What is our next step? Basic Income and how it is perceived in the WEAG Report and the 2019 Budget BINZ – Rotorua Saturday 15 June 2019
Kia ora koutou, Ngā mihi nui ki ngā iwi koutou katoa o tēnei hui, o tēnei kaupapa.
First of all, I’d just like to say thanks so much to Te Rangikaheke, to Merepeka, to Gaylene and to all the others who have done so much to pull this together. I’d also like to acknowledge my fellow speakers here today, for all your insights and mahi.
I’ve been involved in advocacy for Basic Income since the early 90s when it became one of the solutions for which our group, the Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre, advocated every chance we got. We were also active members of a national network of people working for what we called UBI back then. By the end of the 90s that network had faded away, and most public awareness died away as well around the same time.
Gareth Morgan singlehandedly put UBI back on the agenda in 2009, just as the newly elected National Government was starting to work towards even more brutal welfare reforms. Some of us started up a new unemployed and beneficiary group in 2010, Auckland Action Against Poverty, and we began putting forward our own ideas about BI, as some of us had in the 90s. It was with interest that we watched the launch of another new group, Basic Income NZ, in 2015. Kia ora.
Speakers today have already made clear some of the reasons a Basic Income could be such a useful solution to the total punitive mess that is our current welfare system, and which would create a way of allowing all people, including those most disadvantaged in our increasingly unequal society a better chance of carving out more empowered, useful and creative lives.
However, there are dangers in just leaping into the promotion of Basic Income without really analysing what we’re talking about. BI in various forms can be promoted from across the right and the left of the political spectrum and if we don’t look at what’s behind any particular version of BI, people can find themselves promoting policies which will actually make low-income peoples’ lives even harder than they are already. Gareth Morgan’s UBI has been one of the most obvious cases of this.
For example, in the 2016 version of his Big Kahuna, he called for an unconditional basic income of $12,000 a year for each adult, which means they’d get around $230 a week. This would replace the existing welfare system, and there would be no add on benefits. What it would mean in practice is that many beneficiaries and superannuitants (who are actually beneficiaries, too) would be worse off.
This example of the Big Kahuna points to the reasons people like me and the groups I’ve come from so strongly believe that advocacy for BI cannot be divorced from the politics of left and right. It matters in whose interests a BI is enacted. Is it so that rich people can pay less tax proportionately than they do now through low, flat income taxes while the BI is set at a rate much lower than our current insufficient income support, with no targeted addons?
Or will it be a form of BI that aims to make our society much fairer, genuinely helps lift people out of poverty and also gives them a real chance to engage in society in ways that aren’t possible at present?
The kind of Basic Income which I’d like to see would provide people with enough support to live a frugal but flourishing life, with the BI indexed to increases in wages and living costs.
The BI could be stepped through in stages, with people continuing to receive supplementary addons, for example in relation to disability, age and children.
It should not be work or means tested.
People would be treated as individuals, not according to their relationship status, moving right away from the current situation where the State can and does grossly interfere in the most intimate aspects of peoples’ lives as part of judging whether they should get a benefit or not, or – all too often – whether they should end up in jail as a result of so called relationship fraud.
The BI I would like to see would be unashamedly redistributive in its purpose and practice. That is, it shouldn’t make people on benefits worse off. Nor should it shy away, on the ‘how you pay for it’ side of things, from introducing a far more progressive income tax system, or from implementing other kinds of tax aimed at things like inheritance, carbon and pollution charging and financial transactions.
A fair BI system would be well run and non-judgemental, with the absolute minimum of bureaucracy.
It should be regular and reliable, giving people a sense of security, and run on the premise that every human is worthy of dignity and respect, not just some of us, as happens in the current approach to welfare.
Basic income should be seen as a basic right.
In whatever exact form it eventually takes, or starts to take through a stepped through process, a progressive or left Basic Income will ensure that no one is left worse off than they are currently, and will reduce, not increase inequality.
There is one more aspect which I think is vital to making a basic income work well. It should be developed and sustained alongside a highly proactive government commitment to quality, affordable education, training and paid work for all.
While basic income is about valuing all the unpaid work we do in home and community, and about allowing people the real choice at different times of their lives to stay out of the paid workforce, at the same time we should also be developing alternatives and solutions around access to decent work, that is, work that is paid well, is secure, and where you have the right to join a trade union.
BI will change attitudes towards those often despised low paid jobs. Work like cleaning and aged and disability care would become more valued and better paid as a BI gives a baseline that offers far more choice about whether and where people work.
In advocating for Basic Income we can’t afford to forget the fundamental need most of us have during some or most of our adult lives for paid work that not only gives us income but also adds purpose and social context. We ignore this essential part of our humanity at our peril.
I’d like to finish with a few thoughts about some of the dangers and some of the opportunities we face in advocating for BI in Aotearoa today, at least for those of us who come from an unashamedly left standpoint.
Some of the dangers include the risk that progressive individuals and groups may find themselves being used as unwitting cover, a kind of Trojan horse, for the promotion of right-wing or ‘neither left nor right’ forms of BI or UBI.
We should remain aware of lessons from past efforts to promote BI here, including keeping our eyes on the main issues at stake. This means, for example, not allowing ourselves to be diverted into a single focus on the pros and cons of any one particular BI proposal, no matter how much sense it may make, or seem to make. This is not to say that the work people put in to proposals is necessarily wasted, just that there are so many political, economic and ecological variables at play that the key point at the moment is to gain the political support for a fair BI, not to get bogged down in the intense details of a plan which may be completely out of context by the time the necessary political shift happens.
Elite corporate power does use forms of Basic Income as another opportunity to exert itself at a time when employers and capitalism have endless abilities to organise and reorganise themselves, including through co opting the language and dreams of those of us who want to create fundamental change.
Some of the opportunities in front of us include that, firstly, the vision of Basic Income contains a powerful message of hope and collective power, saying ‘it doesn’t have to be this way, there are alternatives.’ People are crying out for hope right now, in the face of the economic, climate and associated ecological crises, and we do have something to offer.
Second, BI changes the hamster wheel, precariat approach to jobs and opens the way to broader ideas around the future of work, both paid and unpaid.
Third, a left BI offers a simple, sufficient and non-judgemental path that can take us beyond the current welfare morass, including through promoting transitional options which leave essential welfare, disability and housing supplements in place. A universal child benefit to sit alongside universal superannuation is one way forward; another is to put in place Basic Income pilot projects.
And fourth, one of the beauties of Basic income is that it provides entry points for community engagement and mobilisation, especially when placed alongside demands in other key areas like work, tax, housing, welfare reform and climate justice.
As someone who unashamedly promotes a left Basic Income, it is important not to sugarcoat or underestimate the political and organisational work it will take to achieve this.
Without strong trade union, iwi, faith-based and community and political party support, all these fine ideas will go nowhere. We have to build much stronger rōpu, organisations and movements capable of starting to shift power in a way that will enable the kind of changes I’m talking about here to happen.
But this shouldn’t stop us also continuing to work for more incremental changes alongside whatever friends and allies we can find, for example in developing partial, transitionary and experimental forms of BI, as long as these are progressive and not reactionary in nature.
Kia ora to everyone here who is involved in the work for the brighter, more hopeful future promised by the kind of BI I’m talking about.
And thank you very much for the opportunity to speak today.
Kia kaha, kia manawanui,kia mau.