The news that the new Government of Ontario has decided to scrap the basic income experiments, despite assurances to the contrary during the election campaign, is incredibly disappointing, disgraceful and, frankly, short-sighted. Coming on the back of the widely reported decision in Finland to not extend the experiments there, this could appear to be a major setback for the global basic income agenda and has advocates around the world up in arms.
There is no doubting that it is incredibly frustrating to those of us involved in the global discussion around basic income, and particularly for those who have been leading the work in Ontario. Moreover, it is a huge blow for the 4000 people who have been participating in the pilot, and who after a relatively short time reported the numerous positive effects of the boost in economic security the basic income offered. Faced with the Ford Administration removing the economic foundation they had counted on for the next two years, participants are rightly feeling betrayed by a government that only a few months ago suggested it would leave the project intact. The grassroots backlash against this lamentable decision is fierce and growing exponentially.
But despite the frustration and the very real human cost, this is no time for despair. The Ontario debacle, painful and unjust as it is, in no way amounts to a fatal blow for our movement. Basic income advocates should acknowledge that setbacks such as that witnessed in Ontario and, to a lesser extent, Finland are the predictable risk of playing the political game in the “major leagues”. As such, Ontario may be a battle lost — for now! — but equally represents a chance to reflect on the wider war. It is an opportunity to hone our political strategies on multiple frontlines; an opportunity we should take with both hands.
In the spirit of rallying the troops for the upcoming fight, let us offer a few positive reflections against the backdrop of despair.
For starters, the opposition from the new Ontario Government has been telling in its shallowness. The Minister for Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod didn't offer any facts for the decision, promising these would be provided at some point in the future. This is important to stress — the decision hasn't been taken on the basis of the pilot failing; rather this is an ideological decision, and a short-sighted and counterproductive one at that. If it had been made because the pilot was failing in its objectives or causing harm to the participants, then we would be in a difficult position, but this is simply not the case. Moreover, the promise to provide relevant evidence ad hoc sometime in the near future is not only laughable — where is that evidence supposed to come from, now that the project is canned? — and smacks of wilful ignorance on the part of the Ontario government. This is instinctive politics dressed up as reasoned policymaking, pure and simply.
This brings us the crux of the issue: basic income experiments planned or carried out around the world are not just about gathering evidence and demonstrating to decisionmakers that a basic income without fail offers good value for money. (Little aside: how many policies are subject to such a rigorous test in Ontario, Canada or elsewhere?)
Another major role of basic income pilots and experiments is to galvanise politics in the direction of securing citizens’ right to a decent and dignified existence. Here the Ontario project already revealed tangible results that are not going to disappear overnight, as MacLeod and Ford are already finding out. The Ontario pilots have initiated and in turn have been supported by an impressive response from wider civic society. Groups such as the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty Reduction have ensured that this has not just been an academic exercise but rather a societal response to inequality and poverty. Numerous local groups and associations across Canada have either embraced basic income as part of their agenda or have emerged specifically to advocate for basic income. A national network, Basic Income Canada Network, coordinates events, disseminates information and resources, and lobbies key stakeholders to support the local grassroots activism. This civic movement will not be silenced by this political decision, nor will it allow the basic income cause to be overtaken by a return to the very policies that MacLeod seems to favour despite a proven track record of failure.
Canceling the Ontario project should not be regarded as an indictment of basic income experiments. The global movement for basic income is a vibrant and growing one and international support for basic income pilot schemes remains unwavering. Around the world several pilot projects have started, while others are in advanced planning stage or are being discussed at the highest levels of policy-making. The Ford government is rowing against the tide, make no mistake. Those involved in advocating for or planning the pilots remain undaunted even while being fully aware of the many challenges to be negotiated. There is much to learn from projects taking place Finland or the Netherlands and even from very short-lived once, such as Ontario. For those of us working towards a progressive social innovation that guarantees each citizen a minimum floor of decent existence, Ontario offers critical insight in the practical and political pitfalls that basic income experimentation brings with it. Drawing lessons from the Ontario experience will allow us to pre-empting some problems and devise targeted solutions to address others. We owe the many people involved in making the Ontario project a reality — not in the least the participants of the “living proof” campaign who tirelessly recounted their personal experiences of living with a basic income — a debt of gratitude.
The creation of the pilots in and of itself is an invaluable learning opportunity — of how to frame the debate for a federal context, how to being the wider public on board and how to design experiments of international significance, and so on. Even now the Ontario pilot helps to shape the work underway to design experiments in Scotland, the US, the Netherlands and elsewhere — a sign of the continued impact of Ontario. One of the most important lessons from Ontario to take to heart is that basic income politics is an ongoing battle that will be fought on many frontlines. Setbacks will occur and in fact should be expected. But this is common fare when social change meets the political process. Political resistance is not a novel challenge for the basic income movement, but one we’re increasingly adept at meeting. One battle may be lost for now, but the war for a better, fairer and more secure future continues unabated. Ontario will continue to be part of that journey, come what may!