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Rob Shaw: B.C.'s troubled $10 child care rollout leaves millions in federal cash underutilized

BC NDP’s promise of $10-a-day child care far from ‘universal’
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“We have a vision for all families to be able to access on average $10-a-day child care,” Mitzi Dean, the minister of state for child care, said this week.

Despite cash-strapped parents desperate for new $10-a-day child care sites, the B.C. government’s roll-out of the system is so troubled that it can’t even spend hundreds of millions of dollars it’s already getting from Ottawa.

That revelation is contained in a cabinet order posted this week in which the province asks the federal government to roll over 60 per cent of this year’s federal $10-a-day funding before the fiscal year ends next month and the money is wasted.

That’s not all. B.C. says it won’t be able to spend a further 30 per cent of federal funding next year, and 10 per cent the year beyond that.

“British Columbia anticipates difficulty expending its fiscal years 2023 to 2024 and 2024 to 2025 allocations due to diverse implementation challenges,” reads the agreement the province had to get Ottawa to sign.

Those “diverse implementation challenges” have left the BC NDP unable to take advantage of as much as $639 million in easy federal cash, just sitting there begging to be spent at a time when nine out of 10 B.C. parents don’t have access to $10-a-day spaces.

The province insists it will, eventually, at some point, spend that money. It blamed rising construction costs, inflation, a worker shortage and other issues for delays, in a status update to Ottawa four months ago.

Unstated? A lack of political will amongst provincial New Democrats. The party hasn’t come close to honouring its funding commitments for the $10-a-day program since the 2020 election, instead luring the feds to the table and then slashing provincial increases to leave Ottawa doing the heavy-lifting.

The NDP government found itself under fire on the issue in the legislature Tuesday, with almost no answers to give on how it had fallen so far behind or what it was going to do to hit its promised universal $10-a-day system within the remaining three years of its 10-year timeline.

“Despite the largest inflationary deficit in B.C.'s history, this NDP government has utterly failed to deliver on their signature election promise of universal $10-a-day child care,” Karin Kirkpatrick, BC United child care critic, said in question period.

“Access is getting worse, not better.”

Finance Minister Katrine Conroy tried mounting a defence — though it consisted mostly of petty insults and references to child care subsidies cut by the BC Liberals 22 years ago. That won’t fly with real voters, after seven years and two elections in which the NDP promised, repeatedly and loudly, that a $10-a-day system was within reach.

To get the best gauge of where the government is at on the issue, you need to turn to Premier David Eby. He has in recent days deliberately avoided repeating his party’s explicit promise to have a “universal” $10-a-day child care system in place within the next three years.

Perhaps because it now looks impractical, with almost $2 billion in annual funding in place and barely 10 per cent of all licensed child care spaces qualifying at $10-a-day.

Perhaps also because the government has quietly changed the promise from “universal” $10-a-day child care in 2017 and 2020 to something else.

“We have a vision for all families to be able to access on average $10-a-day child care,” Mitzi Dean, the minister of state for child care, said this week.

Universal is a $10-a-day space for everyone. An average means some people pay more than $10-a-day, and some people pay less, through a separate, highly complicated system of provincial income-tested subsidies. New Democrats know the difference. They promised the former in two election campaigns. Now they want to fudge and deliver the latter, because sticking to the actual promise is too hard.

But too many parents got too excited at the prospect of a $10-a-day system for the governing party to now use semantics and half-truths to side-step its commitments.

“In seven years, we've tripled the number of spaces that they ever created in 16 years,” Eby said to the Opposition BC United in the legislature Tuesday.

“We're going to keep doing that work for families, and we will not let them come back in this house and drag families back to the dark ages of child care ever again.”

Drag families back to the dark ages of child care?

For most British Columbians, still struggling with wild fees after seven years of New Democrat promises and a barely-existent $10-a-day system — they never left.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com