Benns’ Belief: Conservatives and basic income

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By Roderick Benns

Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Advocate. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, he has written several books including Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.

Hugh Segal, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

For many years I have argued for the need for a well-planned basic income guarantee. For ought not the citizens of a country have a fair claim to a small dividend of the society we have all helped to create?

I have spoken with politicians of all political stripes on this matter over the past few years, including three high-profile federal Conservatives. These three Tories — all of whom were connected to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s governments — were at least open to trying basic income pilots.

Benns' Belief: Conservatives and basic income
Advocate Publisher Roderick Benns.

The dominant voice among them is Hugh Segal, the key adviser on Ontario’s now-cancelled basic income pilot project. He served as chief of staff to Mulroney and was a Canadian senator from 2005 to 2014. Segal was also chief of staff to former Ontario Premier Bill Davis. (See our review on page 18 of our print magazine this month on Segal’s new book on poverty.)

Another retired Progressive Conservative senator, Michael Meighen, campaigned for a guaranteed annual income in his bid for a seat under leader Robert Stanfield in the 1970s. He told me that basic income is “very attractive on paper.”

He noted that if the pilots are successful, then the policy becomes easier to sell, politically. Meighen is a well-known lawyer and philanthropist and the grandson of former Prime Minister Arthur Meighen.

Perrin Beatty, who served under three prime ministers — Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, and Kim Campbell — led multiple ministries, including National Revenue, Defence, and National Health and Welfare. He told me that automation is a challenge to the employment landscape and basic income might be part of the answer. Beatty currently serves as CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

The former Progressive Conservative minister said “for older workers with families, precarious temporary work is obviously a problem. … So we do have to find better ways to support them.”

Beatty said he likes the idea of a basic income that “boosts low-wage salaries” to attract more people into the labour force, since there has been a rise in discouraged workers who have given up looking for work. And, since almost all of the new high-paying jobs in the service sector are being created in big cities, Beatty noted a basic income “could be a big help in smaller, rural economies.”

It’s too bad that Conservative Premier Doug Ford didn’t get that memo before he killed the innovative pilot as soon as he got into power, despite his party’s promise on the campaign trail to see the project through its full term.

When the head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce — as pro-business as it gets — points out the potential benefits of basic income, particularly in rural areas like Lindsay and Kawartha Lakes, it’s time to pay attention.

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