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Even the government that introduced it has all but stopped pretending that, nearly a decade into its existence, the Universal Child Care Benefit is really about child care.

When Stephen Harper's Conservatives first campaigned on a new monthly payment for parents, that was all it was supposed to be about. Unlike a Liberal attempt to establish a new national daycare program, the Tories' less bureaucratic plan was supposed to help create new spaces and give families more flexibility in finding arrangements.

By this week's "Christmas in July" expansion of the program that produced a lump-sum pre-election payment, the UCCB had come to provide funding not just for each kid under the age of six, but those up to 17. And the Conservatives have made clear they no longer care much how the money is spent.

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"A family with two kids should receive as much as $1,000 today," a government press release enthused on Monday. "Parents can spend this money on anything they choose, including child care services, back-to-school supplies, sports activities and much more, boosting the economy and creating jobs across Canada."

To many Conservative supporters, that will sound just fine. From the outset, much of the UCCB's appeal has been that it applies to stay-at-home parents, not just those who pay for child care.

But the tacit admission of what the UCCB really is (or is not) also indicates a potential vulnerability for the Conservatives among swing voters, and a potential opening for other parties – the NDP in particular, at the moment – willing to revisit national daycare.

Much of the basis for the middle-class angst the Liberals and the New Democrats are trying to stir up before October's election is debatable. But anyone who knows young and prospective parents, particularly in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver and their suburbs, knows anxiety about being able to afford to have children is very real.

Even for two-parent families with above-average incomes, the prospect of paying upwards of $15,000 annually for one child's daycare is daunting; having two kids who need it is terrifying.

The taxable $160 that the UCCB now offers per child monthly is only a fraction of that cost. The same goes for other credits offered by the federal and provincial governments outside Quebec, the lone province to subsidize daycare. This week's $500 retroactive top-up is a drop in the bucket.

Much of this may have been obvious back in 2006. But in the death throes of Paul Martin's government, Canadians doubted the Liberals could deliver much of anything. The Conservatives' direct assistance, combined with their (since little-discussed) promise to create 125,000 new child-care spaces with assorted incentives, at least seemed achievable.

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The worry for the Tories should be that – because time has passed, daycare has got more expensive, and other factors such as mounting real estate prices and longer commutes have added to the pressure – the pendulum has swung to the point where voters are willing to consider something more ambitious again.

That, certainly, is what Thomas Mulcair's New Democrats are counting on, as they promise $15-per-day child care. And Justin Trudeau's Liberals, who have tried to trump the Tories by promising a bigger child benefit for all but the highest earners, have left the door open to a more narrowly targeted daycare program as well.

Plenty of other policy concerns could trump this one, as could fear of taking on big new projects amid economic uncertainty. But it is easy to forget that, in coming to power, the Tories not only survived but actually won a debate about who could deliver child care. These days, they are barely even engaging in it.

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