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Liberal MP Says Some Cabinet Ministers ‘Very Supportive’ Of Basic Income

The prime minister said in December that basic income was something he didn’t see a path to move forward on at the time.
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan, left to right, Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller, and Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages Melanie Joly and staff leave on the third and final day of the Liberal cabinet retreat in Ottawa on Sept. 16, 2020.
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan, left to right, Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller, and Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages Melanie Joly and staff leave on the third and final day of the Liberal cabinet retreat in Ottawa on Sept. 16, 2020.

OTTAWA — Liberal MP Julie Dzerowicz says her push for basic income has traction among her caucus colleagues, including a number of cabinet ministers.

Dzerowicz introduced a private members’ bill this week, Bill C-273, which calls on the federal finance minister to study guaranteed basic income models and develop a national strategy to evaluate how a program could be implemented in Canada.

“I will tell you that I do know that there’s cabinet ministers that are very supportive of basic income,” the Toronto MP told HuffPost Canada during a virtual meeting availability to discuss her bill Thursday.

There’s a “broad swath” of Liberal caucus members who support the idea, Dzerowicz said. “I don’t want to give you the number, but it’s quite a few.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau previously signaled that he isn’t in a hurry to endorse basic income yet. The government is still due to unveil details of promised new national programs, such as a child-care system and pharmacare.

Trudeau told Liberal party supporters in a virtual town hall back in December that basic income is “not something that we see a path to moving forward with right now.”

Watch: Trudeau says COVID-19 benefits will be scrapped for some. Story continues below video.

The realities of work are changing faster than ever, Dzerowicz said, adding an observation that more workers are shifting to the gig economy, making temporary short-term work increasingly common. Future job security is also being threatened by automation and artificial intelligence.

“There’s already strong and substantial existing information that supports the effectiveness of basic income,” Dzerowicz said. “But there is much less information on the best ways and models to deliver basic income.”

The term guaranteed basic income is sometimes used interchangeably with guaranteed livable income or a guaranteed annual income to mean a social-assistance program designed to help the lowest income-earners in society live above the poverty line by ensuring they have enough money to afford basic necessities of life such as food, clothing and shelter.

Universal basic income is another term that’s used by advocates. This term is synonymous with “demogrant,” which encapsulates a model where everyone is eligible for a cheque. Income-tested benefits are another model, as well as a negative income tax.

Bill will bring about ‘concrete evidence,’ says Liberal MP

Liberal MP Annie Koutrakis said if there’s anything to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that there’s a need for a basic income program.

Wayne Easter, Liberal chair of the House of Commons finance committee, said he would welcome a pilot project in his home province of Prince Edward Island. The province has asked Ottawa for nearly two years to pitch in with funding to help launch a pilot.

Easter seconded Dzerowicz’s bill and called it one step forward in collecting “concrete evidence” on what can be done.

The veteran MP and former Jean Chrétien cabinet minister said that though private member’s bills may not always get through the system to achieve royal assent, there are other avenues by which the policy can be implemented, such as by a federal budget.

Private member’s bills are limited in scope because only government bills are allowed to propose how public funds should be spent.

Dzerowicz called her bill Canada’s first-ever proposed legislation on a guaranteed basic income but some critics say people need help now, not more studies.

NDP MP Leah Gazan told HuffPost there’s a “dangerous” flaw in the bill because it leaves the door open for vital social assistance programs to be cut and replaced.

Gazan, her party’s critic for children, families, and social development, also said it’s repetitive of work that’s already been done.

“It’s yet another pilot project,” the Winnipeg Centre MP said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s not a strategy, it’s not an implementation strategy, it’s another study to assess an implementation strategy.”

The part of Bill C-273 that has Gazan alarmed is a subsection that stipulates for each basic income model tested, data and analyses be collected to measure its impact on government. This should include, the bill states, examining “the efficiency, flexibility, cost, continuity and responsiveness of program and service delivery models” and “the potential of a guaranteed basic income program to reduce the complexity of or replace existing social programs, to alleviate poverty and to support economic growth.”

Gazan said existing social programs need to be expanded to be more inclusive rather than be replaced entirely with something new, and that any basic income program must be implemented in addition to current and future government services, she said.

“We cannot afford cutbacks to our social safety net,” Gazan said. “Otherwise we run the risk of making people poorer.”

Gazan tabled a motion in August that asked the government to table legislation, and to work with the provinces and territories, as well as Indigenous peoples, to create a flexible basic income program reflective of regional differences in living costs.

New momentum for old idea

Basic income is an idea that goes back 500 years, premised on the notion that giving money to those living in poverty would be a more effective way to prevent crime than by punishing individuals.

“The cost savings of the criminal-legal system, the health-care system, are immense,” said Sen. Kim Pate about the link that continues to exist between poverty and crime during a virtual discussion about guaranteed basic income with Green Party Leader Annamie Paul on Monday.

An analysis of the “Mincome” project from the ’70s found that hospitalization rates in Dauphin, Man. fell among those who received supplementary basic income cheques.

The concept of basic income has circulated at the federal level for around 50 years after late senator David Croll called poverty the “social issue of our time” and proposed a basic income model as a potential tool to alleviate it.

Pate joined Dzerowicz on Thursday and suggested, “like so many issues,” that apathy is part of the reason why actions have been limited in recent decades.

“One of my Māori friends says, sometimes when you’re dealing with institutions that are predominantly male, pale, and stale, you’re stuck in those kinds of economic policies, and I think that’s a bit of what we’re dealing with as well.”

Recent reports written by expert panels assembled in British Columbia and Quebec to explore the viability of basic income recommended targeted reforms to strengthen existing social assistance programs may be a more preferential first step.

“The needs of people in this society are too diverse to be effectively answered simply with a cheque from the government,” read the B.C. expert panel report published in December.

According to the report, the province’s system of social programs comprises “120 provincial programs scattered across 12 ministries through 23 different points of access.”

The federal government plays a role with providing “72 programs through eight departments or agencies through 12 different points of access,” the report stated.

“Many gaps and inconsistencies remain, hampering the ability of the committed resources to provide the self-respect and social respect associated with a just society.”

‘Every crisis is a trend, accelerated’

Floyd Marinescu is founder of UBI Works, a non-profit group that advocates support for a universal basic income. Joining Dzerowicz’s press conference, he said basic-income models need to be studied in real life, not just their impact on recipients but to the wider community as well.

Pandemic recovery has so far been “uneven” and subject to polarization, he said Thursday.

“Every crisis is a trend, accelerated. And what COVID has shown us, in fast motion, might have taken five to 10 years in terms of the impacts of technological advancement on the labour market — which benefits some, but hurts many others.”

Watch: Vancouver’s $7,500 universal basic income experiment. Story continues below video.

According to a new report by the National Advisory Council on Poverty, one in nine Canadians experience poverty. Despite that statistic, some remain hesitant about the upfront costs to a potential basic income program.

An analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Officer found that a federal basic income, modelled after the parameters of Ontario’s scrapped pilot, would cost $76 billion in its first year, then level off to $44 billion annually thereafter.

Support for basic income gained additional momentum during the pandemic with the federal government’s deployment of the $2,000-per-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) as a vehicle to get money to Canadians whose livelihoods were suddenly impacted by COVID-19.

That program, which was delivered through both the Canada Revenue Agency and the Employment Insurance system, paid out $81.6 billion to 8.9 million people between March 15 to Oct. 3, according to government data.

Canadians living with disabilities experience higher costs of living. Those who rely on disability benefits to cover those costs found themselves ineligible for CERB, leaving them reliant on making end’s meet with social assistance cheques lower than the CERB payments deposited into millions of Canadians’ bank accounts.

The government later unveiled a benefit top-up for people living with disabilities: a one-time payment of up to $600.

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