Like the Virginia Slims cigarette ad slogan ”œYou’ve come a long way baby,” that successfully tapped into a feminist desire for women’s freedom in the late 1960s " even as it enslaved them to tobacco " the Conservative government’s $10.9-billion child care plat- form in the January 2006 federal election campaign ini- tially appeared friendly to women, even to feminists.

Primarily, it promised to give women ”œchoice” " a word closely associated with the feminist pro-choice movement " in child care options; and, secondly, it promised to recognize the contribution of stay-at-home mums by paying them, a long-sought-after goal of the women’s rights movement.

For a party that consistently polled lower with women than with men, it seemed a smart sales strategy: The Conservatives were not only apparently listening to women and responding to their needs " they appreciat- ed their work!

But did the promise live up to the reality? And, more important, did journalists provide critical reporting and analysis of the platform? Not by a long shot " until the ballots were cast and the Conservatives rose to power on a marquee platform that even their analysts would later deem a failure.

Here’s how it happened: On December 5, 2005, the Conservatives promised $10.9 billion over five years for child care, including ”œ$1.4 billion to honour the Liberal government’s agreements with the provinces until the end of the 2006-07 fiscal year and $1.25 billion in grants or tax credits to encourage businesses and community groups to create 125,000 new daycare spots over five years,” the Globe and Mail reported. But the heart of the plan was a pledge to give parents $1,200 a year for every preschool child to spend on daycare " however they wanted to. The plan would benefit about 2 million children under six, ”œbut because some is taxed back, [it] would cost about $1.6 bil- lion a year, or $8.25 billion over five years,” the Globe said.

That plan was to double the $5 billion over five years that the Liberals had earlier announced to create 625,000 new child-care spaces, and the Liberals responded that day, announcing a new, richer plan that would provide $11 bil- lion " over 10 years. Upping the ante still further, on January 11, the NDP announced its largest ”œsingle spending proposal is $16 billion over four years to boost the Child Tax Benefit by $1,000 per child, finance 200,000 more child-care spaces and create a children’s commissioner,” the Globe reported.

The Conservative Party seemed to have designed an entire election campaign around an issue traditionally more of concern to women than to men " and the other parties followed suit.

But despite the enormous money being committed and the amount of newspaper ink devoted to covering the options, child care advocates such as Martha Friendly, coordinator of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit at the University of Toronto, and Don Giesbrecht, president of the Winnipeg- based Canadian Child Care Federation, claim the media coverage of the pro- gram was shallow and lacking in criti- cal analysis of whether it could actually deliver what it promised: choice, child care spaces and money.

”œWe were quick to respond to draw attention to what was at stake here,” says Giesbrecht, who realized the Liberal plan " which had already negotiated five years of financing with the provinces to create a national early childhood educa- tion and child care program " would be dismantled if the Conservatives were elected. ”œBut [our press releases] were like tumbleweeds going across the valley, because there was so little uptake on it. We were waiting for the controversy to begin, for [reporters] to let us tell them our side,” he says.

It never happened.

Friendly was similarly frustrated. Why, she wondered, were reporters fail- ing to ”œaudit” the platform’s ability to deliver? Further, her efforts to garner attention for the shortcomings and mis- information about the plan, as well as the importance of a national early child- hood education program, were broadly ignored. Similarly, Giesbrecht says let- ters written by his organization were never published in western papers.

As daycare advocate NDP MP Denise Savoie says, coverage of the Conservative program was further ham- pered by a media obsession with a 30- second sound bite from Scott Reid, communications director to Prime Minister Paul Martin, who " referring to the Conservative promise to pay par- ents $100 a month for every child under six " said: ”œDon’t give people 25 bucks a week to blow on beer and popcorn. Give them child care spaces that work.”

So were the critics right? Yes.

Analysis of articles in Canada’s two English-language national news- papers, the Globe and Mail and National Post, taken between the day the Tory program was announced and election day, January 23, 2006, indi- cates the Conservative Party got an easy ride from the media on its so- called ”œpro-choice” child care plan. Primarily this was because of differ- ences between the ways the media cover ”œhard” news issues, such as crime, wars and the economy, and how they cover ”œsoft” news issues, such as child care, historically of more interest to women because they are more affected by them; but another factor was the complexities of report- ing from the campaign trail.

Much has been written by news analysts, such as Kay Mills, Laura Flanders, Michele Mattelart and Cory L. Armstrong, on how women and women’s issues are sidelined by the media, how issues pushed by female reporters are given less weight in papers than those by male reporters and how news judgments are made overwhelmingly by male editors on how much space or how many stories " if any " will be devoted to issues perceived as women’s interests, and all of these theories appear to apply to the reporting on the child care platform.

According to the Toronto Star’s Laurie Monsebraaten, who reports on child care issues, female reporters are afraid to push for ”œwomen’s issues” stories because of concerns that it will sideline their career and that " ”œbecause most newspapers are run by men” " their efforts will be wasted. ”œUnless an editor thinks your story is exciting it’s not going to get play,” she says.

But child care was big news in the 2006 election. There was something else at play in the lack of critical reporting on the platform: who was quoted, and who was reporting.

Though poll results indicated women were more con- cerned about child care than men, and that they were more nervous about a Conservative government than men, not only were men " who Statistics Canada reports are less likely to be responsible for child care " the promi- nent sources in the child care stories, but male columnists were the primary analysts. So why did reporters choose them to tell the story? Armstrong’s analysis suggests reporters often quote sources because of their prominent position, rather than their knowledge " something that favours male voices.

The fact the Tory child care plat- form was introduced during an election campaign might also explain the lack of analysis and congruity in reporting on it. Election campaigns are covered not only by journalists who report off and on from the campaign trail " as they are replaced by colleagues " but by reporters back in the newsroom who are picking up on announcements made across the country, making it dif- ficult for any one reporter to build expertise on any one platform.

And there’s another factor analysts point to: editorial agendas.

University of New Brunswick professor Luc Theriault examined cover- age of daycare issues in the National Post in the lead-up to the election. He argues that fully a year before the elec- tion, the paper framed the Liberal day- care policy as a ”œbureaucratic social program” or a ”œmassive top-down gov- ernment-run program” that served the middle class, rather than those who need it, in a series of articles which cul- minated on December 11, 2004, with an editorial titled: ”œSay No to the Nanny State.”

So did the Post series act as a pre- emptive strike against the Liberals child care program? Monsebraaten of the Star, admittedly a paper whose own views are on the left, agrees the Post influences other media. ”œIt’s really pushed the media to the right.”

And there’s another factor: Mattelart argues that in times of crisis, so-called family issues are emphasized in politics aimed at increasing the birth rate, discouraging abortion and penalizing households where both par- ents are breadwinners.

Canada is not in crisis and there is currently a shortage, not an excess, of manpower. Nonetheless, the Conservative child care platform, which rewarded one-income families over two- income ones " seemed aimed at penal- izing homes where both parents work. Was it to encourage higher  fertility rates, currently below replacement rates, or simply to promote conserva- tive values?

Or was it an attack against higher salaries for daycare workers? While the platform appeared aimed at paying for child care, a much stronger concern voiced in the Conservative side of the debate was the notion that the estab- lishment of government-subsidized quality daycare in Quebec had resulted in unionization of child care workers and a demand for improved wages. In fact, not only was child care not going to be free, or worth the Tory offer of $100 a month, but the cost might increase if the rest of the country fol- lowed Quebec’s lead.

In short, Mum is cheaper.

Here’s how the two papers report- ed on the Tory plan.

Globe and Mail: The day after the Harper child care policy was announced, the Globe’s editorial warned that the $100-a-month tax credit for every child ”œwill do little to assist anyone’s choice,” ”œthat many parents need to go out to work and require affordable daycare,” that ”œgov- ernment has an obligation to make women’s equality concrete by support- ing child care in various ways,” includ- ing ”œoffering financial support to help facilitate the choice to work,” that the current tax system ”œpenalizes” the choice of stay-at-home parents and makes it unaffordable for some, while $113 million of the $545-million feder- al tax subsidy of $7,000 for each child ”œwent to individuals earning more than $100,000 a year” and much of it went to those earning more than $200,000. The Globe advised Harper to target support at those who need it, or use the $2.5 billion to lower taxes across the board " and, importantly, reported that ”œchoice” was about appearance, not about reality: ”œWhile his child-care policy, with its element of choice, looks superior to that of his opponents, it would help those in need far more if it were actually targeted at them.”

But from that point on, that mes- sage " which turned out to be correct " was lost. Even articles printed the same day " including an analysis piece " did not critique the effectiveness of a plan the editorialists noted wouldn’t deliver.

Further, the paper was unsuccess- ful in obtaining analysis or criticism from the majority of provinces that would lose money they’d negotiated with the Liberals to create child care programs. Nor did it seek reports from the daycare centre operators or organi- zations that had created new programs in anticipation of monies already in the works that would now be lost " or parents on daycare waiting lists. Those stories would come after the election.

Another opportunity for analysis was missed when the Globe reported the results of a Strategic Counsel poll on December 8 that found 48 percent approved of the Harper child care pro- posal and 45 percent liked the Liberal program. But when analyzed by gen- der the poll found 50 percent of women preferred the Liberal plan, compared with 40 percent of men, while 52 percent of men liked Harper”˜s idea best, compared with 43 percent of women.

There was something else at play that negatively skewed analysis: the misuse of a 2003 Vanier Institute of the Family national survey of Canadian values to support the Tory plan, which appeared in Margaret Wente’s column in the Globe on December 10, among many other places. ”œDid I mention that most par- ents say they’d rather stay home with their kids if they could afford to? Mr. Martin doesn’t have a nickel for them,” she wrote.

But as Allan MacKay, president of Vanier, noted in the Globe the day before, the notion that the Vanier Institute’s 2003 study indicated ”œCanadians do not want to support a national system of early child care” was wrong. The study found ”œin an ideal world, the No. 1 choice of people is to have one’s partner, followed by one’s parent, then another relative, followed by home-based, followed by a child-care centre.” But because par- ents know they don’t live in a perfect world, almost 70 percent ”œare pre- pared to see their tax dollars help cover the costs of supplemental child care,” and one-third ”œtold us that child care for parents working outside the home is a ”˜very high priority,’” he explained, apparently futilely.

Then came Reid’s beer and pop- corn quote. That led to a December 13 editorial that reversed the paper’s earlier position that the Conservative plan did not offer choice, and instead praised the Conservatives for placing ”œthe issue of choice on the table.”

National Post: The day before the Tory plan was announced, National Post writer Heather Sokoloff set out details of the expected child care pro- grams, and in rare reporting on the Conservative program, interviewed people representing both sides of the debate, including women. But after the platform was announced, reporters on the campaign trail did not challenge the veracity of the pro- gram, and instead quoted Harper say- ing something now known to be false: ”œIt’s a universal payment, but the heaviest benefits are at the lowest income.” Nor did reporters challenge Conservative child care spokesperson Rona Ambrose on her report that two- thirds of Canadians want care that’s not institutional " another misrepre- sentation of the Vanier study.

Meanwhile, an editorial on December 6 proclaimed, ”œOn child care, Harper’s got it right,” and lauded a Conservative plan that would put money into parents’ hands ”œthat could be spent on whatever form of care best suits their kids’ needs best " be it for- mal daycare, babysitting or stay-at- home parenting,” though there were no requirements the money actually be spent on child care.

The word ”œchoice” made it into headlines, as well, creating the illusion it existed. ”œA Question of Choice,” declared the headline over Tory Hugh Segal’s regular election analysis. ”œTories think government should facil- itate choices and opportunities for Canadians. The Liberal/NDP establish- ment believes they know best, and if something is not state-run, then it can- not be of any value at all.”

What is astonishing is not that this rhetoric made it into a political pun- dit’s column, but that it was repeated in quotes from male politicians on an almost daily basis in Canada’s national newspapers without challenge.

The newspapers, for the most part, failed to analyze whether the $100 a month would enable parents to choose to put their children into child care; whether it would enable women to leave the workplace and stay home; or how much of that $100 parents would retain after taxes " and where they would ultimately spend it.

Nor was there analysis of language used to sell the program: Harper used the term ”œinstitutionalized” daycare programs to disparage the Liberal plan, and ”œchoice” to promote his own. ”œYou can choose the childcare option that best suits your family’s need,” the Globe quoted him as saying. ”œGovernment should support your choices, not limit them” " though his plan did nothing of the sort.

Harper’s language so successfully drew on feminist catchphrases that one Post reader wrote: ”œI find it ironic that Paul Martin is pro-choice when it comes to abortion rights, but is anti-choice when it comes to deciding how parents should raise their children.”

In short, child care was a major election issue, but whether readers were informed by the reporting on it was doubtful.

Fast-forward to the year after the election, and the portrayal of the pro- gram was very critical, indicating readers had not understood the child care plat- forms " and journalists hadn’t either.

Newspapers reported that Harper’s promise to create 125,000 new child care spaces in five years through tax incentives for businesses and grants for community groups was impossible to fulfill: A simi- lar $10-million plan initiat- ed by the Mike Harris government in Ontario had not created one new space between 1998 and 2004. They also reported the government had to establish a task force to make recommendations on how to encour- age businesses to create the promised child care spaces " consultation one might think might have been done before the proposal was dropped in the election campaign.

And in an article titled ”œChild-Care Proposal Gives Least to Poorest,” the Globe gave front-page coverage to an update on a Caledon Institute of Social Policy report, released during the elec- tion campaign, which neither the Globe or the Post had covered then. Its analysis indicated families earning $30,000 to $40,000 were the least likely to benefit from the plan. A family with two chil- dren, with one under six, earning $36,000, for example, would net only $388 a year for the child out of the $1,200. Though neither the Globe nor the Post reported that, the Post did pub- lish Harper’s earlier-mentioned con- tention " unchallenged " that the Tory plan would help the middle class and poor, while the Liberal plan wouldn’t.

After the election, and after the Conservative government announced it was axing a Canadian Child Tax Benefit (CCTB) that was due to pay out $249 annually, Caledon’s updated study found that those who make $200,000 a year or more, with one parent already at home " in short, those who already have plenty of choice " benefit the most. They get to keep, after taxes, $1,076 of the $1,200 annual amount. Families that benefit the least: those with two working parents and a combined income of $30,000. Out of the $1,200 for each child, they’ll net a shocking $199.

As Ed Gillis, a legislative assistant in NDP MP Savoie’s office, explained, the rest is going back to Ottawa as an ”œincome tax claw back of $244 mil- lion that the Conservatives have refused to reinvest in child care,” on top of the $400 million they saved when they axed the CCTB.

Though the Caledon report was freely available during the campaign, the papers failed to report on it " but apparently not for lack of resources. Consider how the Globe hired the C.D. Howe Institute to compare which tax platform would most benefit taxpay- ers: a cut to the GST, promised by the Conservatives, or a cut to income taxes promised by the Liberals. The money was there to compare tax proposals, but not the platform that most affect- ed women, though it was a main plat- form plank for all three major parties.

Newspapers also reported that families were surprised to find " as they filed their income tax returns in the spring of 2007 " that they had to pay tax on the child care benefit. While that was reported during the campaign, it apparently hadn’t sunk in, possibly because of a lack of emphasis. Reporting something is tax- able is much different, as the C.D. Howe example illustrates, than show- ing readers with charts and studies.

And the kicker post-election story? The government spent $123,205 on a study that informed them that Scott Reid may have been right about beer and popcorn: ”œThe general consensus was that the $1,200 will not have any real impact on child-care choices and instead will be used to help with the next bill… No one is going to be in a position to go back to work or stay at home to raise children because of the $1,200.”

Post-election newspaper analysis and reporting was so critical that the Harper government announced major changes to his marquee election prom- ise in the March 2007 budget. Acknowledging business was not going to create 125,000 spaces, Harper reversed the plan to give $250 million a year in tax credits and incentives to business and community groups, and instead transferred those monies to the provinces, as the Liberals had planned, to create child care spaces the Tories had earlier painted as bureaucratic and institutional. The step was taken months after the government received the task force study that reported what business was saying all along " business owners don’t have the money, time or expertise to create daycare spaces, something Canadian Federation of Independent Business president Catherine Swift had long been pointing out.

The budget reversal achieved what no amount of effort on the part of child care advocates during the election could: It led to a flurry of news stories analyzing the failures of the Conservative child care program. Giesbrecht noted he had conversations with reporters during budget week, ”œwhere they’ve actually asked the questions they should have asked a year ago like: ”˜What if? What’s at stake here?’ Those questions were not being asked in the last election.”

In the end, neither paper gave readers a complete picture " until after the election.

The fact that those being quoted, unchallenged in most reports with alternative viewpoints, were, like Conservative leader Stephen Harper, mostly privileged men with a political stake in defending the Conservative child care program definitely influenced the quality of analysis, while the one woman on the file, Conservative MP and ”œchild care” critic Rona Ambrose, simply repeated Harper’s mes- sage. And there was another place the female voice was missing during the campaign " and that was on analysis.

Political pundits in the papers were all men: In the Globe, the three strategist critics were Moe Sihota, Thomas Axworthy and Peter Donolo. In the Post, Conservative pundit Hugh Segal squared off against Liberal John Duffy. They had representation from various party followings " but not from half of Canada’s population.

And while female journalists like the Globe’s Gloria Galloway and the Post’s Sokoloff were reporting on the stories, analysis, for the most part, was by men: Andrew Coyne and Don Martin in the Post and Jeffrey Simpson and Lawrence Martin in the Globe, with Margaret Wente weighing in once, incorrectly, as it turned out.

Martin, for example, analyzed the child care program announced by the Tories in one paragraph, and conclud- ed: ”œ[For] a $1,200 grant for every six and under child, parents could hire a relative or family member to give far superior loving care.” For $1,200 a year?

But what also may have skewed coverage was the women whose voices were not heard until after the cam- paign, including the 70 percent of women with kids aged three to five who work outside the home and the 65 per- cent of all women with children under three who work for pay " or, memo- rably, immigrants forced to send their children back to China to be raised by grandparents because they couldn’t afford daycare on minimum wages.

The Citizen’s Norma Greenaway was later perplexed to discover readers didn’t realize they had to pay tax on the $1,200 annual credit, or that the pro- gram, in the end, wasn’t about choice. ”œMost mothers I know knew it was tax- able, and though the [political] focus was on choice, to me it was so clear it wasn’t going to provide choice.”

But in retrospect the Globe’s Galloway thought there was a lack of analysis on the word ”œchoice,” and how much parents would retain of the $100. ”œWe probably could have poked much bigger holes in child care, specif- ically, than we did before and during the campaign,” she says, though she does not attribute it to gender issues.

In the end, confusion in the pub- lic’s mind may have spelled the end of a child care program, not just for this election, but for many more: ”œWe had a sniff at a future of actually putting together a national system of early learning and child care,” says Giesbrecht. ”œ[Now] we’re as far from it as we’ve ever been.”

Greenaway agrees: ”œTo be honest, I’m convinced there won’t be a big program to create universal child care in our lifetime. I think it’s gone.”