benefiting from the subsidy.

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a daycare in Langley, B.C. on May 29, 2018. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

Anecdotally and statistically, we’re seeing evidence across the country of higher-income families (who historically have been able to afford market-rate child care within their budgets) get to the front of the line for access to the subsidy ahead of lower-income families who might not have put their children in child care historically.

Whether you agree with the designed intent of the policy or not, it’s hard to argue that the metric of affordability has been met. On the one hand, families who don’t need the subsidy (or at least not the full value of it) are benefiting more than they should, and on the other hand, many families who could benefit are still stuck on waitlists or can’t find child care that meets the unique demands of their schedules (e.g. nurses working night shifts, retail workers with unpredictable schedules, etc.).

On system-wide affordability, I give the program a failing grade. 

Conservatives need to scrap this program

I’ll leave the political calculus of this opinion to others, but I’ll highlight that Andrea Mrozek lays out a pretty compelling case that this issue is not as one-sided among Canadians as you might think.

Whether under the leadership of a Poilievre-led federal government or simply when it comes time for a renegotiation with the provinces, conservative leaders at both levels of government need to push back against this misguided policy that is showing early and worrying signs of failure.

Our objective as conservatives should be twofold: firstly, a policy that promotes parental choice and flexibility, and secondly, a policy that prioritizes the well-being and development of children within early childhood. 

Taken together, this would undoubtedly lead to a generous system of tax credits directed to families with young children (adjusted for income), coupled with regulatory reform agenda to open up a competitive industry of early childhood education options that’s ultimately ranked based on the quality of programming.

To conservative provincial ministers responsible for early childhood education, the challenge is yours to solve.

The Weekly Wrap: Trudeau’s legacy is a truly changed Canada

Commentary

The first edition of The Hub’s Weekly Wrap reflects on three of the past week’s biggest stories, including the unfolding ArriveCAN scandal, Steven Guilbeault’s counterproductive comments on roads, and the lasting legacy of Justin Trudeau’s prime ministership.

The troubling implications of a shocking scandal 

This week’s auditor general’s report on the ArriveCan scandal is genuinely shocking. Even if one is prepared to grant the government considerable slack in light of the unique pandemic context, it doesn’t excuse such a fundamental governmental failure. 

The basic details are now well-known. The government outsourced the development of the mobile application to GC Strategies without evidence that the two-person company had much capacity or expertise or even requiring that it first submit a proposal. It then itself outsourced app development to various sub-contractors to actually perform the work. The eventual cost ballooned to as much as $60 million. GC Strategies received $19 million for its role. 

It mustn’t be forgotten that the app which was used for roughly two years didn’t function well either. It was the subject of 177 updates (which amounted to one every five days) including one in June 2022 that caused 10,000 travelers to be wrongly instructed to quarantine. 

The upshot: we paid far too much to companies who were unqualified to develop a mobile application, and they predictably produced a poor-quality one that caused a lot of problems for the government and Canadians. 

Yet, as much as we know from the auditor general’s report, there’s a lot that we still don’t know—namely, how did something like this happen?

I previously worked in Ottawa for more than five years, including in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Department of Finance. My experience was marked by the typical frustrations of working in the government, including multiple layers of signoffs, various stages of approvals, and ongoing Treasury Board scrutiny. We were often told that these laborious processes were an annoying yet necessary insurance cost against such spectacular failures. 

In light of those various bureaucratic checks, it’s hard to understand how something that so self-evidently failed the principle of “value for money” and quite likely crossed into the realm of outright criminality could have gotten through the system. It should have been killed at various stages of review and approval. 

The RCMP’s own investigation may determine why that didn’t happen. But the present facts don’t indicate that sophisticated corruption was a key factor here. The only people who seemingly got rich off the scandal are the two principals at GC Strategies. The real story seems both less salacious and satisfying than one might expect. It mostly appears to be a story of low-grade incompetence. The implications for the government are in some ways worse than if corruption had been the cause. 

Conservatives are often criticized for having a more restrained vision of the state on the grounds that it signals an indifference to our economic and social challenges or the limits of market forces to solve them. As I’ve written elsewhere, however, it’s not sufficient to declare that a certain problem represents a market failure. The nature and scope of a market failure need to be weighed against a realistic view of a potential government response rather than an idealized one. Market failure, in other words, must be assessed against the rather high possibility that a government intervention will produce its own failures that could be bigger and more damaging than the problem that it’s trying to solve. The ArriveCan app is a case in point. 

The main lesson of the week therefore ought to be a hit of reality for those inclined to an idealized view of government action. Unless, of course, you work for GC Strategies.  

Guilbeault’s counterproductive radicalism 

Steven Guilbeault’s comments this week that the federal government will no longer fund provincial and local road projects has precipitated pretty widespread condemnation and a feeble attempt on his part to clarify his statement. 

It must be said that there is a world in which his comments are actually defensible. The federal government’s involvement in funding local infrastructure isn’t the historic norm. For most of Canadian history, it was understood that provinces and municipalities were responsible for financing their own infrastructure. The federal role was mostly limited to interprovincial or trade infrastructure like railways, highways, border crossings, and ports. 

Starting in the early 2000s, successive federal governments have entangled themselves further and further in the direct financing of provincial and local infrastructure. We’re now collectivizing national tax dollars to fund residential roads in local communities. There’s a strong argument that this policy trend represents a misreading of the Canadian Constitution. 

If therefore Guilbeault’s point was that Ottawa is getting out of the business of local road construction in favour of dedicating federal resources to national projects, it would have been a principled correction to the growing nationalization of public infrastructure financing in Canada. 

But of course that wasn’t his motive. Guilbeault seems to live in another virtual realm in which motor vehicles—including hybrid or electric ones—aren’t going to be a key part of Canada’s transportation future. 

Outside of the country’s major cities, the idea that public transportation can become a significant or even the dominant mode of transportation is an ideological fantasy. It’s similarly fantastical to think that we can somehow fully substitute the 77 percent of the volume of goods that are shipped across the country by truck. These faulty assumptions reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the interaction between basic economics and Canada’s unique geography. They’re such radical ideas, in fact, that they bring into question Guilbeault’s entire understanding of climate policy in the Canadian context. 

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault makes as a funding announcement at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press.

They also involve a high degree of cognitive dissonance. His government has mandated the transition to electric vehicles by 2035. It has also already spent billions of dollars to subsidize production in Canada. Is the plan to regulate and subsidize the creation of an electric vehicle industry into existence and then refuse to fund the roads on which Canadians will drive them? 

It’s the sort of unserious thinking that actually does harm to the practicalities of a durable and successful climate change agenda. It also exposes the inherent problems of appointing a hard-core ideologue to lead the file in the first place. 

Progress on climate change, as we discussed with David Frum this week, will come from pragmatism, not dogmatism. Guilbeault’s controversial tenure as federal environment minister is dispositive proof. His radicalism may resonate with his fellow activists but, as we’ve seen in recent days, it’s ultimately counterproductive for his own cause.  

Trudeau’s legacy is a truly changed Canada

This week’s poll that only 3 percent of Canadians believe that Justin Trudeau’s ongoing leadership of the Liberal Party is in the party’s interest is a virtually unprecedented public indictment of a sitting party leader. At this point, only some combination of delusion and ego would cause the prime minister and party members to not seriously consider replacing him before the next federal election. 

As devasting as the poll is however it’s wrong to interpret it as a sign of failure of Trudeau’s prime ministership. Yes, of course, he’ll leave office with levels of unpopularity that are matched by only the least popular prime ministers in Canada’s history. But public standing is only one means to evaluate a political leader’s record. Another is the extent to which Trudeau has made durable changes to Canada’s overall public policy direction and its political culture more broadly. On this front, he must be understood as a highly influential prime minister. 

Take Canada’s fiscal policy direction. Trudeau’s large-scale spending on child care, climate change, health care, housing, and other files has reshaped the federal government’s fiscal trajectory by effectively locking his successors into dedicating scarce resources to his progressive priorities and in turn narrowing the options for tax cuts or other conservative policy preferences. Unless he’s prepared to assume great political risk, a Pierre Poilievre-led government will preside over a fiscal framework established by Justin Trudeau. The net result: Ottawa will be permanently bigger than it was before the latter became prime minister. 

The same goes for the broader political culture. Although causality and correlation are hard to judge, it’s clear that Trudeau has presided over the flowering of identity politics in our major institutions including big business, universities, the news media, and the government itself. Gender pronouns, race-based hiring and promotion, and culture wars over questions of human sexuality weren’t really part of the pre-2015 mainstream debate. They are today. 

Even if Trudeau didn’t originate these trends, he certainly helped to precipitate them. One might even (somewhat facetiously) argue that one of the biggest exports during his time in office is Jordan Peterson who first rose to prominence based on his opposition to Bill C-17 (tabled in May 2016 and passed in June 2017) which added gender identity and expression as protected grounds under the Canadian Human Rights Act

It’s hard to imagine that Trudeau’s eventual departure will cause these types of divisive issues to recede. They’re now not only ensconced in the public consciousness but there are various individuals and institutions whose interests are firmly rooted in the perpetuation of these ideas and norms. The future will be marked by greater contestation concerning culture, identity, and sexuality. This is a big part of Prime Minister Trudeau’s personal legacy too.

The key point here is that Trudeau has overseen a transformation of Canadian public policy, governance, and culture. The country has changed under his prime ministership and an electoral defeat (even if a significant one) won’t change that.