Who do you trust with your child care future: Mulcair or Harper?

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All of a sudden, it looks like the battle lines in the coming federal election may be less over whether to send our warplanes to Iraq and more over whether to send our children to day care.

With their announcement this week of plans for a national child care program, the NDP has not only proposed the beginnings of a solution to a gaping social need in Canada, it has also carved out territory in which its contrast to the Harper Conservatives could not be starker. 

Like the NDP, the Conservatives are planning to take a chunk of money from the surplus accumulating in Ottawa and spend it on a big initiative related to children. 

But that's where the similarities end. 

The NDP plan, which would provide subsidized child care at a cost to parents of $15 a day, is national in scope, based on a strong role for government, funded by taxes, and egalitarian -- all things from which the Conservatives, as if by genetic disposition, recoil. 

By contrast, Stephen Harper's Conservatives want no national plan. They oppose a strong role for government -- or any role -- in meeting the needs of working parents with children. Their answer is to give parents money in the form of tax cuts to spend as they want. But for the vast majority of Canadian parents, the Conservatives' promised centerpiece -- a tax break allowing income splitting for parents with children under 18 -- will give virtually nothing, and that may be overstating its generosity.

But before we get to the latest Conservative plan, let's recall what the Conservatives did in 2006, after Paul Martin's Liberals had proposed a national child care plan. As soon as Harper took office, he scrapped the plan and instead announced that Ottawa would pay $100 a month per child to families with children under six.

But, not content to just dismantle a national child care plan, Harper, after winning a majority in 2011, became bolder in advancing two key prongs of his arch-conservative agenda -- enriching the rich and encouraging women to stay home. Promising to introduce income-splitting offered him a splendid opportunity to do both, since the benefits of the costly $3 billion program would go almost exclusively to rich families with stay-at-home mothers.

Tax breaks typically offer bigger benefits the higher you go up the income scale, but the imbalance in the case of income-splitting is so profound that the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) calls it "inequality by design."

Neil Brooks, tax professor emeritus at Osgoode Hall Law School, calls it "immoral."

As the CCPA notes, fully 86 per cent of Canadian families would receive no benefit whatsoever.

Meanwhile one per cent of all families -- hard to guess which 1 per cent -- would get an average tax saving exceeding $6,500.

Imagine if a cartload of cash carrying the federal surplus bypassed virtually every home in the country, but made a beeline towards a few well-to-do enclaves, where it dropped off thousands of dollars on doorsteps.

(The Harper government also announced last week that it was enriching the child fitness tax credit from $500 to $1,000 -- another measure where the benefits are highly skewed to the rich, who are far more likely to have a spare $1,000 to spend on their children's  sailing or horseback riding lessons.)

But back to income-splitting. Among the losers are working women.

This is revealing, since governments typically use tax incentives to encourage certain kinds of behaviour. Harper's message to women seems to be: marry rich and stay home. No longer barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, today's woman should still be pregnant and in the kitchen, but wearing a pair of Guccis.

A national child care program, on the other hand, makes it easier for women to work.

Quebec's child care program has significantly increased female workforce participation. With more women working and paying taxes, the program has done "much better than pay for itself," according to a study led by prominent Montreal economist Pierre Fortin.  

The Conservatives' income-tax splitting plan is so inequitable that even the late Conservative finance minister Jim Flaherty -- perhaps in a twinge of conscience after a political career rewarding the rich -- was moved to question its fairness

That, and the fact that Conservatives continue to lag in the polls, may yet cause them to retreat from their income-splitting promise.  

But it's worth noting that, if they felt they could get away with it, here's what they really want to do with $3 billion of our hard-earned surplus: hand $6,500 each to some of our richest, most traditional families, and hand most other Canadians precisely nothing.

Winner of a National Newspaper Award, Linda McQuaig has been a reporter for the Globe and Mail, a columnist for the National Post and the Toronto Star and author of seven bestsellers, including Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and other Canadian Myths andIt's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet. Her most recent book (co-written with Neil Brooks) is The Trouble with Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World, and How We Can Take It Back.

This article is reprinted with permission from iPolitics 

Photo: flickr/David Robert Bliwas

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