BC Budget: On childcare, the cavalry comes from Ottawa - The Orca

BC Budget: On childcare, the cavalry comes from Ottawa

Rob Shaw 2

Rob Shaw: Despite big promises and the opportunity to spend big, the NDP have been glacial on child care. Monday’s federal budget might just save them from themselves.

The B.C. NDP government’s four-year-old election promise to create a $10-a-day child care system took another baby step toward reality in Tuesday’s provincial budget, but with such a miniscule amount of new funding it made you wonder if Premier John Horgan’s administration actually has much interest in seeing the plan through.

Luckily, another government is riding in with a bag of cash: The perpetually-electioneering federal Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Ottawa tabled $30 billion over five years for child care in its budget Monday, with a promise to get a universal $10-a-day system up and running in Canadian provinces by 2025/26.

“I make this promise to Canadians today, speaking as your finance minister and as a working mother — we will get it done,” said federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.

“COVID has brutally exposed something women have long known: Without childcare, parents – usually mothers — can’t work.”

The median monthly cost of child care in Vancouver is almost $1,200, which is like an extra rent or mortgage payment for many families, sometimes multiplied for additional children in a family.

If B.C. gets a per-capita share of the new federal funding, that’s $4.2 billion, or $840 million annually over five years.

Ottawa’s commitment dwarfs B.C.’s paltry efforts Tuesday. Child care was the single largest item in the federal budget. “It’s expensive, but an investment worth making,” said Freeland.

In B.C., it was such a small part of the budget as to amount to a mere rounding error.

B.C.’s provincial budget earmarked only $54 million for new spaces in the current 20201/22 fiscal year, with another $179 million spread over the next two years. That’s out of a $64 billion provincial spending plan.

That didn’t stop Finance Minister Selina Robinson from portraying child care as if she’d delivered some sort of historic funding boost that came complete with a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

“When it comes to building a strong recovery, child care is non-negotiable,” said Robinson. “Investments in child care are investments in a strong economy.”

The sentiment was good, but there was no cash to back it up.

Instead of seizing the moment where universal child care could be billed as a recovery item for parents (mainly women) returning to the workforce in a pandemic, with a near-infinite deficit budget to fund it, the NDP whiffed on the idea completely and started pinching pennies.

Even the New Democrats’ most staunch ally on the file, $10aDay plan founder Sharon Gregson, who helped the NDP craft its immensely-popular 2017 election promise for child care, was surprised and disappointed.

“B.C.’s government must now improve on its lacklustre 2021 budget by using new federal funds and the roadmap we’ve laid out for them in order to deliver on their election commitments, in alignment with the popular $10aDay plan,” said Gregson.

Horgan has fallen short of his 2020 re-election promise of at least $250 million of new spending on child care each year, Gregson’s organization said in a news release.

There are currently almost 2,500 child care spaces in the province at $10 a day, but they are funded by the federal government across 50 “prototype sites.”

B.C. will add 3,750 more spaces at $10 a day using the $233 million over three years in its budget, according to the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Ultimately, B.C. must come to the table with at least a 50/50 share of costs to access the new federal funding.

That’s a bargain for a B.C. NDP government that talked big on $10-a-day in the 2017 election, but has so far utterly failed to deliver on creating it.

Ultimately, Trudeau may very well save Horgan’s hide, by bailing him out with enough money to actually turn his child care plan into reality before the next provincial election.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.