Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa Friday, March 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Liberal MPs, grassroots to push for universal basic income at party convention

OTTAWA — The idea of creating a universal basic income is being pushed by Liberal MPs and grassroots party members, young and old, from east to west — despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apparent lack of enthusiasm.

It is among the top priority issues chosen for debate at the governing party’s April 9-10 convention following an online policy process in which the party says more than 6,000 registered Liberals took part.

When Liberal MPs first proposed a universal basic income last fall as their foremost policy priority for the convention, Trudeau didn’t slam the door.

But he did indicate a costly overhaul of the country’s social safety net wasn’t at the top his to-do list in the middle of a pandemic that had already sent the federal deficit soaring into the stratosphere.

“Obviously COVID has exposed weaknesses in our country where vulnerable people are continuing to slip through the cracks,” he said at the time.

“We will have conversations about next steps as well but our focus is very much on what we need to do to control COVID-19.”

Insiders say Trudeau’s view has not changed since then.

But a resolution, sponsored by the Liberal caucus, the party’s seniors commission and its Ontario and British Columbia wings, suggests a universal basic income would be a logical successor to the $2,000-per-month emergency aid benefits the government rolled out to help millions of Canadians stay afloat during the pandemic.

It argues that a guaranteed basic income would allow the government to merge existing support programs and reduce administrative costs, while simplifying benefit applications for people in need, providing them with income security and reducing the stigma attached to collecting welfare.

“Economic stability is key to equality of opportunity and dignity,” the resolution argues.

Another similar resolution from the party’s youth commission contends that a basic income would lift millions out of poverty and give workers “leverage to say no to exploitative wages and poor working conditions.”

Despite the apparent widespread support for the idea, there were some dissenters during the online policy process which produced the 42 resolutions to be debated and put to a vote at the convention.

“Basic income is a simple and attractive idea, but when you take a close look it turns out to be costly and ineffective,” said one participant.

“This is a destructive inflationary policy, based upon fallacious assumptions, and idealistic notions. This is not a Liberal policy, it is disastrous communistic vote grabbing,” said another.

Others worried that it would encourage people to stay home rather than seek work.

Some economists have raised similar concerns. And the parliamentary budget officer has pegged the net cost of a universal basic income program at $44 billion annually, even after repealing other social supports.

Among the priority resolutions is another, sponsored by the Liberal caucus, seniors commission and B.C. and Nova Scotia wings of the party, calling for enforceable national standards for long-term care homes, which have borne the brunt of deaths from COVID-19.

That too generated some conflicting opinions during the policy process.

Some participants suggested that Ottawa shouldn’t try to force national standards on provinces and territories, which have exclusive jurisdiction over the delivery of health care.

But others were adamant. ”If they don’t agree to standards, then no funding,” said one. “Time to stop playing this game with provinces … Nothing else will move the needle.”

Still others said the focus should be on ensuring elderly Canadians have adequate home care so they don’t need to end up in long-term care.

Other resolutions include calls for ending subsidies for fossil fuels, incentives for development of renewable energy sources and funding to retrain and relocate workers displaced by the transition to a green economy.

The convention itself will be an entirely virtual event due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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