Aslan Shand, guest editorial
The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that in Australia we are expecting to see a jump from 5.1 to 15 per cent (two million people), unemployed as the COVID-19 crisis deepens. Around the world there are suggestions for nationalising railways, electricity, water, airlines and other essential services.
Around the country we have people lining up down the streets outside Centrelink offices, attempting social distancing, to ensure they don’t starve and lose their homes as they lose their jobs. What we don’t need is more mixed messaging from our prime minister or state premiers; what we need now is visionary leadership, and one key action should be to bring in the universal basic income (UBI).
The idea of a universal basic income is not a new one. It comes in many guises, including citizen’s income, guaranteed minimum income, and basic income, and has been tried out in various forms around the world.
A recent proponent of the idea is former US presidential candidate, Andrew Yang. While he was proposing the idea in relation to the future loss of jobs due to automation, it is now gathering support as a way to assist people during the current crisis.
In an NPR radio interview with Michel Martin on the issue last week, Yang pointed out that putting money directly in the hands of Americans, (in our case Australians) ‘is the obvious and, frankly, only move that we can make that could keep our economy from collapsing into a new Great Depression… Money in our hands is necessary for us to stay alive during this time.’ (https://n.pr/3dovnPz)
Supporting the value of the long-term approach of a UBI, rather than short-term one-off or multiple payments, was the recent Canadian experiment with the UBI in Ontario. Running for only 17 months, cut short by a change of government, it nevertheless created a number of positive outcomes. These included improvements in mental health, reduction in use of alcohol and tobacco, improved physical wellbeing and a reduction in visits to both the doctor and emergency departments, as reported in New Atlas: (https://bit.ly/2QCpfcQ)
According to Tim Ford from CBC News, 2018 modelling of a national UBI plan projected it would cost Canada about CAD$76 billion annually. However, once payments and subsidies that would no longer be required if the program was introduced were accounted for, ‘the cost would actually end up closer to CAD$43 billion’. (https://bit.ly/2QErWuD)
The Australian government needs to take quick and effective action to get money into every Australian’s hands, not through complicated, drawn-out Centrelink applications, rebates and tax deferrals, but through directly giving people an ongoing income; the ATO already had all our bank account details.
It is clear that quick, effective action now will not only help save people’s lives medically, but a UBI will ensure that people can eat, and continue to have a home. It will reduce stress, help prevent suicide and allow communities the chance to rebuild once this pandemic crisis has passed.