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NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asks a question during question period in the House of Commons Monday, Sept. 15, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickThe Canadian Press

The New Democrats are pledging billions in funding for affordable childcare spots, a key campaign plank unveiled ahead of next year's election.

The proposal announced by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair on Tuesday would see the party phase in new federal transfers over eight years  - 2015 to 2023 - with the goal of capping daycare fees at $15 per day, though the party said that wouldn't be a hard cap.

After the first four years, the party projects the program would fund 370,000 affordable childcare spaces at an annual federal cost of $1.9-billion, transferred to provinces. After eight years, the federal share would reach $5-billion annually. That is based on a per-capita funding formula in which the federal government pays 60 per cent of the cost of new affordable spots created, the NDP said.

The plan is contingent both on the NDP forming government in next year's election and provinces agreeing to the deal. Mr. Mulcair said his party would steer clear of a one-size-fits-all program and negotiate with provinces - such as Quebec, which already has a public daycare system that charges $7 per day per child, and Ontario, which has expanded kindergarten programming. An NDP government would provide predictable funding and set performance benchmarks while recognizing "that provinces and territories have jurisdiction" over early childhood and daycare programs, the party said in a statement.

"Canadians for the first time would be able to join many other countries that have already made this a priority," Mr. Mulcair said, speaking at a daycare in central Ottawa. "…I've seen this work in my home province of Quebec and I know this is something we can get done."

The NDP is not proposing to end the Universal Child Care Benefit, which sends $100 per month to families for every child under age 6 and was introduced by the Conservative government. The NDP's new funding would be on top of what government already directly rebates to families through that program.

Mr. Mulcair said affordable daycare makes sense economically because it keeps parents in the workforce longer and can boost GDP, which leads to higher government revenues. In other words, he hopes to recover some of the federal cost through higher tax revenue from parents who stay in the workforce.

"This is something that's not only a good idea economically, it's a good idea for families," Mr. Mulcair said, later adding that "women first and foremost pay the price" by sacrificing careers for child care duties.

Mr. Mulcair avoided getting into details of what a program would look like, stressing provinces could tailor it to their needs. For instance, he said the party prefers not-for-profit daycare systems, but that if a province wanted to implement a system to create affordable spots on a for-profit basis, the NDP would not block that. The party also said provinces wouldn't necessarily be held to the $15-per-day limit. "We're going to deal with the reality we get," he said.

The party pointed to research on the subject from Pierre Fortin, an economics professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal who attended Tuesday's announcement. Mr. Fortin said there are many economic benefits to affordable daycare. It includes higher GDP from more people staying in the workforce, and  reduced costs of other social programs – Quebec has fewer than half as many single mothers on social assistance as when its child care system was introduced, Prof. Fortin said

"It will bring many more mothers into the labour force," Prof. Fortin said Tuesday, responding to the NDP proposal. "…I don't see any downside."

The program would come at a cost. Canada is due to balance its budget next year, though some observers expect that could happen ahead of schedule; adding new transfer payments to provinces – in addition to Mr. Mulcair's earlier pledge to hike health transfers – would lead to higher government spending, cuts elsewhere or both.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper questioned how the NDP would pay for the proposal. "In any case, our Conservative government believes that parents know what is best for their children," spokesman Jason MacDonald said, adding the UCCB gives "parents choice in the type of child care that works best for their family."

Nearly a decade ago, then-Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal government reached a deal with provinces and agreed to spend $5-billion over five years to create regulated child care spaces. However, the government fell – the NDP joined the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois in voting to topple the Liberals - and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives won the next election, phased out the plan and introduced the $100-per-month UCCB rebate.

At his announcement Tuesday, Mr. Mulcair criticized the Liberals for failing to bring in affordable child care. The Liberals fired back with a statement calling that a "revisionist" view.

"National comprehensive childcare would have been in place for nearly a decade if it had not been for the NDP," the Liberal statement said. (In late 2005, the Liberal government fell by a vote of 171 to 133, including 18 NDP MPs who all voted to topple the government. Had those 18 voted to support the Liberals, the government still would have fallen 153 to 151.)

The promise is the fourth major campaign platform issue the NDP have unveiled ahead of the federal election, scheduled for next fall. The party previously pledged to set a $15 minimum federal wage, increase the pace of increases in health funding transfers to provinces (which the Conservative government is slowing the growth of) and to immediately call an inquiry into the cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

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