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Rob Shaw: BC NDP's $10 child care promises stalling out

Federal funding growth of flagship provincial program is exceeding that of BC NDP
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“It’s down to the feds. The province hasn’t had an actual cut, but there's been very minimal increases in the provincial spending," says advocate Sharon Gregson.

Given the tsunami of deficit and debt in the BC NDP government’s latest budget, you might be surprised to hear there’s a critical program being starved for cash: $10-a-day child care.

That’s right, the centrepiece of the election campaign that took the NDP to power in 2017 is stalling out, with last week’s budget marking the first time that the federal government has spent more on what is supposed to be a provincial program than the actual province.

If that sounds odd to you, you are not alone. Sharon Gregson, whose $10-a-day campaign pushed the NDP to make it a key election issue in 2017, says she’s disappointed to watch B.C. lag as Ottawa fills the void with a big influx of new money.

“Thank goodness for the federal spending because that has allowed for this substantial increase,” said Gregson.

“It’s down to the feds. The province hasn’t had an actual cut, but there's been very minimal increases in the provincial spending.”

New Democrats insist the $10-a-day program is seeing “record” investment. The most recent budget saw $252 million in new cash, boosting the total to $1.9 billion this coming year. The problem? Almost 85 per cent of that new funding came from Ottawa.

The federal government increased its share of the $10-a-day system by almost 26 per cent from last year, to $1.036 billion. B.C. only increased its share by 4.6 per cent, to $865 million. In the process, Ottawa leap-frogged B.C. to become the biggest financial backer of $10-a-day.

That’s not the arrangement the NDP promised in the 2017 and 2020 election campaigns.

Nor is B.C. on track anymore to meet the 10-year timeline for universal $10-a-day child care that the NDP pitched to voters, twice.

Nor, even, has the NDP met any of its own funding targets for $10-a-day since the 2020 election.

Yet none of that stopped Finance Minister Katrine Conroy from pretending otherwise at last week’s budget presentation.

“We will continue to fund the child care plan,” she said, when asked about the relative lack of new provincial money. “We have a 10-year plan that we started in 2018. We will continue to move forward in partnership with the federal government on the $10-a-day. We've been expanding that as much as we can.”

Conroy gushed about the difference that $10-a-day spaces are making in the lives of people lucky enough to access one of the almost 14,000 spots.

“I could go on,” the minister said at one point. “But I think I don't have the time.”

Advocates though would have loved to hear the minister “go on,” as she put it. Because at this point, nobody has a clue how the NDP intends to make good on its 10-year-timeline, within the next three years.

In the last election, the NDP promised to “exceed our target of 22,000 new child care spaces” by 2022-23. It’s still 8,000 spaces short of that mark, two budgets later.

The NDP promised to boost $10-a-day child care funding by an extra $250 million a year, starting in 2020, to grow the system out. It hasn’t met that funding promise once.

Instead, the government has increased funding $85 million, $18 million, $103 million, $11 million and $38 million consecutively during the last five budgets. What should be a $1.86-billion annual provincial base for the $10-a-day system is only $865 million.

The only reason the $10-a-day system hasn’t completely collapsed is because the federal Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saw how much voters loved the idea and began kicking in money in 2021 to score votes for itself.

But Ottawa’s funding is only on the books for five years. Since the feds came to the table three years ago, they’ve been responsible for 92 per cent of the funding growth to $10-a-day childcare in B.C. Once 2026 rolls around, and that money dries up, B.C. is in a world of trouble.

“It's very frustrating,” said BC United Leader Kevin Falcon. “We're letting down so many families.

“I'm a huge supporter of $10-a-day daycare. I've always said that this is an economic development initiative, it’s not a social program, that allows young working women and men to get back into the workforce. That's a good thing.

“The problem is the NDP have never figured it out, because they don't understand supply and demand.”

Falcon pledged to expand and income-test the program. But it remains to be seen if he’ll earmark the considerable cash necessary to do the job.

Meanwhile, you can bet $10-a-day child care to feature prominently in the NDP re-election platform. There will be glossy photos of smiling parents, big fancy charts and probably a whole new set of financial commitments the party intends to promise (hoping you don’t remember how it has utterly failed to meet its last platform promises).

The NDP has never been shy about boasting about the $10-a-day system. It’s just too bad the governing party can’t keep its money where its mouth is.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com