This blog was originally published at the USBIG NewsFlash in January 2001. It’s a good example of the way Basic Income was treated by major media outlets before the recent wave of support took off.
On Saturday, December 9th, just after the ruling Liberal Party won a decisive victory in the Canadian Parliamentary election, the basic income guarantee suddenly and surprisingly appeared on the front pages of Canadian Newspapers. Under a banner headline, the National Post (one of the most conservative national dailies in Canada) reported that Prime Minister "Jean Chretien assembled a top-level committee in hopes of creating a cradle-to-grave guaranteed annual income program that he hopes will be his political legacy. This news was very exciting to basic income supporters because the Liberal Party has the strength in Parliament to pass any such proposal even over the objections of all the other major parties. Several in the Post articles over three days claimed that high-level sources had confirmed that the government was looking into the idea, but one could easily miss the disclaimer in the first article saying, "The prime minister's office refused comment and refused to confirm the existence of the special committee." Although readers of the USBIG newsletter last April will remember that Anthony Westell, of the Globe and Mail called for the Liberals to take up Basic Income as an issue for the coming campaign, the Liberals ignored the call and the issue was not discussed before the election. It was surprising that the issue would then be brought up shortly after the afterword, but a guaranteed income would help the Liberals fulfill promises made during the campaign to use half of Canada's federal budget surplus to restore funding to social programs and to attack child poverty. Chretien was quoted as saying, "The fact is that our prosperity is not shared by all. … As a Liberal, I believe that the government has the responsibility to promote social justice." Such as speech would be shocking in the United States, because he used the phrase, "As a Liberal." Over the following four days, the National Post followed with more front-page articles including one with the headline, "Foes slam 'Socialistic Experiment.'" All of the other major parties managed to say something negative about either the idea or the timing of the action. The Conservative Party leader criticized both the timing and the idea although his party seriously looked into an income guarantee in the 1970s. A prominent member of the liberal NDP slammed the timing of the proposal saying, "It makes a farce of our democratic system." Then, surprisingly, he went on to say that the NDP supports it in principle and he bragged that the NDP had pushed the Liberals to endorse the idea back in the 1960s. Similarly, a member the Quebec separatist party criticized the timing and said that income support is a matter of provincial jurisdiction, but did say that the idea was worth further study. The harshest criticism came from Stockwell Day, the leader of Canada's Alliance Party, which is known for being more-conservative-than-the-Conservative Party. He accused the Liberals of misleading the Canadians during the election and said that Chretien should name a mountain after himself if he wants to leave a lasting legacy rather than spend billions to fund a cradle-to-grave welfare program. Such harsh criticism is surprising coming from the leader of the Alliance party because the Reform Party (as Mr. Day's party was known before it restructured two years ago) endorsed the guaranteed income in its election platform in 1993 as a way to streamline Canada's convoluted income-security programs. On December 13th, the basic income guarantee disappeared from Canadian front pages as quickly it had appeared, when the Globe and Mail reported in a small article on page 12 that Chretien denied any part in suggesting the idea. Chretien said, "I don't know where that idea comes from. I haven't said a word about it." While he was at it, he also denied any desire to do anything to ensure that he has a lasting political legacy. Apparently what we witnessed was a trial balloon that was quickly shot down. Still, there is apparently a high level committee looking into how to fulfill the Liberals promise to use half of the budget surplus to fight poverty. It is possible that the committee will consider the guaranteed income as a way of achieving that goal. Chretien is not expected to say how he will attack poverty until his Throne Speech next month. If the committee endorses the idea, conceivably it could still happen. Given that all five of the major parties have either endorsed or seriously considered some form of income guarantee at one time or another, there is some hope that a broad coalition in favor of the idea could develop: Although they will differ about the amount of income redistribution that should be done, the various Canadian politicians could conceivably agree that an income guarantee is the best way to redistribute income. But, such an agreement does not seem likely. Nor does it seem likely that Chretien will make such a proposal or make the needed effort to create such a coalition. If the basic income guarantee is to succeed in Canada--or anywhere else--it will need strong political leadership that will do more than float a trial balloon. Leaders will need to convince the public of the need for an income guarantee and build up a constituency in favor of it. As is, the trial balloon was only an exciting piece of good news to the tiny minority of people in Canada who already knew of and supported the idea. Most likely, the Liberals did not make the guaranteed income an issue in the campaign because they did not believe it was a political winner and they didn't believe enough in the idea to risk their nearly certain electoral victory to promote it. However, if the leadership in Canada's Liberal Party decides to make such a bold move, the enactment of a basic income guarantee could be closer than most supporters would have thought possible. -Karl Widerquist, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, 2001