Liberal schemes and Trojan horses

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The Basic Income, as promised by the Ontario Liberals, could spell the demise of other, critical social programs

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Pill on a fork

Recently, to fulfill their promise of ensuring that every family in Quebec will have a family doctor, Quebec Liberal Minister of Health Dr. Gaétan Barrette unveiled an online appointment booking tool. It is supposed to ensure that whenever you need a doctor, you’ll see one.

To pay for this, many public walk-in clinics are closing, including at my local CLSC. This means that if my kids need antibiotics, I need to take them to emerge. Because they have a doctor, there’s nowhere else for me to go for minor health issues: I can’t get an appointment with their doctor in less than three months.

Recently, the Ontario Liberals announced a major reform in higher education: they plan to eliminate tuition fees for Ontario students.

To pay for this, they’re rolling Ontario’s patchwork of grants and tax credits into upfront grants, for some. While streamlining the system is good, they also plan to allow institutions to continue to hike tuition fees. So, the divide between who can pay and who cannot will continue to grow, but be masked by this loans and grants system that will further indebt students. The Ontario Liberals have more than doubled tuition fees since 2005.

Recently, the Federal Liberals increased the Universal Childcare Benefit (UCCB). This money gives families greater ability to choose where to spend their childcare dollars. They can give it to grandma. They can give it to a for-profit multinational that specializes in nurture.

To pay for this, the Liberals have ruled out creating a national childcare system. The UCCB allotment is expensive ($22.4 billion over five years, estimates the CBC) and it tricks desperate Canadians with their own money: it hides the fact that without a system that brings costs under control, the money doled out through the UCCB will never be adequate. Giving people a stipend creates an argument against creating a national childcare system: if all the money is going to families individually, there’s no need (or resources) to create a national system.

These are all examples of Liberal schemes. Indeed, the Liberal parties of Canada have never seen a schemey policy with a progressive veneer but regressive outcomes that they didn’t embrace. With so much experience with Liberal schemes, you’d think we’d be better at identifying them when they surface.

The problem is that their schemes are always reasonable sounding, or rooted in something that is important, good or necessary. When I worked for the Canadian Federation of Students, I went out with a senior staff person from a Liberal quasi-governmental agency for an off-the-record discussion. He wanted to convince me why grants were a better use of money than lowering tuition fees. I wanted to listen and have a free lunch. 

We concluded that programs could be designed to meet people where there is need, to ensure that the rich pay their fair share, and that we had the same goals. But, when the napkin-back blueprint is put into action, the result in higher education has been privatization and a load of student debt. We never resolved our disagreement: he had faith in his party and I had never seen proof of them not being terrible on education.

It’s in this context that Canadians must wade cautiously into the discussion about the Basic Income (BI). At a debate in Toronto on Thursday, April 13, the struggle between the BI debate in theory and the practical realities of the Ontario Liberal’s BI plans was laid bare. Listening to this debate, it was clear there was two separate arguments happening: one was that the Basic Income should be a liberationary, life-altering improvement to Canadian civil society. The other was that the current rate of taxation, combined with the austerity policies of the Liberals, that a Basic Income will never be implement that can help Ontarians. The two sides are irreconcilable because they’re both true.

If progressives aren’t careful, we will welcome, even cheer along a Trojan Horse of a public policy. The Liberals are incapable of working in the best interests of working people, and folks who are critical of the Liberals’ Basic Income plans, me included, are sounding the alarm bell: do not accept the Horse. Nothing is given to us by the business class. If we haven’t struggled to win this, we must treat it with the highest of skepticism.

This is why many people prefer to focus on the fight for a higher minimum wage: because it’s a demand that would never be given to people without the people fighting for it. It’s a demand workers can make through collective bargaining. It’s a good income redistribution mechanism as it reduces profits and turns profits into better wages. But a higher minimum wage isn’t the other side of the anti-poverty coin from a basic or guaranteed income. It’s a campaign that talks about workplace improvements and regulation. The basic income is about expanding the publicly funded social safety net. They’re different, and equally important.

This is why the merits of the basic income must be untangled from a binary debate between it or a higher minimum wage, but also why any basic income debate must be wedded to the current political context. For example, it’s not good enough to say that a basic income will help people while assuming they’d be accompanied with rent control policies, because rent controls are so far off the table they’re practically in a garbage basement apartment.

The Ontario Liberals’ Basic Income will be funded and developed in a schemy way. Will social services like ODSP be eliminated to fund it? Rather than extolling the virtues of a basic income in theory, progressives would be better off fighting to protect the social programs that might be eliminated to pay for the Liberals’ basic income plans.

 

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