National Framework for a Guaranteed Livable Basic Income Bill

Second Reading--Debate Continued

June 7, 2022


Honourable senators, I rise to speak in support of the principle of Bill S-233 and ask the Senate to have the courage to vote in favour of studying this bill.

Let me start by reminding us of the fact that, contrary to the vast majority of the 10,000-plus emails that we have received on Bill S-233, it’s not about controlling people’s lives or arbitrarily cutting off access to cherished government programs. On the contrary, Bill S-233 is designed to explore how to better empower some of our society’s most marginalized and vulnerable in a more effective and, potentially, more cost-efficient manner.

There are two reasons why I think the study of Bill S-233 is so important. The first is the deeply troubling level of disinformation associated with this bill. Some groups are knowingly creating and sharing false information, and too many vulnerable Canadians believe and share this false information. They are fearful that their access to various government programs will be arbitrarily cut off if Bill S-233 somehow becomes law.

As our colleague Senator Simons said in a well-articulated Twitter thread, an unelected Senate “. . . CANNOT commit the government to spend any money.” Studying this bill, let alone passing it, will not take away people’s rights to existing social programs and does not initiate the World Economic Forum’s takeover of our democracy. Rather, the bill proposes to look into how our social support programs and payments might be streamlined with the intention of improving delivery of such programs, particularly to vulnerable Canadians.

I believe that the scourge of disinformation can only be countered with evidence and transparency, and that’s something we can proudly say is reliably delivered through our Senate reports.

The second reason I would like us to study Bill S-233 is that I’m increasingly worried about Canada’s addiction to creating, and never reducing, regulatory burden. Particularly, we have a concerning affinity for command-and-control regulations, regulations that maintain the status quo, limit innovation and too often create economically unsustainable programs. In business terms, we call this “red tape.”

But too often we forget that it is not just businesses that have to deal with Canada’s OECD-leading levels of regulatory burden; it is all of us, and it is also our country’s most vulnerable. That is why I think it is important for us to study Bill S-233, to address the plague of disinformation head-on and to reduce regulatory burden and red tape.

Interestingly, the desire to reduce regulatory complexities and red tape is what caused guaranteed annual income to be studied at a major policy conference for a national political party back in 1969. A fellow Nova Scotian tabled the idea of implementing a simple and effective guaranteed annual income and highlighted its promise of ending costly and inefficient rules-based income support programs that were weighed down by overlapping and often competing federal, provincial and territorial authorities.

Over 50 years ago, the principle of Bill S-233 was being discussed and debated at a national policy conference. The focus was on replacing the inefficient status quo with an income-tax-based minimum income that would be available to all Canadians if and when their income fell below a predefined level. So who was that Nova Scotian, and what was his political party? It was the Honourable Robert Stanfield, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

The reality is the idea behind Bill S-233 is far from new and might even represent one of the first times that Senator Pate has actually promoted Conservative Party policy. Actually, Senator Pate, I am hoping that Senator Plett does not accuse you of plagiarism.

More seriously, I want to see S-233 go to committee so that the Senate can explore, identify and better understand innovative approaches to addressing pervasive poverty. I believe Robert Stanfield’s vision of our inefficient status quo being replaced with a more efficient system of helping Canadians if and when their income falls below a predefined level is a very powerful one indeed.

Perhaps unfairly — but prove me wrong — I believe that our income support to vulnerable and marginalized Canadians is fraught with inefficiency, limitations and constraints that severely limit how effectively we enable these Canadians to access the support needed to create success in their lives. In addition, this support exists at the always complex intersection of federal, provincial and municipal jurisdictional authorities and the oft-competing departmental authorities within each level of government. It’s a recipe for program gaps, overlaps and administrative burden.

I’d like to describe four stories that have shaped my support for the study of Bill S-233 and have me believing in its promise.

The first story is from my youth, retold to me more recently. The increasingly neglected plight of Ontario’s seniors in the early 1970s resulted in a bit of shenanigans at the powerful Treasury, Economics and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, TEIGA, of the Ontario legislature.

At the time, newspapers were telling stories of seniors whose only source of affordable protein was cat food because 35% of them over 65 in Ontario had incomes below the poverty line. My dad, who was an Ontario MPP at the time, found this to be reprehensible as the vast majority were women, and they were the ones who had struggled through the Great Depression and then worked tirelessly to hold Canada’s families, factories and country together during World War II.

I had never heard about the shenanigans part of the story from my dad. I did hear about it from retired senator Hugh Segal about three years ago. At a TEIGA committee meeting during a minority government, the majority of members voted to reduce the salaries of the minister and deputy minister of what would now be Ontario’s Ministry of Finance to $1 per year. The purpose was to familiarize those gentlemen with the effects of poverty. Former Senator Segal was working with Premier Bill Davis at the time and suddenly he had a very worried group of MPPs arriving at the door of his office. Hugh’s response was to learn more.

The result was that, within six weeks, the Ontario legislature unanimously passed a new guaranteed income supplement. What were the results? The supplement helped to reduce the poverty rate for those over 65 to under 5% of the population within three years.

The second story I want to tell you was also discussed around our kitchen table when I was in my youth; it was Manitoba’s MINCOME program, which ran in Dauphin, Manitoba, from 1974 to 1979. The focus was to empower versus control those living in poverty. It became highly politicized and was shut down, with all the data collected being locked away in the Winnipeg regional office of Library and Archives Canada.

What were the results? Well, 25 years later, a health economist by the name of Dr. Evelyn Forget rediscovered the project and was able to analyze the data. Dr. Forget’s analysis illuminated some successes of the project. Dauphin’s hospitalization rate for accidents, injuries and mental health-related issues dropped by 8.5% for those who received basic income. School performance for children in the town improved, with a surge in enrollment rates for Grade 12 students.

But because Dr. Forget’s analysis focused mainly on health outcomes of basic income, there was not sufficient data to assess the causal relationship between basic income and other social or economic outcomes.

The third story that I want to tell you is also from the Prairies. It’s a powerful social innovation called Housing First, developed and refined in the courageous and caring Prairie town of Medicine Hat. In 2015, Medicine Hat became the first community in Canada to end chronic homelessness, meaning that no more than three people were chronically homeless for more than three months.

Housing First worked because it identified individual and structural risk factors of homelessness, such as chronic health issues, disabilities, addictions and abuse, and centred programming on reducing these risks as well as providing opportunities to build social relationships, earn adequate income and gain access to affordable housing.

What were the results? Between 2009 and 2014, the amount of time participants spent in jail reduced by 67%; the number of days spent in hospital reduced by 32%. But some questions remain. For instance, it is unknown what the total net cost savings of the Housing First initiative in Medicine Hat are over the period it has been active, which existing programs were eliminated and which other programs may have been made redundant as a result of it.

The fourth and last story I want to tell you is about a more recent experiment, the Ontario Basic Income Pilot Project; it was commissioned as part of a larger poverty-reduction strategy following recommendations from retired Senator Segal. When asking the government to consider implementing a pilot, Segal reflected on what a pilot should and shouldn’t do. I’d like to quote him:

A pilot project must begin with an understanding of the costs of poverty, not only in present welfare and disability payments, but also in terms of added pressures on our health system, and the Ontario economy as a whole, through its impacts on economic productivity and existing government revenues.

Senator Pate reviewed the interim results of this program when she introduced Bill S-233, so I will not repeat them, despite their merit. Suffice it to say, I still find it very sad that former Senator Segal’s lifelong efforts to have a well-controlled study in GBI were cut short in Ontario in such an abrupt manner.

In closing, for me, Bill S-233 is about reducing red tape for those who require society’s support because they have not been able to get their feet under them, be it through their own choices or circumstances beyond their control.

As I’ve said, too often, accessing support is highly complex and unnecessarily restrictive. I hazard to guess that there likely aren’t many of us who would have the patience to navigate the current system. Many like to think that is a good thing, I expect, because it’s a deterrent, but I don’t agree.

Why? Because I believe it’s possible for us to have a system that empowers versus controls those who need it most. For those who are already struggling to cope, why would we ever think that imposing administrative complexities would help them turn their lives around?

I also believe that administrative burden is the enemy of productivity; moreover, due to my Scottish heritage, choosing to maintain an inefficient and less effective system causes me to have an allergic reaction.

Canada’s moribund productivity growth continues to worsen because we do not innovate in everything we do. Canadians are hard-working, innovative and determined. But too many of our public services are constrained by a legacy of habit, not evidence of effectiveness.

The OECD now predicts that Canada will have the worst-performing economy through 2060. I’m not willing to lay this at the feet of any single political party or level of government. I believe it’s due to a culture that is not committed to innovating in everything we do. We must stop tolerating the sentence, “But that’s not how we do it.”

Let’s have the courage to innovate. Yes, innovation and change bring risk, but they also bring the evidence of what to do and what not to do.

Colleagues, let’s send Bill S-233 to committee and ask them to focus on how the federal government might work with one willing province or territory to complete a well-documented study of the principle underlying Bill S-233. Let’s not just look at the costs but at all of the programs and services across all levels of government that might be replaced or eliminated, the savings potentially enabled and the opportunities that might create.

If we value the prosperity of our grandchildren, we must embrace change and innovation. We must eliminate unnecessary rules and red tape, and focus our attention firmly on the intended result. If we do not do so as it relates to supporting the most vulnerable in our society, then for whom?

Thank you, colleagues.

Hon. Diane Bellemare [ + ]

Would Senator Deacon take a question?

Yes.

Senator Bellemare [ + ]

Here’s my question. I believe, as you do, that it is very important to empower people. In your opinion, what level of guaranteed income should people receive as part of a guaranteed minimum income program so they can truly escape poverty?

Which programs do you believe involve so much red tape they should be abolished?

Senator Bellemare, those would be the questions I hope we would answer in committee as we look at this program and see all the areas that it reaches into, such as health care services and paramedic services. Certainly in my own community, the fire department recognizes that a great many of their calls relate to health crises and issues from those who are not getting appropriate health care.

So who knows to where we should limit this and who knows what programs could be delivered more effectively? But it’s arguable that the patchwork — and I would argue this — provides the evidence to the contrary that a great many efficiencies can be gained.

To answer your question, I would look at that as being something that would come from a Senate study.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore [ + ]

Senator Deacon, your time has expired. Are you asking for five more minutes?

Yes, if it is the wish of the chamber.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore [ + ]

Is it agreed, honourable senators?

Hon. Percy E. Downe [ + ]

Thank you, Senator Deacon, for taking my question.

As you are aware, the three parties in the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island — the Conservative Party, which is the government; the official opposition, which is the Green Party; and the Liberal Party — have all passed a motion asking the federal government to support a trial project in Prince Edward Island. It would be a continuation of what was undertaken but stopped in Ontario, as you indicated in your speech.

The federal government, so far, has not agreed to doing that because, as you know, there are two schools of thought. Prince Edward Island thinks it is a substantial replacement for existing programs and would target the very people you talked about in your remarks, whereas the other concern is that the report done by the Government of British Columbia indicates that the costs would not be sustainable over the long term.

One of those views is obviously wrong.

Would you agree with me that the child benefit, in the case of Prince Edward Island, has had a tremendous impact? Over $500 million has gone to Prince Edward Island in the last four years in tax-free benefits, affecting 25,000 families and 13,000 children. In my view, a pilot project in P.E.I. would also work. Would you share that view as well?

Thank you, Senator Downe, for the question. I would offer that if P.E.I. gets to it first, that would be great. I totally believe it’s worth doing and that you’ve got an advantage over other provinces and territories on having that all‑party support in your legislature. I would love it to happen in Nova Scotia, but the point is that I would love it to happen, period. We assume what the costs are, but we don’t know what programs and overlap can be eliminated. We don’t know what opportunities can be created by empowering people and freeing them.

There are examples from the past and from other countries where, if there is a second income that comes into the house, you will lose your benefits. Then you choose to push one parent out of the house, in effect.

If they can’t get jobs that employ them at a certain level, we have to look at how rules are creating opportunity and preventing opportunity. We don’t know about that opportunity side of the equation.

That’s why I would love to see it go ahead in P.E.I., but I want to see it go ahead. I want us to have a controlled study that really gives us insight into all the different areas where impacts, negative and positive, will occur.

I may be proven wrong, but the evidence right now does not exist to say that helping people first will not create greater opportunities. The evidence certainly isn’t there that our status quo is performing to the level it needs to.

Hon. Frances Lankin [ + ]

Will Senator Deacon take a question?

I would be honoured.

Senator Lankin [ + ]

Thank you very much. I can’t tell you how much I agree with what you said to Senator Downe. I thought it was right on point.

A lot of what we hear in terms of pushback to this idea comes from a sense of intuition and not from any evidence. The evidence that we have seen, whether via pilot projects completed or partially completed, shows the opposite.

But what we hear is that marginal effective tax rates will make it very difficult for us to determine where the clawback is or at what level to set the benefit. We hear that it would be a disincentive to work. I think some of the evidence you alluded to disproves that.

I wonder if you could just expand on that a little bit in terms of what we do know from the evidence and why this is worthy of the next step in a national collaborative study with P.E.I.

Thank you, Senator Lankin. I can only speak from personal experiences of times when my life was really tough. My ability to see opportunity and my willingness to take risks to step out of the circumstances that I found myself in — things just close in on you.

I don’t know how to quantify that at this point in time, but I believe that, personally. I see that with people in my life, where things just become overwhelming and their ability to see what might be obvious to you and me as a next step — they just can’t get there; they can’t imagine that change.

I look at my own community where there have been people who have had the courage to create new opportunities. Invariably, there’s been a little bit of a cushion underneath them that has allowed them to go and take a risk and maybe fail. But it’s that controlled risk that I think is essential for us to make progress in every community, in every life and every family.

I don’t know how to quantify it. I have the examples I gave. The Housing First example from Medicine Hat I found so inspiring. If I couldn’t have a good night’s sleep, a shower in the morning and a meal, how could I deal with any major issue in my life? Telling people they have to do X, Y and Z before they get that key element puts them in an impossible position.

I don’t have an answer, but that’s why we need to do a study.

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