Skip to main content

Who's more family-friendly, Thomas Mulcair or Stephen Harper? The fathers in my office are divided. Half of them like Mr. Mulcair's universal daycare plan, which is promising a million new spaces across Canada for $15 a day. The other half like Mr. Harper's family package, which will allow income-splitting and send bigger cheques to families for every kid up to age 18.

Which plan you like probably depends entirely on your circumstances. The guy who likes universal daycare has a working wife and two small kids. Their daycare costs them twice as much as their mortgage – close to $40,000 a year. They'd save a fortune.

The guy who likes the Harper plan has a stay-at-home wife and doesn't need daycare. He wants income-splitting, higher child-care benefits and more money (probably about $1,300 a year) in his pocket. "I don't know exactly how much, but I'll take it," he says.

These alternatives offer the voters a stark choice, we're told. One side dares to "think big" about working parents (as one enthusiastic commentator recently put it), while the other side argues that Mom and Dad know best. But are they really so different? Cynics might argue that both schemes are simply efforts to bribe the voters with their own money. Both plans will cost billions. Where will that money come from? And if the government has that kind of dough lying around, then why not just cut our taxes and let us keep it?

Actually, I'm glad to give more money to parents. Raising children is a costly burden, and I, for one, am grateful to them. Besides, in the not-too-distant future, we will need those children to finance our Depends. But I do get irritated when, in the name of universality, we help the haves more than the have-nots. And both parties are guilty of that.

Universal daycare is insanely expensive and extremely regressive. It disproportionately benefits high-income families where both partners are already working. They're the ones who use it most and need it least. Like many schemes espoused by the liberal-minded upper middle class, it sounds progressive but is actually regressive. Nor does it deliver the stupendous benefits that people claim for it. It might get more moms into the labour force, who might pay more taxes and boost the economy, and that would be a good thing. But it does not make kids more likely to succeed, in school or anywhere else, and it doesn't give a boost to the disadvantaged.

Universal daycare is actually targeted at a very small group of people: parents with kids under 6. The same is true of the Conservatives' income-splitting scheme, which would benefit no more than 15 per cent of the population. The biggest winners – you guessed it – will be one-earner families who already have higher incomes. The economists' arguments about income-splitting would hurt your head (they certainly hurt mine), so I'll cite just one, from Carleton University's level-headed Frances Woolley: If single-income families want more money, the other person should go to work.

All this policy debate is completely beside the point, of course, because the only thing that really matters is the politics. And you don't have to be an egghead to figure out that the prospect of more cash in the pocket will usually appeal to more voters than a great big new subsidy that will mostly benefit someone else. (We breathlessly await Justin Trudeau's bribes as he tries to position himself as the family-friendliest of all.) As for whose plan is most or least regressive, or whether any of them actually does much to help the working poor – well, to hell with them. Those people don't vote anyway.