OTTAWA—Justin Trudeau says he will not create or impose national child care or pharmacare programs to fill gaps in provinces that don’t want to play ball with his government.
The prime minister, speaking days before an expected election call about challenges facing the middle class, signalled a new pharmacare program might not extend across the country initially due to provincial opposition.
He said provinces like Ontario should “show up” to meet the needs of struggling families — as he says Quebec did with its universal daycare program — and should work in “partnership” with the federal government.
But he said the federal government would not interfere in areas of provincial responsibility, not only because that’s how the federation is supposed to work, but because voters elected those provincial governments, even if they make “political decisions to not invest in vulnerable people.”
He said that’s the choice that voters in the coming federal campaign will have to reflect on.
“We can stand and try and push back, we can find other ways to support people but ultimately we do have to respect choices that people make when they elect political parties to form government. And unfortunately the choices people make really matter, as Ontarians are discovering.”
Speaking to the Star’s editorial board, Trudeau was pressed to outline what new offer he is pitching to voters to get re-elected.
He furrowed his brow and said defensively, “Your frame here is ‘well you’ve done this, this, this, but there’s more to do’. I absolutely accept that. There’s an awful lot more to do and the choice facing Canadians right now is do we continue to do these things and do more of them or do we go back to a Stephen Harper Conservative approach that didn’t work.”
Incumbent governments seeking re-election often pitch their record against the “risk” of losing gains to their rivals’ agenda.
Trudeau defended his record, but he repeatedly warned against moving backward, a play on his party slogan, “Choose forward.”
On a big new proposal expected to be a cornerstone in the Liberal platform, Trudeau said the Liberal party will propose a national universal pharmacare plan, but made clear it is one that will not necessarily be available in all provinces.
“Quite frankly there are a number of provinces that seem aggressively nonaligned with our goal of bringing in a national pharmacare that is universal and supports everyone. So just as (national) health care was brought in one province at a time…that might well have to be the approach on pharmacare.
“I don’t want to send money to Doug Ford or Jason Kenney, for example, if they are not going to actually move in the right direction.”
Trudeau said the Liberal platform would include more aid to make housing more affordable, more aid for seniors, for post secondary students, and for “families who are struggling.”
He signalled there will be new measures on combating gun violence, and accused the Conservatives of “very much in the pocket of the American NRA in their approach” and opposed to sensible gun control measures.
He said a $15-an-hour minimum wage in federally regulated sectors like telecoms, banking and aviation would be “an important symbol” that he’ll address in the campaign — even though Trudeau said it would not make a significant difference for most workers who make minimum wage.
Politically, Trudeau’s warnings of looming provincial opposition to his pharmacare plans may not only be a way to manage expectations, it could also mean that the Liberal party could offer a more extravagant drug plan during the campaign than he realistically expects would be accepted by most provinces, and still reap the benefit of appealing to voters looking for a substantive program.
Trudeau took a similar shot at provincial and Conservative rivals when asked if he will do more to provide affordable daycare.
Child-care advocates have long complained that Trudeau is spending half of what former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin promised provinces in 2005 under his $5 billion, five-year national child-care program.
Child Care Now, a national child-care advocacy organization is calling on Ottawa to create an affordable child-care plan for all Canadian children by 2030 by increasing the existing federal funding by $1 billion in 2020 with a further increase of $1 billion each year for the next 10 years.
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Trudeau said it’s up to provinces to deliver child-care services, saying he has met his 2015 promise to build an “affordable, high-quality, flexible, and fully inclusive child care” framework for Canadian families with a $7.5-billion 10-year commitment.
That program left most of the spending decisions to provinces. Trudeau said some of them used the money to pay for more child-care spaces, while others wanted to make spaces more affordable.
He praised Quebec which established a daycare program even when “faced with” the Harper government. Under it, sliding costs for child care now start at about $8 a day.
Trudeau said other provinces should look to Quebec’s example because they “are the ones who have the mandate and the responsibility to step up and lead on that.”
“Of course the federal government can be there as a partner, but we can’t take on things that fundamentally it’s been shown can be ably led and should be ably led by the provinces.”
Despite his declared support for provincial discretion, Trudeau threw shade on the Ontario government’s tax credit to defray child-care expenses, saying “tax credits don’t help people who don’t pay taxes in a large sense and the Conservative political approach tends to…not fully understand that.”
Ontario signed a three-year agreement with Ottawa under the federal child-care framework that is due to be renegotiated next year.
Trudeau declined to say whether he’d oppose Ontario using federal money to defray the cost of the child-care tax credit.
But he used it to again underline a contrast between his approach and that of Ford and Scheer, his federal Conservative counterpart.
“I think one of the reflections people have to have right now is: when those agreements are up for renegotiation, who do you they want negotiating against the government of Ontario on that? Do you want for them (Ford’s government) to have their guy (Scheer) in government or do they want a strong Liberal government that is going to push back on the values we’ve always fought very hard for.”
Trudeau said additionally, the Liberal government’s Canada Child Benefit, which delivers increased payments directly to households through a monthly tax free cheque, is a measure that has made a difference for individual families and lifted 300,000 children out of poverty.
Trudeau contrasted that with what he said is Scheer’s “trickle down” approach that would give “benefits to the wealthy and would cut services for everyone else,” noting Scheer has not ruled out supporting “wealthy families who want to send their kids to private schools instead of supporting public education.”
Trudeau said his government has done what it promised on a range of other issues like affordable housing, gun violence, and infrastructure, saying the Liberal government stepped up to help big cities cover infrastructure costs where some provinces would rather spend on rural projects.