Guy Caron is not a household name in Canadian politics. Yet.
But Caron kicked off his campaign for the New Democratic Party leadership this week with a policy proposal that’s becoming the subject of a lot of political chatter in Canada and beyond: a guaranteed basic income.
The idea could well become the sleeper issue in Canadian politics in 2017 — not just in the NDP but across the political spectrum, drawing in non-partisan advocates as well.
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and PayPal, has thrown his considerable international profile behind the idea of a guaranteed basic income in recent months, arguing that governments may have no other option as more and more people lose their jobs to technology.
In an interview with CNBC in late 2016, Musk said: “There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation... I am not sure what else one would do.”
The demise of manufacturing jobs — and the fraught question of what to do about it — seems to have separated the political world into two camps: one consisting of those who believe that the job losses are due to open trade or foreign competition, and another made up of those who believe that technology is to blame. The basic income idea is coming mainly from this second group.
Donald Trump, the new U.S. president, falls into the “blame-trade” category, of course. His predecessor, Barack Obama, did not. When former president Obama was in Ottawa for the “Three Amigos” summit last year — many months before Trump’s victory — he laid out the trade-automation division quite neatly at a press conference with reporters.
The subject then was how to sell open trade as a burgeoning populist political climate was turning against it. “This nostalgia,” Obama said, “about an era when everybody was working in manufacturing jobs and you didn’t need a college degree, and you could go in and as long as you worked hard, you could support a family and live a middle-class life — that has been undermined far more by automation than it has been by outsourcing or the shift of jobs to low-income or low-wage countries.”
A couple of months later, talking about this same phenomenon, Obama told Wired magazine that the answer might well be a basic guaranteed income. “Now, whether a universal income is the right model... is it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people?... That’s a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years,” he said.
Trump’s victory — and his many promises to make America great again by shredding or “tweaking” trade deals — may have stalled this conversation in the U.S., or at least in the White House, for a few years.
But here in Canada it’s very much alive, and not just because of Caron’s nascent leadership campaign.
In Ontario, a pilot program for a basic income is under very active consideration. The provincial Liberal government has been holding public consultations over the past few months, acting on recommendations in a discussion paper by former Conservative senator Hugh Segal.
Segal has suggested that the government provide a basic income of about $1,320 per month, and that the program be tested over three years in three different types of communities in Ontario.
Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government has promised to offer details in April about where and how the program would be tested in Ontario. Federally, the Commons finance committee called on the federal government a year ago to consider a pilot study of its own.
The fact that the proposal is popping up in Liberal governments and is being championed by New Democrats and Conservatives (okay, Red Tories) should tell us something about its potential pan-partisan popularity. So too should its possible ability to address some big problems.
Job losses make governments anxious; so too do questions about the long-term sustainability of the public health-care system. Danielle Martin, the doctor many Canadians know from her appearances on CBC and other public forums, has written one of the must-read books for 2017 on the future of health care in Canada — Better Now: Six Big Ideas to Improve Health Care for All Canadians.
Idea number five in Martin’s book is... a guaranteed basic income. Martin is fond of citing the results of a 1970s experiment in basic income, called “Mincome,” which was conducted in Dauphin, Manitoba. During the time that the poorest residents were getting top-up cheques to ensure a basic, minimum income; hospitalizations in the community fell by 8.5 per cent.
“If we could find a drug as effective as that, we would put it in the water supply!” Martin says.
When Caron was talking to CBC on Monday about his leadership campaign, he admitted that New Democrats had been failing to capture the imagination of Canadians in recent years, along with that most sought-after of electoral commodities — hope.
In Caron’s view, a basic income proposal would arm the NDP with that commodity for the next election campaign.
“The problem with the NDP is we were never able to submit an economic platform that would actually make people dream, inspire people. This is what I want to do,” Caron said on CBC’s Power & Politics. With a basic income, he said, “people (could) actually think of their future rather than thinking of what they will have to eat.”
The NDP leadership won’t be decided until fall. By that time, Caron may find that he just is one of many voices calling for a guaranteed basic income — among them, Justin Trudeau’s government. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a pilot program shows up in the coming federal budget, or in a future Liberal election platform.