O'Toole makes pitch to working parents with Tories' 'flexible' child-care plan

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole responds to a question during a campaign stop on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, in Russell, Ont. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

RUSSELL, Ont. - Erin O'Toole promoted his plan Tuesday to scrap Liberal child-care deals signed with provinces in favour of a refundable tax credit, insisting the cheaperConservative policy will give a bigger boost to lower-income Canadians, despite the vast difference in funding.

The Tory leader also followed up on a letter to Quebec Premier François Legault, published Tuesday in Le Journal de Montréal, where he said the province's unique child-care system demands a different approach.

O'Toole said he will sit down with Legault within the first 100 days of a Conservative government to hash out a deal, repeating the pledge to reporters that morning. But he did not commit to maintaining the no-strings-attached $6 billion in daycare funding for Quebec announced by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau last month.

At a campaign event on the rural outskirts of Ottawa, O'Toole said his proposal would benefit financially precarious Canadians the most by allowing up to $6,000 of their annual child-care expenses to be reimbursed.

Licensed daycare centres — to which federal funding under the Liberal agreements would be exclusively directed — operate largely between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Those hours, O'Toole said, leave out parents on shift work or in the gig economy.

"That’s not good enough for people on shift work, for people that are struggling to get by," he said. “In most parts of this country, our plan will cover all the costs for families in the low-income levels."

Experts, however, say that while the Tory tax credit could have some immediate impacts, the $2.6-billion price tag is less thanone-tenth the size of the Liberal allotment and fails to tackle the shortage of spaces. O'Toole on Tuesday rejected that criticism, saying his move "will create spaces, and will give families the flexibility to come up with what works for them best immediately."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has touted Quebec's model, which costs $8.50 a day for families able to get a spot, as an example the rest of Canada should follow. His government introduced a $30-billion national daycare program in its April budget that aims to cut fees in half by the end of next year and down to an average of $10 a day within five years, signing agreements with eight premiers in the last few months.

The Liberals said earlier this month the Conservatives would make "a massive 80 per cent cut to our Canada-wide child-care system."

"They would replace it with a tax credit — and only 6,600 families out of 1.5 million families across the country would receive the full value of it," the Liberal party said in a statement.

Under the Conservative proposal, parents would be able to claim up to $8,000 of eligible annual expenses per child under seven years old and up to $5,000 per child between the ages of seven and 15. Canada's lowest-income families would have up to 75 per cent of those costs covered — amounting to $6,000 — and as incomes rise, the percentage would drop to a minimum of 26 per cent.

The Tories say because the tax credit is refundable, lower-income families would get the full amount reimbursed even if it pushes their tax bill below zero. The child-care expense deduction currently in place benefits the rich because parents who earn the most get the highest deductions, the party says.

The Conservative plan would replace the existing tax credit with a refundable one that is recouped during the year instead of at tax time.

Data out of Quebec shows that child-care tax breaks to parents can spur supply of new, private-sector spaces, indicated a C.D. Howe Institute report last week, but costs may not come down substantially.

For Andrea Beauvais, a financial analyst on maternity leave to take care of her seven-month-old daughter Claire, O'Toole's plan is unconvincing.

"I'm not a super-big person of those types of credits," she said, following the Conservative announcement in Russell, Ont.

"The problem with credits is that there's clawback. I have personally experienced clawback of the Canada Child Benefit … and then I had to pay back $800."

Nonetheless, Beauvais is a supporter of O'Toole, citing his pledge to balance the budget — within 10 years — and his get-tough stance on China.

O'Toole approached her after his speech, then bent down to get a better look at Claire, who peered up, blinking, at the top Tory's face.

“She looks a little undecided yet," O'Toole said. "Can I show her the plan?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2021.

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