AUSTRALIA: Alfred Deakin Institute Policy Forum – The Future of Work and Basic Income Options for Australia
Jon Altman and Eva Cox. Credit to: Alfred Deakin Institute (Deakin University, Melbourne)
The Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, hosted a forum on the 17th and 18th August discussing the concept of a universal basic income.
Workshop co-convenor Jon Altman (Deakin University and ANU) suggested that part of the impetus for the workshop was the sense that discussion of UBI in Australia was not as advanced as it was in other countries. As evidence of this he cited the comment made by Chris Bowen (Shadow Treasurer for the Labor party), who said that UBI was “a terrible idea”. Tim Hollo – Executive Director of the Green Institute – also highlighted the fact that the Greens were the only major party in Australia currently in support of the concept.
Dr Tim Dunlop – author of Why the Future is Workless – gave context to the discussion by talking about the state of work, technology and automation. He said the “salient point” in labour market analysis is that many problems are current. Evidencing this, he summarized some figures from the International Labour Organization, including; global unemployment exceeding 200 million in 2017; stagnation of real wage growth; decline in proportion of wealth going to wages; 760 million men and women worldwide in “vulnerable work”, defined as work unable to bring them above the the world poverty threshold of AUD $3.10 per day; millions in refugee camps and jails; record levels of over and under-employment; and the creation of “increasingly precarious” work.
Looking at future technology, Dr Dunlop said that the consistent finding was that “around 40 to 50% of jobs are at high risk of automation in the next twenty years” (Oxford Martins School Report, 2015) under “currently existing technologies” (McKinzie Report) and that it would be “close to a form of denialism”, therefore, to state, as many do, that “concerns about technological unemployment are overstated”. Associate Professor Karl Widerquist agreed with this point, stating that “people are not interchangeable parts” and often find that their “learn[t] skills” are “not needed any more”. In this regard, he said a UBI could compensate for the continual disruption of technology, and the inherent inability of workers to adapt and provide themselves with income. Phillip Ablett (USC), summarising work by Mullally, added that neo-liberalism’s emphasis “on ‘individual responsibility’ for poverty” contributed to this persecution of workers, where we tend “to blame individuals for their ‘failure’ to succeed in the market economy rather than consider the structural impediments to achievement”.
Professor Widerquist said a shift away from labour prosperity to capital prosperity has led to an “incentive problem” where employers don’t have an incentive to treat their employees appropriately since employees don’t have any power to refuse their conditions. The universal nature of a UBI, as such, would allow for a “voluntary participation economy instead of a mandatory participation economy”. Dr Frances Flanagan agreed that “capital accumulation” was central to the problem of “acute inequality”, however she expressed concerns that discussions around UBI focused too heavily on wage leverage and monetary incentive. Citing “care work” as an example “utterly antithetical” to the taylorisms of tasking and efficiency, Dr Flanagan said we need a more positive definition of ‘work’ since there are always ‘jobs’ that “require empathy, judgement and relationships”. UBI, consequently, needs to be “supportive of the fight for better jobs” and “[be] supportive of the fight against marketisation”. Professor John Quiggin (UQ) echoed Dr Flanagan’s concerns that UBI risks the possibility of replacing social services with a single payment, though he did point out that an unconditional stipend could destigmatise the concept of welfare payments to individuals, undermining the concept of the “deserving and undeserving poor”. Professor Eva Cox (AO) was also critical of UBI as a means to empowering a “protestant, male, Anglo” market system, where humans are economically judged as being good or bad “consumers”. She reiterated the need to revisit the concept of ‘work’ through a lense where humans were considered “social”, “dependent” and “interdependent”, advocating a UBI that was used to redefine “the social contract between the nation state and the individual”, with “reciprocity built into it”.
On the subject of evidence to support a UBI’s practical plausibility, both Professor Widerquist and Professor Greg Marston (University of Queensland) said that trials investigating the effects could be strategically dangerous since the trial conditions are often neither unconditional nor universal. Marston pointed to climate change as an example of where the accumulation of data has brought about, in many cases, confirmation bias in support of inactivity rather than impetus to instigate change. It was generally agreed that the issues of design and implementation were not, therefore, easily separated. Professor Quiggin, Troy Henderson and Dr Ben Spies-Butcher advanced the idea of a staged introduction, a “stepping-stone” approach which would retain the “big idea” excitement for voters and simultaneously satisfy technocrats. Quiggin’s preferred model was to favour the “basic” over the “universal” through various mechanisms and adjustments to tax regimes, introducing a full UBI payment to selected, vulnerable populations, and then gradually increase the number of people covered. The cost of everyone in Australia receiving a full UBI was estimated to be around 5-10% of GDP. Henderson and Spies-Butcher offered modelling that began by universalising the age pension, and by also introducing an “unconditional Youth Basic Income paid to those aged 20-24 based on a negative income tax model.”
In conclusion, the consistent theme of the two days was that UBI cannot be offered as a silver-bullet solution to issues around inequality, welfare, social security and the potential growing precarity of work. So while there is a tendency amongst advocates (worldwide) to present UBI as a single policy response for addressing many of the problems societies have with these issues, the very strong feeling of the workshop was that this could be a dangerous over-reach.
You can view some of the contributors speaking here.
More information at:
Kate McFarland, ‘NEW BOOK: Why the Future is Workless’, Basic Income News, November 5th 2016
Hilde Latour, ‘KARL WIDERQUIST: About Universal Basic Income and Freedom’, Basic Income News, July 31st 2017
Homepage of the International Labour Organization
James Manyika, Michael Chui, Brad Brown, Jacques Bughin, Richard Dobbs, Charles Roxburgh, Angela Hung Byers, ‘Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity’, McKinsey Global Institute, May 2011
Karl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, ‘Technology at Work: The Future of Innovation and Employment’, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, February 2015
Oxford University Press, ‘The New Structural Social Work: Ideology, Theory, Practice 3rd Edition’, Bob Mullaly