Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa Tuesday, March 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Liberals set to debate universal basic income, pharmacare, OAS hike

OTTAWA — Grassroots Liberals have taken up Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s call to “build back better” with gusto, coming up with a host of proposals to make Canada’s economy more equitable, more inclusive and more environmentally sustainable.

The top 42 of them are up for debate and votes today at the Liberal national convention, with sponsors hoping they’ll make it into the party’s platform for the next election, if not the budget to be unveiled in little more than week.

The priority resolutions include calls for a universal basic income, a separate guaranteed basic income for families coping with disability, a national pharmacare program and a ten-per-cent increase in old age security for Canadians 70 and over.

Others call for a “green new deal” to ensure a just and fair transition to net-zero carbon emission by 2050, investments in “transformational projects” to create jobs for workers displaced by that transition and tax incentives for large corporations to invest in renewable resource development.

There are also calls for investments in affordable housing, a trans-Canada high-speed rail line, expanded access to high-speed Internet and measures to turn Canada into an “agricultural superpower.”

There are few resolutions that contemplate ways to pay for all the costly new investments, apart from one that calls for imposition of an inheritance tax on all assets over $2 million and a 40 per cent reduction in the capital gains tax exemption.

Some of the non-binding resolutions mesh with the government’s stated intention to spend up to $100 billion to fuel a green, inclusive economic recovery, on top of the $380-billion-plus deficit already racked up helping Canadians stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Trudeau has already signalled his lack of enthusiasm for the universal basic income idea, suggesting now is not the time to embark on a costly overhaul of the country’s social safety net.

The parliamentary budget officer last week concluded that a universal basic income could almost halve Canada’s poverty rate in just one year but at a steep cost: $85-billion in 2021-22, rising to $93-billion in 2025-26.

Toronto MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, one of the champions of the idea within the Liberal caucus, says he understands the price tag is daunting. Still, he’s hopeful that passage of the resolution today would push the government to move gradually in the direction of a basic income.

He notes that at the 2018 convention, Liberals passed a resolution calling for decriminalization of all illicit drug use. Trudeau rejected the idea at the time but Erskine-Smith notes his government has since been moving toward treating drug addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue, including with proposed legislation repealing mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offences.

Trudeau also initially opposed legalization of cannabis, despite a party resolution calling for it, only to later change his mind. His government legalized recreational marijuana during its first mandate.

Trudeau will wrap up the three day convention later today with a keynote speech.

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