Under Martin and Chretien the Liberals abandoned universality in favor of means tested programs. This pleased Stephen Harper. "Universality has been severely reduced: it is virtually dead as a concept in most areas of public policy…These achievements are due in part to the Reform Party" Dion continued in this vein and today Michael Igantieff also does. By turning every social program on offer into a form of welfare, the ability of the Liberals to offer anything other than tax cuts is very limited. It goes without saying that means tested social programs do not win elections; the populace is not going to get excited about paying for a service that only a small percentage of the public can use. Without returning to the concept of the universality the Liberals are destined to become virtually indistinguishable from the Conservatives on all but social issues and Ignatieff seems hell bent on changing that.
Of course, the one exception to such a dispiriting turn is the Liberals early childhood proposal. However, even here there are major problems. First and foremost, it is unclear as to what the Liberals are offering. The goal of the program was ostensibly to work with the provinces to set up an early childhood education program for children under 6. However, to the average voter this amounted to little more than a vague promise to provide more daycare -- which the Liberals said early childhood education was not --- at sometime in the future; they could not figure out what this would mean for their lives. To add insult to injury, Liberals willingness to consider different deals for different provinces has muddied things all the more.
If the Liberals reintroduce such a program in the future, they need to present it in a form in which voters can understand. This is what they should do. They should promise to provide all day preschool and kindergarten for every 4 and 5 year old in Canada.