Is there room for Universal Basic Income in Australia?

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Could UBI be the solution to ending poverty? (Image via CommunityRun.org)

There would be many benefits from a Basic Income scheme if the government was willing to try it, writes Michael Thorn.

IN THE QUEST for the next major establishment of socioeconomic reform, there has been a recent upsurge of universal interest on the merits of applying a Universal Basic Income (UBI) within Australia and abroad. This upsurge seems to presently find strength through UBI actually being identified on both sides of the political spectrum, although there remains a significant difference of opinion from the Left and Right as to the merits of adopting UBI.

Perhaps where the debate might especially advance is through recognising UBI as an emerging social movement. Regarding the Australian example, earlier this year, the Inner West Sydney Branch of the Australian Unemployed Workers' Union (AUWU) voted to include the introduction of a UBI as an addition to the general demands adopted by the AUWU nationally. These demands currently consist of a mixture of reforms to national welfare and social security, access to employment, and national industrial and labour standards. The demands, as they stand, can be found here.

The challenge for the AUWU is to adopt this demand as part of its national strategy, and to continue advocating for UBI’s acceptance as part of a greater Australian union movement and social movement milieu. Where the call for UBI might fit here depends upon the rest of us hearing the voices of those needing UBI the most — in this instance, the proud members of the AUWU.

On a historic and international level, the guarantee of a regular income through UBI, no matter whether the person is working or where UBI represents economic recognition of the varieties of unwaged work people do (including housework, community work, art, elder care, childcare and environmental work), is not a new concept. From Thomas More in the 16th Century and through to the time when UBI came close to becoming real, during the U.S. Nixon Administration, there have been vigorous debates about the utility of UBI. The Nixon Administration ultimately disregarded UBI in favour of a more conservative policy response to a worldwide 1970s economic crises.

In recent years, UBI has attracted a significant amount of international attention, best demonstrated with the launch of a two-year national pilot program in Finland. Under this program, which commenced 1 January 2017, 2,000 unemployed Finns were selected to receive a guaranteed monthly sum of €560 (approximately AU$850). The income replaces existing social benefits found and will be paid to the 2,000 trial participants, even if they find work with the duration of the pilot. The Finland pilot exists as a major international experiment towards a workable domestic and social UBI policy, and so progressives around the world watch on with interest.

While the benefits of introducing UBI to Australia would be profound, how it would be implemented (should the government of the day gain the political will to do so) remains a matter of some conjecture. The simplest manner of rolling out UBI in Australia would involve a general dismantling of many welfare-based regulations confronting welfare recipients daily; the removal of capacity and means testing, waiting periods for access to welfare payment, mutual obligation and other draconian measures that recipients must endure. These often serve ultimately to marginalise and punish the Australian unemployed for their individual failures to swim within the greater national labour pool and so it would be a substantial service to the public to replace the current welfare policy with a UBI initiative.

For this brave hypothetical Australian Federal Government, however, there would be immediate uncertainties over how the introduction of a UBI may affect people's current access to public services such as public schools, health services, public transport, social housing and the disability programs. Again, in the purest manner of adopting UBI, the pragmatic way forward would be for UBI to supplement, rather than replace the present modes of access to such services.

Another idea, as it is with the trial currently happening in Finland, is to implement UBI within a smaller population cross-section of Australia as a public pilot and from there evaluate the merit of rolling out UBI nationally. Of course, this places the future review and administration of the initiative at the whims of the Federal Government of the day and we have recently seen how other progressive public schemes have become compromised in Australia, largely thanks to a change of government.

Another strategy to adopting UBI in Australia is that it acts as a practical – albeit partial – remedy to the sufferings of the First Nations peoples. After over two centuries of programs, laws, policies, institutions and other penalties designed to malign First Nations, perhaps on this occasion an initial UBI trial could be introduced to a remote Indigenous community to rigorously determine if this initiative assists such communities favourably. To adopt this strategy, it would be hoped that the government of the time would learn from the failures of previous welfare trials foisted upon remote communities and, in so doing, identify the difference between beneficial and punitive measures. Any evaluation of the merits of UBI must be determined by the remote communities themselves and not from historically paternalistic governments.

But let’s go back to the call for UBI via a social movement and the hope of larger things coming from small. It is hoped that the national branch of the AUWU adopts this motion from the Inner West Sydney Branch to add the demand of a Universal Basic Income to its overall list of demands, as it would be a great influencer towards other political sections in Australia to call for a rolling out of this concept toward improving the lives of the unemployed and socially vulnerable groups. 

Michael Thorn is a union delegate, long-time worker within the community services sector, and aspiring activist writer.

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