GLEN PEARSON, SPECIAL TO THE LONDON FREE PRESS. August 9, 2018
In a move likely designed to rattle a few cages this summer, the provincial government’s decision to chop the basic income pilot project came across as a cold reversal of a campaign promise that said the opposite.
The basic income guarantee has been around as a concept for decades, but after years of research and a growing civil society movement, it became reality in Ontario in the form of test projects in three regions in the province.
The basic income guarantee is anything but simple, but as issues like unemployment and poverty, mental illness and disabilities have grown more pronounced in recent years, the concept of creating an income floor to help those families overcome problems governments or corporations seemed unable to solve grew in support. The former Ontario Liberal government implemented the pilot project and Doug Ford’s campaign promise to let it play itself out in the test phase helped many to breathe easier.
But it wasn’t to be. Weeks after taking office, the Progressive Conservative government announced its cancellation, throwing everything into a tizzy. While some viewed it as a brutal act and others maintained it was a courageous move, very few realized what was actually lost.
This was a program that pulled people together across ideological divides, forming a working model that was the epitome of the compromise, respect, understanding and compassion that polls repeatedly suggest Canadians want from their governments.
In killing the pilot project, the Ford government forcefully undermined what for decades had largely been a conservative design. Conservative economic guru Milton Friedman advocated for just such a program back in 1962.
From the other end of the spectrum, Martin Luther King Jr. found common ground with Friedman in 1967, declaring, “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
Following on that, Richard Nixon and his opponent George McGovern both supported the measure in their U.S. presidential debates.
Canada has had its own well-known champions, including many conservative supporters. The greatest of these is likely Hugh Segal, Brian Mulroney’s former chief of staff and a well-respected senator.
Segal used his skills of diplomacy to build support across ideological lines. He drew others into that orbit, including Liberal stalwarts such as Senator Art Eggleton, who eventually partnered with Segal to stickhandle the initiative through the political process. The NDP were natural allies, and when Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and her Ontario counterparts supported BIG, it manifested a masterpiece of political diplomacy, impressive compromise and shared common ground.
When Premier Doug Ford cut the measure this month, it wasn’t just a cruel jab at Kathleen Wynne’s past government. It was an action that slew one of the great political achievements of the past two decades — one that crossed all party lines and held out hope as an example of a new kind of democracy.
But the greatest victims are the 4,000 citizens in low income and pressing circumstances who enrolled in the pilot. It was a trial government program, so naturally they believed it would finish its brief cycle, trusting they would get the opportunity to make a stable life for themselves and their kids. That trust is now shattered and only adds to the deep disillusionment that many of those families and their supporters held following decades of effort.
“Trust but verify,” conservative godfather Ronald Reagan was fond of repeating when he was U.S. president. And he was right.
The basic income guarantee was built on that formula: Trust that government, civil society and those families in the program would come together in good will, have their efforts researched at all levels, and then deliver to the public the results of its effectiveness. With the “verify” portion gone, trust itself will decay even further.
There are many voices out there both demonizing and praising the possibilities of the basic income guarantee. But there was another concept on trial during this period, and it was politics itself.
A largely Conservative-led effort over the decades that crossed party lines and ended up as a pilot project is the stuff democratic dreams are made of and something rarely seen in the modern era. This wasn’t just about assisting people to rise out of poverty; it was a test of politics and democracy. In harshly crushing the hope and sound work of the left, centre and right by the project’s cancellation, the Ford government has dashed the legitimacy of effective compromise.
A lot of social justice dreams died last week. And so did a large number of political ones.