Saskatchewan Green leader believes basic income might occur after 2016

Roderick Benns from Leaders and Legacies recently interviewed Victor Lau, the leader of the Green Party of Saskatchewan, about basic income. Lau has been the leader of the Green Party since 2011. Saskatchewan goes to the polls April 4, 2016.

Benns: Do you run candidates in all ridings?

Lau: Yes! The Green Party of Saskatchewan ran our first full slate of 58 candidates in the previous general election in 2011. For 2016, our party finished nominating a full slate of 61 candidates (the provincial government added three more seats) by the summer of 2014. We are currently the only party in Saskatchewan to have finished nominating their entire slate of candidates. Even the Saskatchewan Party government has two more seats to go and the NDP has just over half of theirs done.

Benns: Are there any signs of electoral success on the horizon for any of your candidates?

Lau: The Green Party of Saskatchewan believes strongly that by being ready with a full slate of 61 candidates and an excellent platform for 2016 that our central messaging should carry us to victory in three to four seats or potentially even propel us into forming government (only 31 seats are needed to do so.)

Benns: Tell me a bit about yourself. Do you have any lived experience with poverty? 

Lau: Well my parents both immigrated to Canada from China/Hong Kong. I am their first born child and a first generation Canadian. I have grown up in Regina, Saskatchewan and see myself as a prairie boy. My family started out with very, very modest means, so we did live very plainly but I never felt poor. My parents were both excellent cooks and fabulous providers so our family, through hard work, managed to overcome our poorer circumstances. It’s a very successful story similar to many new immigrant families who arrive in Canada.

Benns: How did you come to advocate for this kind of change and much more through the Green’s?

Lau: The first time I heard of the guaranteed income was via a documentary video called ‘Sex, Drugs and Democracy.’ It was from the 1990s and showed how the Netherlands was a virtual utopia. As an impressionable youth in my twenties, looking for a way to create a more ‘just society,’ this video seemed to point the way forward — especially on poverty elimination. It seemed too good to be true and when I got a chance to talk to an actual citizen of the Netherlands, he confirmed that the guaranteed income was not free of means testing/work requirements (such as in the form of mandatory volunteerism) so the video was kind of stretching the reality a bit.

As for why the Green Party, I started my political advocacy as an NDPer, having been influenced by an incredibly kind man named Ed Whelan, a former cabinet minister in both the Douglas and Blakeney governments, and his book ‘Touched by Tommy’. I lasted four years in the NDP, even becoming youth leader at their 50th anniversary celebration in 1994. But I gave up on the party when all my friends had abandoned the NDP during the disappointing Roy Romanow era. In 1997-98, a group of disaffected NDPers and Greens came together and petitioned to form a new party. At first it was called the New Green Alliance, but later renamed in 2006 to the green party of Saskatchewan.

Benns: Why is the concept of a basic income guarantee so important at this point in our societal development?

Lau: Three trends come to mind as to why a guaranteed basic income is so very important. First, the growing amount of seniors in Canada and the many, many retirees from the baby boomer generation. Second, the incredibly fast shift towards more and more automation and part-time employment. Third, most — if not all — governments are carrying huge debt loads and their healthcare budgets are stretched to the maximum.

Taking just all three of the above points (not to mention our economy and our environment) most people can sense a need for an entire overhaul of our social safety net in Canada. A guaranteed basic income would help alleviate the stress in all three categories plus move our common society forward towards compassion for all by eliminating the ugly stigma of ‘being on welfare.’ If we all share in society’s prosperity via a universal guaranteed livable income, then like Medicare, it will become treasured as a foundation for Canada’s continued leadership in social reform and innovation.

Benns: A recent poverty task force in Saskatchewan has recommended a basic income policy of some kind. Do you feel that this recommendation will be ignored or is there some hope for it to be adopted? 

Lau: I strongly believe that whomever forms government after April 4, 2016 will strive towards implementing a guaranteed income. Here’s why:

The Saskatchewan Party did the right thing by separating disabled people from abled people in the welfare system, and putting them on SAID (Saskatchewan Assured Income for the Disabled). It’s somewhat similar to Alberta’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) program.

Now the opposition NDP has recently come on board to support a guaranteed basic income pilot project. This is a huge movement from their 2011 position of supporting only the status quo welfare system as is.

Then you have the Saskatchewan Green Party which has been in favour of implementing a guaranteed livable income since the party’s inception in 1999.

This means that all three major parties in Saskatchewan generally support transforming welfare into a different state. Only the Green Party would move directly to full implementation and not just do a test pilot. But the political desire is there; it remains to be seen if the political will can be mustered and that’s where the electorate comes in. We plan to make guaranteed livable income and poverty elimination a major issue in the 2016 general election.

Benns: How can citizens help bring about the kind of change needed like basic income? 

Lau: The main thing citizens can do is spread the word, have discussions with friends and neighbours, talk about how and why a guaranteed livable income would make life easier for everyone and cost the provincial and national government less. The key thing for citizens is to believe that this is possible (because it is doable, as Switzerland has pointed out) and then to demand all political parties support implementation as soon as possible. This coming election is the perfect time to have those open discussions.

Benns: Does the Green Party of Saskatchewan believe in a ‘health in all policies’ kind of approach to all decisions? What does that look like to you?

Lau: Yes we do. As a Green Party we believe in a healthy environment which in turn ties in with keeping people healthy. It’s very hard to have one without the other. Our 2016 real change platform calls for an expansion of Medicare to cover non-insured services including eliminating ambulance fees, a guaranteed livable income, plus Pharmacare to ensure adequate prescription coverage for all citizens regardless of income level.

The Green Party of Saskatchewan believes that by doing these things we can keep our citizens healthy and in return lower the ever-growing cost of Medicare via prevention. It is so much cheaper to keep people healthy and out of the healthcare system, then it is to treat them once they fall ill.

As well, we hope to transform the Ministry of Social Services into the Ministry of Income Support so that the government’s job then becomes to focus on ensuring all citizens who need more income get the proper training and support to get those jobs to supplement their guaranteed income. That’s real change. As well, we hope to utilize real time data gathered from all agencies (public and private) and to work together with citizens to together design our governmental systems using participatory democracy. That too is real change.

Benns: The social determinants of health are vital in understanding how some people are set up to succeed in life and others to fail – because of social structures we have created. What are a couple of Green policies that would really help more people succeed – for society to be more just?

Lau: One of the big policies is implementing a guaranteed livable income. This would free citizens to be active participants in their own destiny. But as I mentioned before, our Green Party has a commitment to enacting participatory democracy legislation to enable and engage our citizens to help us design and implement new health measures, tax initiatives, spending priorities, environmental protection, and more to ensure real change happens in all departments under our jurisdiction. By showing people we have more in common, we build a more united and prosperous province for all who come here and raise families here. It really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to elect a government that is truly committed to real change that will last for generations to come.