Conservative government officials have reached out to a coalition of social conservative lobby groups in an effort to help sway public opinion in the coming battle over the Tory daycare deal.
Socially conservative Tories, including Senator Anne Cools, met early this month with a number of organizations that support replacing the former Liberal government's public daycare program with a Tory idea for a $1,200 annual allowance. MP Jason Kenney, parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also briefly attended the meeting.
Group spokespersons said yesterday that they will publicize the Conservative plan in part out of concern that organizations opposing the idea are well-organized and increasingly vocal.
"When the thing arises on the drawing board, we'll be there," said Gwen Landolt, vice-president of REAL Women, one of the groups in attendance.
"And in the meantime, we're doing what we can to educate the public and to lay the groundwork for controversy to come when the bill is brought forward."
Daycare promises to be the most controversial of Mr. Harper's five priorities, which include cutting the goods and services tax, providing a waiting-times guarantee for health care, the new accountability act and getting tough on crime. Provincial governments have already expressed deep concern about the changes.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said he is willing to see his government defeated rather than give up the plan to pay parents $1,200 a year for every preschool child.
"As part of our upcoming budget, we will ask Parliament to approve a universal child-care allowance," he said in Vancouver.
"The previous government spent a lot of time talking about child care and, since the election, they [Liberals]have been beating their chests on the issue, but for all of their talk, they have precious little to show for it."
Ms. Landolt said the meeting took place on April 3, the day Parliament reopened.
Sources said others at the meeting included Charles McVety, president of the Canada Family Action Coalition, and Joseph Ben-Ami, executive director of the Institute for Canadian Values, a faith-based public policy think-tank, among others.
Sources also said that one of the officials in the Prime Minister's Office made phone calls to organize the meeting. Ms. Cools spearheaded the effort, in part to deflect any negative publicity toward Mr. Harper's office, a source said.
Sandra Buckler, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister, said the PMO official did not make any telephone calls to organize the meeting.
She said the meeting did not include only social conservatives.
"The only thing I can possibly say is that we're reaching out to all interested groups who agree with our child-care plan," Ms. Buckler said.
Ms. Landolt, whose organization describes itself as upholding social policies that make homemaking possible for women, said many parents want help to care for their children at home.
Mr. Ben-Ami said he supports the Tory program because it is focused on giving parents a choice.
"The tax system is hard on families," he said. "It doesn't really recognize the contribution of the stay-at-home parent very well."
Mr. Ben-Ami added that his group is not a "salesperson" for the Tory government, but that parents across the country who support the idea may want to get involved.
Mr. Ben-Ami said the meeting was facilitated by Ms. Cools and that Mr. Kenney dropped in. Ms. Buckler said that Mr. Kenney stayed for only about five minutes.
Neither Mr. McVety, Mr. Kenney nor Ms. Cools could be reached for comment yesterday.
Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal Party's social-development critic, said the importance of her party's program must be better explained to young people, seniors and other individuals who don't have children.