Segal inspires basic income advocates, says he has ‘never been more optimistic’

By Roderick Benns 

Publisher of Leaders and Legacies, a social purpose news site

Retired Conservative Senator Hugh Segal energized about 50 Ontario advocates of a basic income guarantee on Saturday who were looking for inspiration and advice from one of the great leaders of the movement.

Segal didn’t disappoint, bringing his trademark humour and optimism in support of a cause he has championed for 40 years. He says a “confluence of events” has produced an incredible window of opportunity for basic income policy and that it was time to “seize this moment.”

“At no point in the last 40 years have I been as optimistic as I am now,” says Segal.

He says the election of this particular federal Liberal government is the latest sign of optimism, given that newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has instructed his Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, Jean-Yves Duclos, to commit to the relief of poverty on a national scale as a top priority of his mandate.

Other indicators of a building interest in a basic income guarantee include:

  • The election of an NDP government in Alberta, which was once a Conservative bastion
  • The support of an increasing number of mayors across Canada, including big city mayors like Don Iveson of Edmonton, Naheed Nenshi of Calgary, and Mike Savage of Halifax, who see the effects of poverty firsthand in their communities
  • The election of an Ontario Liberal government that is keen on bold poverty reduction measures
  • The support of an increasing number of health-related organizations, such as the Ontario Public Health Association and the Canadian Medical Association.
  • The poverty reduction report solicited by the Saskatchewan government and its recommendation to support a basic income policy
  • The election of a Liberal government in Prince Edward Island earlier this year that indicated its support for basic income during the campaign

Despite governments spending billions of dollars on the downstream effects of poverty — like poor education outcomes, youth involved with crime, domestic violence, and the outcome of poor diets — poverty has persisted for Canadians under the age of 65.

Segal says a breakthrough for the basic income movement would be the creation of multiple pilot projects across the country. He says he likes the fact that it was former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who initiated the Dauphin, Manitoba experiment on basic income in the 1970s, even though he eventually failed to analyze the results. Segal sees it as fitting that Pierre Trudeau’s son has the opportunity to restart pilots on an even larger, more useful scale to gather the data over five years which will help build political will for the policy.

Segal, who is now the Master of Massey College, says the fact that health economics researcher, Dr. Evelyn Forget, is now a visiting scholar there to study basic income is also a great opportunity for the movement. Forget is taking the lead on an investigation into the results from the mid-1970’s Mincome Guaranteed Annual Income experiment in Dauphin.

The former Tory senator says it is imperative to get the business community involved and on side with the idea of basic income, noting the Conference Board of Canada has been advocating for a basic income guarantee. A common definition of basic income ensures everyone an income sufficient to meet basic needs and live with dignity, regardless of work status. It involves a regular, reliable distribution of money from government to people to help ensure total income sufficient to meet common, basic needs.

Segal says if all goes according to plan for those who support this policy, he envisions the federal Liberals doing a Speech from the Throne half way through their first term in office which would kick-start pilot programs. By then, the Liberals would have seen more international evidence coming in that supports basic income, as well as having been briefed on efforts in cities and provinces across Canada to try out this new approach to social policy.

“If we think about Tommy Douglas” in Saskatchewan, says Segal, referring to the father of Medicare, in Canada, “he faced a long list of arguments as to why health care couldn’t happen.”

That’s what is happening with basic income in some circles, says Segal. For instance, the Fraser Institute, known for its support of right wing policies, came out with a thoughtful, well-researched report on basic income last year which states the idea of basic income was appealing. However, they concluded the political will was not there, given the complexities of multiple levels of governments needing to cooperate.

“But things have changed,” said Segal, given the shifts in governments across Canada and an emerging groundswell of support from many organizations.

“I think we now truly have reason to be optimistic.”