Federal Conservatives have circled July 20 as the date Ottawa will deposit hundreds of dollars into the bank accounts of Canadian parents, a sudden windfall that will come just three months before election day.
The July payments will be unusually large. Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced last year that increases to the Universal Child Care Benefit would start in January, 2015, the first payments won't come until July. They will be retroactive to cover benefits accumulated since the start of the year.
Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre couldn't resist a smile when asked whether the timing of the payments was politically motivated.
"Not at all. I resent that question very much," he said, jokingly, during a news conference Wednesday at an Ottawa daycare centre. "No. In reality, the benefit, because it was just recently changed, it does take some time to set up the system and to add the millions of families who weren't eligible before but will now be eligible."
The Universal Child Care Benefit had a controversial start when it was first proposed by the Conservatives in their successful 2006 election campaign. Mr. Harper proposed the plan as an alternative to Liberal prime minister Paul Martin's call for a national daycare program.
Mr. Martin's spokesperson, Scott Reid, apologized during the campaign for dismissing the Conservative plan, saying people would blow the money on "beer and popcorn."
The original benefit provides families with $100 a month for each child under 6. Under the new rules that take effect this year, that amount would be increased to $160 month. Also, parents will receive a new benefit of $60 a month for each child between the ages of 6 and 17.
The changes will expand the reach of the benefit from 1.7 million families to four million families.
Mr. Poilievre said the average payment per child in July will be about $500. Most Canadians are registered with Ottawa for direct deposit instead of cheques.
The federal NDP has said it will maintain the enhanced monthly payments and will also bring in a national daycare plan.
NDP MP Jinny Sims said the timing of the government's retroactive payment is clearly political. Liberal MP Scott Brison agreed.
"The timing is clearly all about vote-buying on the eve of an election," he said, adding that his party supports the payments for families.
Mr. Reid, the former Liberal spokesperson who made the beer and popcorn comment, has said the Conservatives have successfully fuelled public cynicism toward government programs to the point that direct payments are easier to sell politically.
"It's not that Canadians necessarily prefer an enriched child tax benefit to universal child care," Mr. Reid wrote this year in the Ottawa Citizen. "It's that they worry that government, in creating a multibillion-dollar nationwide program, will surely screw things up and pour billions down a drain."
The Conservative government has faced criticism that its package of tax cuts – including income splitting and a promised increase in the maximum contributions to tax-free savings accounts – provide a disproportionate benefit to high-income Canadians.
The Saskatchewan government announced in its 2015 budget this month that it would add income-testing to one of its tax credits for parents related to the cost of sports and cultural activities. Saskatchewan will limit the benefit to families with combined incomes of $60,000 or less.
Mr. Poilievre suggested his government is not planning a move in that direction.
"The middle class in this country works hard to try and get ahead but often times when they do, they start to lose their benefits," he said. "Every single family is entitled to get this money regardless of their income or the child care they choose. That's one of the greatest features that [the child care benefit] has to offer."