Canada’s election could have been about basic income

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waves during his election campaign tour in Nobleton, Ont., in this file photo. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio

By: Teresa Wright · Columnist

Here we are, a week away from the federal election, and I can’t get a scene from the sitcom Seinfeld out of my head.

It’s the one in which Jerry and George go to a big American network to pitch an idea for a TV show, and when the TV executives ask what it would be about, George replies, “I think I can sum up the show for you in one word. Nothing.”

Sadly, when I think about this election, its timing and the important moment Canada finds itself in, when I ask myself, “What is this election about?” the answer is the same as George Costanza’s: nothing.

But it’s not as if there wasn’t a Big Idea out there that could have been a key one to ponder in this election.

Last year, when COVID-19 forced governments to impose strict lockdowns, Ottawa rolled out the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, which provided $2,000 a month for those who lost income due to the pandemic.

It didn’t take long for proponents of a universal benefit to realize the CERB was basically a beta test for a wide-scale basic income program in Canada. A group of 50 senators immediately began pushing the Trudeau government to turn the CERB into a universal benefit program – an idea that has since gained traction and support from advocates and experts across the country, especially those who work with the vulnerable and marginalized and those living in poverty.

Many of these advocates were so convinced that Ottawa might actually consider implementing a basic income program, they expected to see money dedicated to it in Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s 2021 budget last April.

They weren’t the only ones. Liberal delegates at the party’s policy convention this spring overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution calling on the federal government to implement a universal basic income for all Canadians. The resolution pointed specifically to the “success of the CERB program” as a major argument in favour, noting that a universal benefit program would help “seniors and low-income Canadians maintain an adequate standard of living, regardless of working status.”

Now, candidates are out on doorsteps, speaking with voters who are telling anyone who will listen they can’t afford basic necessities.

A universal benefit would also reduce bureaucracy and “ensure that communities at risk (including Indigenous peoples) are able to feel financially secure,” the resolution says, and it noted that a basic income would give workers more leverage to say no to exploitative wages and poor working conditions.

Despite the strong endorsement of this resolution by Liberal party faithful (77 per cent of delegates voted in favour), no money materialized in the Trudeau government’s budget for a basic income program and there is no mention of even a pilot project in the Liberal platform.

Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives have similarly steered clear of the idea in this campaign and, while the NDP and Green parties have endorsed a basic income project in their platforms, the NDP hasn’t pushed it enough to make it a major campaign issue and the Greens started so far behind in this race, their promises are little more than hopes and dreams.

Ultimately, however, this election was the moment for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to show whether they would ever truly be willing to make universal income a reality. After six years in power, they had plenty of time to study and debate its merits. Their members say they want it. And after the pandemic hit, the CERB gave the Liberals an opportunity to show the country how a national safety net program can work. Now, candidates are out on doorsteps, speaking with voters who are telling anyone who will listen they can’t afford basic necessities.

In an election struggling for a raison d’être or a Big Idea, this could have been it. There’s intense need among a large number of Canadians, thanks to the pandemic, rising income inequality, overheated housing markets and spiking inflation rates. And there’s political buy-in from a large majority of the membership of three of the four parties vying for power in this election.

This is a recipe policy experts will tell you hits the sweet spot when deciding whether to take the plunge on a new idea.

There’s also plenty of data to draw upon, thanks to a number of in-depth studies, costings and the preliminary results of the now-defunct 2017 Ontario pilot, in which researchers found most recipients of the benefit continued working and reported a “transformational” reshaping of their living standards, improved sense of self-worth and hope for a better future.

Here was the moment the Liberals could have made it a centrepiece of their campaign to create a national safety net that Canada, through the CERB, has already demonstrated is possible when the urgency and will is there to roll one out.

If not now, Mr. Trudeau, when?

Sen. Kim Pate, a tireless advocate for marginalized women, is among those pushing for a guaranteed livable income to address the social inequities that disproportionately affect women, especially those who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour.

She says a universal benefit would protect Canadians from the types of financial catastrophes many confronted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It would offer greater economic and therefore health security to the most vulnerable Canadians: precarious workers, the under-employed and the homeless. It would also help workers in the energy industry and other sectors that are likely to experience future vulnerability.”

In other words, it could have been a proposal that demonstrated Trudeau’s progressive bona fides, or at least a Big Idea to give voters something to chew on in this campaign.

Instead, we are left with an election about nothing. Serenity now.

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About the Author: Teresa Wright is a freelance journalist based in P.E.I. who covers federal and regional politics, most recently for The Canadian Press in Ottawa. She is also a journalism instructor at Holland College in Charlottetown.

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