No knockout punches thrown on campaign trail yet, but keep an eye on childcare

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A close race could help push left-leaning voters toward the favoured Liberals, especially if the NDP doesn’t get its act together.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 23, 2021.

Many punches were thrown in the first week of the campaign. Few landed.

From vaccines to abortions, the two main leaders sparred on the wedge issues that could shape the campaign. But the one issue that could be decisive got no attention whatsoever.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole unveiled his party’s slick promotional magazine touting various aspects of the platform. Most commentary focused on his buff body and how great he looked in a black t-shirt. The magazine was obviously intended to appeal to the millennial crowd, a voter cohort that has traditionally shied away from the Conservatives. But he will have a tough time beating the TikTok king Jagmeet Singh, who was recognized on the streets of Vancouver not as a political leader but as “that TikTok guy”. Liberals are perusing the Tory document for ammunition they might use to widen the wedge between themselves and their main opponent.

Outgoing Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef was quick to point out a line in the platform promising to enshrine “conscience rights” for medical professionals in legislation. In and of itself, this might not be problematic, but O’Toole stated in July that he would not intervene if provinces defunded abortions in their health care planning.

“How provinces run their health care system is not what the federal government should be interfering with,” he told reporters during a whistle-stop in Fredericton, where the provincial government refuses to fund abortions performed outside the hospital setting.

The controversy swirls around a clinic that offers reproductive and general services to the LGTBQ community called Clinic 554. The federal Liberals have been withholding health transfers to the province because of their refusal to fund it, and the fact that there are no hospitals providing abortions in Fredericton.

O’Toole went to great lengths last week to convince Quebecers that he was pro-choice. But the fact that the majority of his caucus voted in the last Parliament to limit abortions does cast doubt on his affirmations.

Voteprolife has shut down public access to its website, which tracks abortion views of all candidates in the upcoming election. However, there is no doubt that over the course of the campaign, the views of all candidates will become public, and O’Toole’s solemn personal views will likely clash with his caucus majority.

In the last election, abortion became enough of a wedge to move some doubtful women voters over to the Liberals. I don’t think that is the issue to do so this time. Instead, the positions of the two main parties on childcare will cost the Tories dearly in terms of their capacity to attract support from the swathe of Greater Toronto Area so-called soccer moms so crucial to victory.

The value proposition for parents is clear: do you want money, or do you want safe childcare?

But parents with young children know that money is only part of the problem. The other issue is access to excellent licensed childcare spots. And a $10 dollar a day government-approved childcare establishment gives parents a lot more reassurance than a year-end refundable tax credit.

O’Toole won’t be able to attack the Liberal plan as profligate, since his approach costs approximately the same amount of money. In addition, he will have to tear up agreements with multiple Conservative provinces that have already signed onto the plan. But the biggest blunder is what could happen to his electoral chances in Quebec. La belle province has been living with subsidized childcare since it was introduced for $5 dollars a day by the Parti Quebecois government in 1997. With almost a quarter-century of experience, Quebecers are not about to give up a social program that they believe contributes to positive family and community life. And the government of Quebec has already signed an agreement to top up provincial spending with a lucrative cash transfer from the federal government. The childcare program is supported by the Bloc Quebecois as well, and they will be pounding hard at the Tories on this issue.

With several provincial governments already lining up to introduce more licensed childcare spaces to complement the federal plan, O’Toole’s promise to tear up those deals is not going to win him any support.

Instead, it will turn women off, the very voters he needs if he is to form the government.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.