A full year ahead of the next scheduled federal election, the NDP leader unveiled a cornerstone of his party's platform: creation of a national, affordable, child-care program, to be phased in over eight years.
The announcement had all the trappings of a campaign event, with Mulcair delivering the news in the playground of a community daycare as children cavorted behind him, in full view of television cameras.
"For us it's a priority to create these affordable child-care spaces across the country," Mulcair said.
The proposal is the second platform plank New Democrats have unveiled this fall as they attempt to re-establish that they — not the resurgent Liberals — are the real government-in-waiting.
But the strategy does have a down side, presenting rival parties with a target. And they wasted no time Tuesday shooting at it.
Jason MacDonald, spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper questioned how Mulcair proposes to pay for his plan: "Carbon tax?"
He added that the Conservative government believes parents should be able to choose what type of child care works best for their families, which is why it introduced a $100-per-month universal child-care benefit for parents with children under six.
The government is widely expected to boost that benefit before the next election, perhaps expanding it to include children under the age of 12.
Liberal social development critic Roger Cuzner accused the NDP of low-balling the cost of its program. He noted that in its 2006 platform, the NDP pegged the average cost of creating a daycare space at $9,000, whereas it works out to $8,400 under Mulcair's new proposal.
"I don't think anybody believes that the costs of doing anything over the last 10 years have gone down," Cuzner said.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation weighed in too, slamming both the NDP's proposal and the Tories' child-care benefit. It would prefer that the government boost the child-care tax deduction and expand it to include stay-at-home parents.
That would "make raising children more affordable for everyone, every kind of family," said the federation's Gregory Thomas. "You wouldn't have a federal entitlement program that subsidizes a specific type of child care."
Mulcair argued that a national child-care program would "more than pay for itself," allowing more women to enter the workforce, boosting economic growth and tax revenue and reducing the number of single mothers on social assistance — while ensuring kids get off to a good start in life.
"It's something that we can't afford not to do."
In the first term of an NDP government, Mulcair is promising to negotiate deals with the provinces, which would pick up 40 per cent of the cost while the feds paid the rest.
The goal would be to provide daycare at no more than $15 a day, although Mulcair did not say that would be a hard and fast cap. He stressed that the program would be flexible to accommodate the different needs of the provinces.
Over the first four years, the annual federal contribution would ramp up from $290 million to $1.9 billion, creating or helping maintain almost 800,000 child care spaces.
Over the second four years, the annual federal contribution would grow to $5 billion. Once fully phased in, Mulcair said the program would support or maintain creation of one million daycare spaces.
The program is modelled on Quebec's $7-a-day child-care program, the $2-billion cost of which the province is now struggling to rein in. It has recently indexed the daily fee to the inflation rate and is reportedly considering introduction of a sliding fee scale based on parents' income.
It's conceivable that some provinces might prefer to spend their money on other priorities, like health care. But Mulcair said he hopes that by the end of a first mandate, he'd have "the vast majority of provinces signed onto a program that's so attractive to them they wouldn't want to leave the money on the table."
Mulcair is using the child-care issue to underscore what he sees as a big difference between the NDP and the Tories and Liberals, whom he accuses of talking about daycare for 30 years but never delivering.
But Cuzner said that assertion is "just a crock."
Paul Martin's Liberal government negotiated deals with all the provinces in 2005 for a national child-care program, worth $5 billion over five years. However, it never got off the ground because Martin's minority government fell when opposition parties, including the NDP, voted non-confidence.
Harper's Conservatives won the subsequent election and scrapped the daycare program, replacing it with the universal child care benefit.
Mulcair said an NDP government would continue to pay the child-care benefit.
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