BASIC INCOME GUARANTEE ON (AND OFF) THE FRONT PAGES IN CANADA


On Saturday, December 9th, just after the ruling Liberal Party won a
decisive victory in the Canadian Parliamentary election, the basic income
guarantee suddenly and surprisingly appeared on the front pages of
Canadian Newspapers. Under a banner headline, the National Post (one of
the most conservative national dailies in Canada) reported that Prime
Minister "Jean Chretien assembled a top-level committee in hopes of
creating a cradle-to-grave guaranteed annual income program that he hopes
will be his political legacy. This news was very exciting to basic income
supporters because the Liberal Party has the strength in Parliament to
pass any such proposal even over the objections of all the other major
parties. Several in the Post articles over three days claimed that
high-level sources had confirmed that the government was looking into the
idea, but one could easily miss the disclaimer in the first article
saying, "The prime minister's office refused comment and refused to
confirm the existence of the special committee." 

Although readers of the USBIG newsletter last April will remember that
Anthony Westell, of the Globe and Mail called for the Liberals to take up
Basic Income as an issue for the coming campaign, the Liberals ignored the
call and the issue was not discussed before the election. It was
surprising that the issue would then be brought up shortly after the
afterword, but a guaranteed income would help the Liberals fulfill
promises made during the campaign to use half of Canada's federal budget
surplus to restore funding to social programs and to attack child poverty.
Chretien was quoted as saying, "The fact is that our prosperity is not
shared by all. … As a Liberal, I believe that the government has the
responsibility to promote social justice." Such as speech would be
shocking in the United States, because he used the phrase, "As a Liberal." 

Over the following four days, the National Post followed with more
front-page articles including one with the headline, "Foes slam
'Socialistic Experiment.'" All of the other major parties managed to say
something negative about either the idea or the timing of the action. The
Conservative Party leader criticized both the timing and the idea although
his party seriously looked into an income guarantee in the 1970s. A
prominent member of the liberal NDP slammed the timing of the proposal
saying, "It makes a farce of our democratic system." Then, surprisingly,
he went on to say that the NDP supports it in principle and he bragged
that the NDP had pushed the Liberals to endorse the idea back in the
1960s. Similarly, a member the Quebec separatist party criticized the
timing and said that income support is a matter of provincial
jurisdiction, but did say that the idea was worth further study. The
harshest criticism came from Stockwell Day, the leader of Canada's
Alliance Party, which is known for being
more-conservative-than-the-Conservative Party. He accused the Liberals of
misleading the Canadians during the election and said that Chretien should
name a mountain after himself if he wants to leave a lasting legacy rather
than spend billions to fund a cradle-to-grave welfare program. Such harsh
criticism is surprising coming from the leader of the Alliance party
because the Reform Party (as Mr. Day's party was known before it
restructured two years ago) endorsed the guaranteed income in its election
platform in 1993 as a way to streamline Canada's convoluted
income-security programs. 

On December 13th, the basic income guarantee disappeared from Canadian
front pages as quickly it had appeared, when the Globe and Mail reported
in a small article on page 12 that Chretien denied any part in suggesting
the idea. Chretien said, "I don't know where that idea comes from. I
haven't said a word about it." While he was at it, he also denied any
desire to do anything to ensure that he has a lasting political legacy. 

Apparently what we witnessed was a trial balloon that was quickly shot
down. Still, there is apparently a high level committee looking into how
to fulfill the Liberals promise to use half of the budget surplus to fight
poverty. It is possible that the committee will consider the guaranteed
income as a way of achieving that goal. Chretien is not expected to say
how he will attack poverty until his Throne Speech next month. If the
committee endorses the idea, conceivably it could still happen. Given that
all five of the major parties have either endorsed or seriously considered
some form of income guarantee at one time or another, there is some hope
that a broad coalition in favor of the idea could develop: Although they
will differ about the amount of income redistribution that should be done,
the various Canadian politicians could conceivably agree that an income
guarantee is the best way to redistribute income. But, such an agreement
does not seem likely. Nor does it seem likely that Chretien will make such
a proposal or make the needed effort to create such a coalition.

If the basic income guarantee is to succeed in Canada--or anywhere
else--it will need strong political leadership that will do more than
float a trial balloon. Leaders will need to convince the public of the
need for an income guarantee and build up a constituency in favor of it.
As is, the trial balloon was only an exciting piece of good news to the
tiny minority of people in Canada who already knew of and supported the
idea. Most likely, the Liberals did not make the guaranteed income an
issue in the campaign because they did not believe it was a political
winner and they didn't believe enough in the idea to risk their nearly
certain electoral victory to promote it. However, if the leadership in
Canada's Liberal Party decides to make such a bold move, the enactment of
a basic income guarantee could be closer than most supporters would have
thought possible.

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist is an Associate Professor of political philosophy at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University, specializing in distributive justice—the ethics of who has what. Much of his work involves Universal Basic Income (UBI). He is a co-founder of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG). He served as co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) for 7 years, and now serves as vice-chair. He was the Editor of the USBIG NewsFlash for 15 years and of the BIEN NewsFlash for 4 years. He is a cofounder of BIEN’s news website, Basic Income News, the main source of just-the-facts reporting on UBI worldwide. He is a cofounder and editor of the journal Basic Income Studies, the only academic journal devoted to research on UBI. Widerquist has published several books and many articles on UBI both in academic journals and in the popular media. He has appeared on or been quoted by many major media outlets, such as NPR’s On Point, NPR’s Marketplace, PRI’s the World, CNBC, Al-Jazeera, 538, Vice, Dissent, the New York Times, Forbes, the Financial Times, and the Atlantic Monthly, which called him “a leader of the worldwide basic income movement.” Widerquist holds two doctorates—one in Political Theory form Oxford University (2006) and one in Economics from the City University of New York (1996). He has published seven books, including Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press 2017, coauthored by Grant S. McCall) and Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He has published more than a twenty scholarly articles and book chapters. Most Karl Widerquist’s writing is available on his “Selected Works” website (works.bepress.com/widerquist/). He writes the blog "the Indepentarian" for Basic Income News, and he is grantually moving content from this blog to there.
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