UPDATE: Ontario NDP promises free childcare for low-income parents

Ontario's New Democrats are promising free child care for low-income families and more funding for hospitals if they win the spring election, a move some experts saw as an attempt to regain ground the party has lost to the Liberals.

The promises were contained in the party's fully costed election platform -- called "Change for the Better" -- released Monday by NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

"For too long, the people of Ontario have been forced to settle for less than what we know is possible," Horwath said. "We've been told to switch back and forth, from the Liberals to the Conservatives and back again. As though the only choice is between bad and worse. And look where it's gotten us."

The NDP child-care plan would be phased in over five years, would be free for households that earn $40,000 or less, and would grow to include infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Fees for parents earning more than $40,000 would be based on ability to pay and the party says the average fee for families would be $12 a day.

Hospitals would see funding boosted by 5.3 per cent -- $916 million -- in the first year of an NDP government. It would maintain year-over-year increases at 5.3 per cent.

The party projects five consecutive deficits to pay for its promises, starting with a $3.3 billion deficit in 2018-2019. The deficit would peak at just over $5 billion in 2020-2021, and decrease to $1.9 billion by 2022-2023.

Horwath said the decreasing deficits would help the province eventually get back to balance.

"It's a very clear trend to get back to balance," she said. "We think that that's an important thing. We don't want to trade off the balanced budget against the fundamental basics that Ontarians should be able to expect a government to be able to provide."

The NDP platform was analysed by former federal parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, who says its costing of individual measures is "reasonable."

Horwath said the Tories would cut services while the Liberals would wait until problems sprung up to address them, but an NDP government would bring the change Ontarians want.

"People are fed up with politicians who offer nothing more than sound bites and decisions that just keep making life harder for themselves and their families," she said. "I am here today because it doesn't have to be this way."

The NDP would increase taxes on people earning more than $220,000 by one percentage point, and those earning more than $300,000 by two percentage points.

The party's platform also includes a number of previously announced promises including a pledge to return Hydro One to public ownership, to cut hydro rates by 30 per cent, and establish universal dental and pharmacare programs.

The party would also spend billions to increase Ontario Works and Ontario disability payments to recipients across the province over their mandate. And it would increase access to mental heath care to 28,000 more Ontario residents by adding 2,200 new mental health workers over five years.

The platform further calls for the addition of 15,000 additional long-term care beds, with spending ramping up over five years from $164 million to $923 million.

The party would also add a 3 per cent surcharge on vehicles that cost more than $90,000, which it expects will raise $12 million a year. The NDP is also promising to cut auto insurance rates by 15 per cent, echoing a promise the Liberal government made in 2013 and has thus far failed to achieve.

Barry Kay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the NDP platform is an attempt to break through a media landscape dominated by the Liberal government and the Tories who lead in the polls.

"More than anything the NDP just want to get noticed," Kay said. "The fact that the Liberals have pushed left out of desperation ... has very much encroached upon their territory."

Kay said while Horwath is still very popular -- with her approval ratings consistently topping both the Liberal and Tory leaders -- it hasn't translated to broadening the appeal of her party.

"If the NDP is going to catch fire it's going to be because the Liberals have done such damage to each other during the course of the campaign. ... They have to keep above the fray and not get too involved in gutter politics."

The Liberals said the NDP platform would use $6.5 billion in money budgeted for health care, education and transit to buy back shares of Hydro One.

"Ontario Liberals had hoped the NDP would join us in campaigning against Doug Ford and on the side of care, instead of cuts," the party statement said.

The Tories, meanwhile, said their party was the only one offering voters a positive change.

The province heads to the polls June 7.