Social conservatism and public daycare

A flurry of arguments emerged yesterday in response to the New Democratic Party’s universal childcare proposal. In their various responses to the Official Opposition’s commitment to make daycare widely available at low cost in a manner broadly based on Quebec’s model, C/conservative talking heads and pundits trotted out all of the usual talking points levelled against universal social provisions.

Too expensive. Will cost taxpayers money. Big government no good. Big government bad.

In her interview with CBC’s Power and Politics Candace Bergen, the Minister of State for Social Development, painted the proposal as a costly and inefficient piece of government overreach. Stockwell Day, another panelist and former CPC cabinet minister, said much the same in the discussion which followed. Both took great care to portray the NDP’s suggestion as a bureaucratic boondoggle-in-waiting, paternalistic and coercive when compared to the ostensibly choice-based market model.

I don’t want to dwell too much on these arguments, since they’re easily debunked. We have a system of universal public education, but no one is forced to use it. We offer comprehensive medical insurance and a panel of shadowy state bureaucrats don’t assign you a GP. The government itself is projecting a multibillion dollar surplus in the near future, so any argument that public daycare is “too expensive” shouldn’t be given the time of day. (My friends at PressProgress have also published a great post showing where Bergen’s talking points come from, and it’s not a source from which most Canadians would want to take their political leads).

What struck me most about yesterday’s reactions wasn’t so much these arguments, since they were entirely predictable. What stood out was the socially conservative undertones I heard in the answers given by both Bergen and Day. Here’s an excerpt of what Bergen said:

What the NDP have proposed is basically a one size fits all approach to childcare. Our belief…is that parents are the very best people to decide how their children should be looked after…What about those parents in areas of the country where they want to take their child to a neighbour, stay home with their children themselves, maybe they want to take their child to a family member…somehow this notion that government run daycare is the only solution to childcare, I think is erroneous on the part of the NDP…the NDP mocked the [Conservative-introduced] universal child benefit, and we know what the Liberals think of parents having that kind of choice. We have been consistent in our core belief that parents should decide and that one size fits all, especially these big, huge government run programs…we’re not going down that path…Overall this isn’t something [that] the federal government should come to families and dictate how they address their childcare needs…

There are several themes emphasized here, most of which I’ve already dealt with. But notice how keen Bergen seems to portray the public daycare option as somehow anti choice. I’m sure she knows that the existence of public daycare wouldn’t preclude people from choosing how their kids are looked after. A parent who takes their toddler to a grandparent’s house isn’t going to be arrested by the daycare police any more than someone who takes their child to a private school rather than one run by a public school board has to fear bureaucratic interference.

In the course of my investigations yesterday I also discovered this piece, which emerged from the 2006 childcare debate (to be exact, it was posted on Facebook by Sun News journalist David Akin, who appeared to be endorsing it) . Having mounted a peculiar and impenetrably wonkish critique of Quebec’s daycare program, the author inadvertently says something extremely revealing:

Since the only way to benefit from this program is to choose to go to work, it’s not so much a child care program so much as a program designed to encourage mothers to return to work. 

This is a remarkably incoherent statement, akin to suggesting that public healthcare incentivizes people to get sick or break their own legs in order to receive free treatment. However, I think it also reveals something of the real reason that many C/conservatives are uncomfortable with public daycare: namely, because it increases the possibility that one parent in a heterosexual family unit (almost invariably the woman) will work and obtain an income outside of the home.

Since the argument that the creation of a public daycare option is somehow anti-choice is transparently nonsensical, it’s pretty obvious that there’s another kind of anxiety motivating these sorts of objections to the NDP’s proposal and others like it.

Social conservatism, which emphasizes a homogenous and unchanging view of community life and affords a role for the state in determining how social and cultural units like the family should be constructed, hasn’t appeared to play a significant role in Canadian politics since the 1990s (when both the Liberal and Conservative parties had a substantial number of MPs who opposed both equal marriage and abortion). It arguably had its last audible gasp when Stephen Harper tried and failed to reopen the marriage debate in 2006. Since then it has been actively suppressed in the Conservative caucus, to the ire of many activists. Stockwell Day, who yesterday echoed many of Bergen’s remarks, once explicitly rejected the notion that it was possible to be both socially liberal and fiscally conservative, remarking:

[While] fiscal conservatives/social liberals are sincere…[they] misunderstand what conservatism is about. Conservatism is about acknowledging the permanent facts about human nature…[Without such recognition]…society’s social reality [sic] would disintegrate…

Social conservatism (arguably all conservatism, though this is a question for another occasion) is primarily motivated by a deep-seated fear of change and of the altered social, economic, and cultural dynamics change inevitably brings about. (As the American political theorist Corey Robin has convincingly argued, conservatism in general is inherently reactive to democratic or emancipatory pressures and, as such, is neither a fixed or unchanging phenomenon – despite its pretensions to be about the “permanent facts of human nature”).

Yesterday’s talking points, which mirror those we heard in 2006, suggest that social conservatism is alive and well in Canadian politics, if concealed behind a fiscal conservative smokescreen. What motivates the arguments made by conservatives like Bergen and Day isn’t really a fear of government overreach, overspending, or state paternalism: it’s the idea that the so-called traditional family, and its patriarchal division of labour, might be disrupted if more parents have access to childcare through a public option.

In quite familiar tones, then, we’re confronted with a crude and vulgar anti-feminism hiding itself behind the rhetoric of “choice”, which begs the question: which position here is the more paternalistic?

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