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NDP leader Thomas Mulcair holds a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, October 14, 2014. The New Democrats are proposing a national child-care program that Mr. Mulcair says would cost no more than $15 a day per child.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Election platforms come down to one thing: how the competing parties will spend your tax dollars. In a single day this week, voters were given a taste of the fundamental way in which the Harper government and the Mulcair opposition differ in the dispensing of your hard-earned cash. It was a teachable moment – and a set-up for the battles to come before next year's election.

On Tuesday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair stood in front of a children's playground and vowed to bring $15-a-day daycare to Canadians across the land. The NDP says, if elected, it will adopt legislation that provides the provinces and territories with stable, long-term funding to set up affordable child-care programs. Ottawa will fund 60 per cent of the cost; the provinces and territories will design and manage the daycare services while respecting federal benchmarks, and pay the other 40 per cent.

The same day, Finance Minister Joe Oliver, speaking in the political playground of Ottawa, said the government will record a surplus just in time for the election scheduled for next fall – and promised once again to return a significant chunk of that surplus directly to Canadians by cutting taxes.

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Two parties, two visions, both of them viable options. (It should be noted here that the Liberals pushed for national daycare for years – but never succeeded in bringing it in during more than a decade in government.) Mr. Mulcair wants to build on the success of Quebec's $7-a-day child-care program, which according to one report has enabled 70,000 women to join the province's work force. The program is a boon to single parents and families with two working parents: The average monthly cost of child care in that province is around $150, compared with $1,152 in Ontario, according to one study cited by the NDP. On the other hand, it's costly for taxpayers; Quebec may have to introduce a sliding scale and start charging a higher fee to higher-income earners.

The Conservatives, who scrapped a national child-care deal negotiated by the Liberal government of Paul Martin when they came to power in 2006, think the better way to support child-raising Canadians is to lower their income taxes and provide them with tax credits and direct benefits. Instead of national daycare, the Harper government implemented the universal child-care benefit – $100 per month per child under six years of age. It's not nearly as generous as $15-a-day child care but it also costs less, doesn't require the creation of a bureaucracy to manage, and gives cash to families while leaving it up to them to decide how best to spend it.

These were deep differences in philosophy on display this week, and it's this kind of debate that revitalizes democracy and gives voters a real stake in the outcome of an election. Two competing plans offering real political choices: It's a good start to what's going to be a year-long election campaign.

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