Credit Where it's Due: the Conservative Policy on Daycare

I finally saw one of the new ads the Conservatives are running to try and bolster their image. It’s the one set in a seemingly busy campaign office, with Stephen Harper talking to two of his MPs. In it, he makes his point that, when adjusted for inflation, Canadians are no better off now than they were twelve years ago. And the Liberals were elected twelve years ago. Coincidence?

As strategies go, it’s miles better than what the Conservatives tried over the spring. Simple point, deftly made, in a conversational rather than confrontational manner. I’d debate the assertion — but that’s the point: I’d debate. I wouldn’t turn away. That’s a big step up. (It’s also a significant step up on the Paul Martin Home Invasion Campaign, where the PM spoke to a bunch of seemingly-terrified Canadians in their kitchen)

While acknowledging that the ads are a good approach, others have commented that the ads look “cheap” or somehow sound “false”, without quite putting their finger on why. Watching the ad, I myself was struck by the similarity to ad selling life insurance, or banking services. And it took me a few seconds to figure out what was causing this. And I think it has to do with how scripted the ad feels. Not that I believe the Conservatives shouldn’t be following a script. But in this ad, Harper is talking to his MPs. He’s not talking to Canadians.

This is easily fixed. The other approaches are good: simple point, deftly told; getting other Conservative MPs into the action, etc, etc. But instead of talking to each other, talk to us the viewers. We’re the ones who want to have this conversation.

That’s my free advice.

I am not speaking as an imminent dad-to-be when I say that it would be nice if the Liberals followed through on their long-promised national daycare program. Even if Vivian wasn’t on the way, it would still be a pleasant change if the program promised in 1993, 1997, 2000 and 2004 was finally brought into being. For twelve years, the Liberals have been all talk and no action, and my attitude to the current Liberal proposal is, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Speaking as an imminent dad-to-be, I question the wisdom of following through on this promise. Though the country is in an enviable position, with a healthy surplus and strong economic growth, there’s no guarantee that it’s all going to stay that way over the next decade. Starting in 2010, the Great Demographic Shift hits us: the first baby boomers start to retire. As the balance between worker and retiree starts to tilt in the retirees’ favour, we may find ourselves hard pressed to maintain the surplus, maintain spending on healthcare, maintain spending on education, on urban affairs and national defence. We may not have room for a national daycare program that the Liberals estimate will cost at least $5 billion (and after how well they estimated the final cost of the gun registry, I’ll be taking Liberal spending estimates with a big grain of salt).

Though the current situation keeps family members who want to work out of work because the high cost of daycare wipes out any gain in salary, the fact remains, this is a reality that we’ve confronted for much more than twelve years. Unless you could convince me that the economic benefit of loads of new mothers (and fathers) returning to work if they choose and earning a salary makes up for the $5 billion spent, it may be better for us to swallow this reality and move on.

The Conservative counter-proposal for daycare intrigues me, however. It takes aim at a number of flaws in the Liberal plan: the fact that it doesn’t address daycare requirements beyond 9-5. The fact that it doesn’t value the daycare contribution of relatives. The fact that it tries to shove new families into a box: either pay taxes and use new government-run daycare spaces (certified, which is a benefit), or pay taxes and… not.

Near as I understand the proposal, the Conservatives will attempt to encourage the growth of more daycare spaces by offering tax credits to companies that make spaces available. This solves some, but not all, of the lack of daycare space issue — but then, I doubt we could solve the whole issue under the Liberal plan. It also offers rebates to new parents to spend, as they choose, on whatever daycare services they want. This money is very flexible. I’ve heard a Conservative MP say that they don’t care how it is spent, if it’s for a mortgage payment, or to put food on the table, or to pay for a private daycare space, or to cover gas to get to grandmother’s house, it’s for the new parents’ to do with as they please.

So what we appear to have here is a return of the Baby Bonus. It appears that this bonus will be offered regardless of how much taxes you pay — something which benefits poor families as well as rich ones. I greatly appreciate the fact that the Conservatives aren’t trying to second-guess how families will spend this money, and in terms of addressing the Conservatives’ values: respect for families, the use of the marketplace to achieve social goals, etc, this is a very deft maneouver that both plays well to the base, and reaches out across the centre.

From what I’ve heard, this plan is also expensive — possibly more expensive than the Liberals’ (estimated) $5 billion daycare program. And I question whether we can afford this with the Great Demographic Shift about to hit, and with the Conservative obsession with cutting taxes. I’ll debate the Conservatives on those issues, but in comparing Conservative and Liberal policies on this issue, the Conservatives come out the winner.

More Good Strategy

Harper’s suggestion that Canadians should revisit NAFTA also strikes me as an excellent policy and strategy move. Warren Kinsella covers the strategy of it:

  1. It’s counter-intuitive, and therefore interesting. It catches voters by surprise; it makes them re-examine their assumptions about a politician. Chretien did similarly when, at the Aylmer Conference in 1991, he gave the heave-ho to John Turner’s phony protectionism, and embraced globalization. Harper’s move also simultaneously addresses one of central Canada’s principal misgivings about the Conservatives - namely, that they are too cozy with the Bush Bunch. This is standing up to the Yanks, and Canucks like that.

  2. It’s realistic, and therefore smart. Dubya and his cabal aren’t free traders - anyone who knows anything about softwood or beef has been aware of that for quite some time. Harper’s shift merely recognizes the reality and, thereby and henceforth, gets him to high ground first. When Martin gets around to playing catch-up - a process that, based upon past experience, could take months and possibly years - he’ll look like a copy-cat, vacillating, weak. Take your pick.

  3. It moves Harper to the centre, and that’s where all the votes are. My Spidey Sense tells me this guy is on a major de-radicalization program, and that never hurts, does it? In the meantime, the Martin cabal are stuck with a trade agreement that (a) Canadians no longer trust, and playing defence for (b) a Republican administration Canadians never, ever liked.

In terms of good policy, there’s this statement from Harper himself:

“We will have to put much higher emphasis in exploiting the growing demand of China, India and others for our natural resource sectors — options that did not exist in the 1980s.”

Good move. It’s never wise to put all our eggs in one basket, and that’s what our current trade situation with the United States represents. Any NDPer would tell you that. India represents a great emerging market that will be hungry for our resources (I would favour India over China because India is democratic. Always bet on the democratic superpowers). I wonder if they could use some good soft wood right now…

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