Kathleen Wynne is often billed, on the evidence of her performance leading Ontario’s Liberals back to majority government four years ago, as an unusually good campaigner.
She will need to be an absolutely superlative one, if she is to win back voters on the strength of what appears to be the centrepiece of her party’s platform in this spring’s provincial election.
The promise of free daycare for preschoolers, announced on Tuesday by the Premier in advance of her government’s budget, might seem a perfect marriage of politics and policy. Of all the pre-election goodies a government could dangle, what better than a dramatic move to address an affordability crisis that − with daycare spots costing as much as $2,000 per month – is an enormous stress point for many families and a contributor to an array of social challenges?
But if it’s to work, Ms. Wynne will need to do something extremely difficult while leading an unpopular government perceived to be flailing: persuade many Ontarians to look beyond narrow self-interest, and put their faith in her to elevate everyone by helping a relative few.
Among the biggest reasons why various forms of daycare universality have proven easy for voters to resist in some previous elections – including at the federal level for Paul Martin’s Liberals in 2006 and Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats in 2015 – is that voters have a hard time seeing themselves directly benefiting. Parents already paying exorbitant fees doubt that any relief will be offered before their kids have aged out. Older parents sometimes resent the prospect of younger generations getting more help than they did. Many eligible voters who do stand to be helped personally – prospective parents in their late teens or 20s – aren’t yet giving serious thought to parenthood’s costs.
To a limited extent, Ms. Wynne may have found a way around that problem by eschewing the more common and complex pitch to cap fees the way Quebec has. Simply promising to have the government pick up the entire tab for kids between the ages of two-and-a-half and four (when kindergarten starts) doesn’t actually address the most exorbitant rates, applied to infants and toddlers. But it would be easy to implement by 2020, as the Liberals promise – in time to directly help parents of kids under the age of two, as of the coming June 7 election.
Still, even taking into account expectant parents and those with kids in their immediate plans, that still makes for a fairly small cohort of voters.
The Liberals wouldn’t be committing billions of dollars that could be spent on other policies (or on not running as large a deficit) if they didn’t believe there was a wider market for it – and a good chance it will help with their usual election goal of rallying Liberal-NDP swing voters behind them.
Based on a conversation on Tuesday with one of Ms. Wynne’s top strategists, the Liberals believe they can present daycare as part of an ambitious effort to help Ontarians adapt to modern cost pressures – one that also includes a recent commitment to pharmacare expansion.
They will argue that, combined with the introduction of full-day kindergarten under her predecessor Dalton McGuinty and Ms. Wynne’s elimination of tuition fees for lower-income students, they are establishing an affordable path from early childhood to adulthood. And Ms. Wynne can be expected to tie daycare into other social goals, notably making it easier for women to remain and advance in the work force.
Perhaps leveraging daycare commitments into broader appeal is getting easier than it used to be. Looking for causes for optimism, the Liberals might turn to last year’s British Columbia election, in which a (yet-to-be-realized) $10-per-day child-care pitch helped the NDP capitalize on cost-of-living angst.
But there is a difference between an opposition party using the issue to differentiate itself from a multiterm government seen to be complacent, as Christy Clark’s was, and a multiterm government like Ms. Wynne’s suddenly seizing upon it to try to ward off defeat.
With the Liberals already on a spending spree before this, the lines for Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives − about the Liberals cynically trying to buy votes (at the implicit expense of everyone who doesn’t have kids in daycare) – practically write themselves.
It will require one of the all-time great campaigns for Ms. Wynne, entering with an approval rating stuck under 20 per cent, to persuade Ontarians that it’s about something bigger.