We expect our political leaders to have an open mind, examine the options and do the right thing. Then, when they do, we turn on them. Our own myopia and, yes, conservatism, leads us to resist change, circle the wagons around sacred cows and make it harder for anyone to govern.
The uproar in Quebec over Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard's plan to raise daycare fees for families earning more than $50,000 is a case in point. It's high time a Quebec politician had the courage to tell the truth about the province's universal daycare scheme, a senselessly bureaucratic and cost-ineffective way to ensure that parents who need help get it.
The truth is, once various tax credits and deductions are taken into account, most low- and middle-income families would be better off financially by placing their children in private daycare at $35 a day than in Quebec's subsidized $7.30-a-day system. For many, the true cost of a $35 spot would be negative – they'd get money back from the federal government.
The high upfront cost of a $35 spot is no barrier, either. Ottawa already allows parents accessing the Child Care Expense Deduction (now $7,000, boosted to $8,000 in 2015) to have their employers withhold less federal tax on their paycheques. That way, they don't have to wait until year's end to claim a tax refund. Quebec has a monthly rebate plan for parents using private daycare.
But such are the myths surrounding Quebec's $7.30-a-day program that any politician who dares address its abundant flaws and unsustainable costs must stare down an angry mob, mostly made up of parents who are ignorant about their own and society's interests.
Since its inception (at $5 a day) in 1997, Quebec's $2.4-billion universal daycare program has led to the creation of a vast bureaucracy that largely takes from Peter to pay Peter. The scheme is financed through higher overall provincial taxes, the burden of which falls entirely on middle- and upper-income Quebeckers, who in turn pay lower upfront daycare costs.
If the aim is to provide affordable daycare for the greatest number of parents, this is hardly the way to go about it. Directly subsidizing lower-income parents, as most other provinces do, gives society a bigger bang for its tax buck. But to admit that in Quebec is to risk being shunned.
Ironically, Quebec's $7.30-a-day program saves Ottawa as much as $300-million a year, since middle- and upper-income Quebeckers don't pay enough for daycare to claim the federal child-care deduction and associated tax credits. Not only does Quebec tax its own citizens more, its policies also force them to pay higher federal taxes.
And for what? Better child care? There's no evidence to support that idea. Quebec daycares have the highest staff-to-child ratios in the country. A Quebec daycare centre has five infants in its care for every staffer, compared with a 3-to-1 ratio in most other provinces. The ratio for five-year-olds is 20 to 1 in Quebec, compared with 12 to 1 in Ontario and 10 to 1 in Alberta.
Nor can Quebec's daycare scheme be itself credited with a miraculous boost in female employment in the province, as some studies have claimed. The employment rate among women of child-bearing age has increased as much in the Maritime provinces as in Quebec since 1997, even though no similar $7.30-a-day daycare program exists in Atlantic Canada.
One reason is that, since 1997, Ottawa has made it harder for both sexes to claim employment insurance benefits, forcing women to take or keep jobs they might not have wanted in the past. Another reason is plain demographics. There are fewer people entering the work force each year in Quebec and the Maritimes. That has created a tighter overall labour market.
Yet another reason that Quebec women between 15 and 64 have closed the employment gap with their Ontario counterparts has to do with immigration. Ontario has a bigger share of recent immigrants, who for cultural reasons are often less likely to join the job market until their children are in school.
Yet, touching a sacred cow can be risky business. Mr. Couillard's reform – which proposes child-care fees of up to $20 a day based on income – doesn't go far enough. But when pitchforks are drawn at the mere mention of change, there are limits to what anyone can do.