The 2016 Liberal budget was quite a different beast from the 2017 budget on which the Liberals are running for re-election. Sure, it shared with the current version the obsession with achieving balance at the expense of public sector wages. But aside from that, it was leftish, featuring new spending on income assistance, childcare and disability supports.
The Liberals seemed proud of those initiatives, too. Childcare was such a big deal the Premier announced it at the Liberal annual general meeting. In 2016 the increase in assistance rates was declared “historic,” and the modest increase in spending on disability supports rated several mentions in the budget. At the time, I wrote a piece here posing the question: “Token Gesture or Welcome First Steps.” Sadly, based on the 2017 budget, the answer has to be “Token Gesture.”
The tokenism of last year’s gesture on income assistance is pretty obvious. The Liberals expect to spend slightly less on this program in 2017-18. When inflation is taken into account, this amounts to a 2.2% cut. Families with children will be cushioned from the effect of budget austerity by increases in the federal Canada Child Benefit that came into effect last year. But the most needy – single recipients with no child benefits – will be at the mercy of the shrunken income assistance allotment. Moreover, because their incomes are too low, they get nothing from the modest tax cuts contained in the budget. And low-income Nova Scotians will find little solace in the budget’s commitment of $2 million this year “to fund a plan to address poverty in Nova Scotia.”
The story on childcare is more complicated. The Liberals are increasing the overall allotment for early childhood development by just under $8 million. That may look impressive – until you consider two factors. First, the child-care system the Liberals started to fix with their 2016 budget cried out for significant investment. Wages for child care workers were the lowest in the country as were subsidies to low-income families. Fees were high, and the number of regulated spaces insufficient. The other confounding factor is that the Liberals seem to be putting nearly half of the new money into expanding school-based pre-primary programs for four-year-olds.
The idea of pre-primary for four-year-olds has been around for a while. The Conservatives piloted it in 2005 but cancelled it three years later. In 2014 the Liberals re-introduced it in eight schools in low-income neighbourhoods. But the place of pre-primary in an improved early learning and child care system wasn’t even dealt with in “Affordable, Quality Child Care: A Great Place to Grow,” the government’s five-year day care plan released just last June.
But that was then. Now pre-primary seems to be using up much of the oxygen in the early learning room. Once worthy of top billing at the Liberal AGM, child care received a few mentions in the budget. But pre-primary – with the Premier’s promise to make it universally available by 2020 at a cost of $49 million- was the marquee promise on day four of the election campaign. Whether this is good policy or just electioneering I don’t know, not being an expert. But as an advocate for people, like my son, who have developmental disabilities I do know a bit more about the third area that received prominence in the progressive-sounding 2016 budget – the disability support program.
Transforming the disability support program over ten years from one characterized by long waiting lists and a gross over-reliance on institutional care into a community-based system serving all those in need was an initiative of the Dexter government. The McNeil government adopted the policy direction but last year’s budget marked the first time any new money was added to achieve the transformation- $2.2 million “to help Nova Scotians with disabilities transition out of facility-based care into the community.”
If anyone hoped that this was the start of something big, she would be disappointed by the 2017 budget. Nova Scotians with developmental disabilities were not among the chosen winners. The 2016 modest start was followed by a modest 2017 follow-up. Funding for transformation increased only slightly, with $2.1 million going to create 12-16 small option beds and the rest – about $750,000 – to assist about 25 individuals who must also rely on family support or some other community network.
If things go as planned this year, a mere 50 individuals will have been helped to live in the community at the end of year four of a ten-year process. But wait lists have increased from 1,100 to over 1,340 in the past year, and Nova Scotia continues to be a shameful anomaly with some 550 individuals still housed in large institutions, even as all but a few provinces have closed such facilities. Meanwhile, the Minister has tried to excuse the lack of progress with dubious claims about “tragedies” that occurred in other provinces when institutions were closed too quickly. 
It’s an over-used expression, but appropriate in this case. In their drive for re-election, the Liberals have thrown those 2016 budget initiatives under the campaign bus. They have been triaged out by the more traditional political necessities such as highways, tax cuts and handouts to business.
 It appears the minister is referring to events at the Michener Centre in Alberta which was closed without adequate notice, then re-opened following political pressure inflamed by unproven assertions linking the deaths of several former residents to their relocation in the community.
Child care certainly is more complicated.
For the past 2 years, the Department has been consulting with the child care sector and made recommendations in 2016 which are in the process of being implemented. The recommendations of the review do not include expansion of a pre-primary program. The Department has said that this is not in any of their plans and is counter to the recommendations of their Review.
There seems to be two possible reasons for this seemingly ad-hoc plan for a province-wide pre-primary program.
1. The Department of Education has for two years been acting in good faith, only to have a Liberal Party policy person convince the government to make this a key campaign plank, much to the surprise of the Department (seemingly likely) OR
2. There is such blatant disrespect and contempt for the child care sector within the Department of Education, that they continued to string centres along on a promise of a new curriculum framework and quality standards knowing full well that they will take it away months later, using centres as a testing ground for new public school curriculum.
Despite no answers from the Department on what this means – a Strategic Growth Plan and new Funding formula was due out months ago, but remains on hold until at least after the election – the Department is continuing to pilot a new curriculum with 42 centres without discussing if the long term plan is to actually remove 4+ children and them and place them in schools.
The Liberals pre-primary plan is apparently based on the success of the 8 early years centres – however – the department is still evaluating these centres and findings are not expected for another 1.5 years. Based on the operation of the EYCs however, parents are also not being told that a pre-primary program likely means the following: there will be more children per teacher; it will be managed by the school board; centres wont actually be licensed centres and will play by a different set of rules; ECEs (who just had wage floors introduced by the Department in October 2016) may be paid less than the wage floor and they are not under the same agreements, and may be laid off over summer months; parents will still need to find care on snow days, pd days, summer months, creating an even more ad-hoc and likely more unlicensed spectrum of options; and a big issue is the number of transitions and travel times (and how they will get around) that this will introduced into the lives of children and families. There is no research that backed up this approach and it has failed elsewhere. 10 years after introducing this program, it is not working in Ontario. While there can be benefits to underserved areas, it creates a mess in the urban/suburban areas. There cost estimates provided by the Liberals do not align with the real costs of delivering such services. And while making schools a hub of the community is an excellent idea in theory, the plan has a major flaw – the school boards have been for many years replacing small neighbourhood schools with bigger district facilities, more detached from the communities that they serve.
I don’t believe the Department supports this campaign plan. 30 new Early Years Centres in underserved areas may be a good investment. A provincewide roll out of pre-primary program with no analysis or bigger vision for the integration of public schools and child care is not.