Weaving a Universal Basic Income into Being - Australian Fabians
25 September, 2023

Weaving a Universal Basic Income into Being by Senator Janet Rice

by Senator Janet Rice

The land on which I am writing always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land. Writing here in Footscray, near the Maribyrnong river, I know that this land has been home for tens of thousands of years to the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung and the Bunurong peoples of the Kulin Nation. The name of the river, Maribyrnong, is said to be an anglicisation of the expression ‘Mirring-gnay-bir-nong’ — ‘I can hear a ringtail possum’.

There can be no discussion of economic justice, and how important a guaranteed liveable income is for economic justice, without a discussion of racial justice, and the injustice of colonisation, whose devastating impacts are ongoing. That is why it is so important that we listen to First Nations voices, and work towards Treaty, Truth and Voice, and learn from the wisdom of our First Nations people with regards to what it means to live life well, in a way that is sustainable for millennia.

As Chair of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, I spent considerable time in the first half of this year travelling around the country, chairing hearings as part of the Committee’s inquiry into the extent and nature of poverty in Australia. Poverty and economic inequality are often discussed in abstract terms, but a crucial part of our hearings, and in many instances the most powerful evidence, was hearing the stories of witnesses about the impact of poverty in their lives. As one person told the inquiry, in discussing a lifetime of dealing with challenges including violence, health problems, and homelessness:

If I wasn’t poor, I’d have justice in my life. I would be safe and have time to heal. Other people would be held accountable for their actions. I would not have slipped through the cracks my whole life. I could afford dreams. If I wasn’t poor, securing proper healthcare services would not depend on my likability. I would be harder to victimise. I would have teeth.

The way economic inequality and poverty are intrinsically bound up with fundamental questions of justice is one that has stayed with me. I became politically active because of my passion for justice — I wanted to address the injustices of native forest logging and the climate crisis, passions that have stayed with me through a lifetime of campaigning.

As we campaign for justice, it’s important that we understand that in campaigning and progressive politics we are always weaving together two elements in our work: understanding and engaging with the power structures and injustices of the status quo, in all its failings; and envisioning a different, brighter future, one where justice is done — the transformative change that we are fighting for.

To campaign effectively we have to be able to meaningfully and deeply engage with and understand what is wrong with the current system — the power structures that enable and perpetuate environmental, racial, economic and social injustices. We have to understand a system, and how it perpetuates itself to seek to disrupt and change it. But at the same time we must imagine and envision a different world, one that embodies the progress we are striving for, and the justice that we seek. This piece aims to both articulate the vision of the change that we are fighting for, but also to outline the power structures and existing injustices of the current systems that we are yet to overcome.

As we talk about poverty and inequality, we must recognise that we do so in a framework imposed after violent invasion and colonisation. The inequality and injustice post-colonisation stand in stark contrast to life experienced by First Nations peoples prior to their dispossession of their land and their livelihoods. Thomassin and colleagues write:

“In the literature on Indigenous prosperity, a significant theme relates to the ways in which First Peoples thrived and were prosperous pre-colonisation. Indigenous Nations’ oral histories, as well as some documentation by Europeans, tell of abundance in their relationships with the land, fisheries, hunting practices, agricultural systems, trade partnerships, skills and knowledges.”

In particular, our understandings of poverty and inequality are shaped by a Western, market-based model that does not account for the interconnections between country and community. Writing on a UBI in 2016, academic Eva Cox similarly recognised:

“I start by a necessary acknowledgement that the First Nations here, in all their diversity, have managed some 50,000 years of occupancy without formalising materialism and wage labour. While paid work and money income go way back in our various immigrant histories, it was the relatively recent industrial revolution that clearly defined both the power of capital, as investment, and of financial transactions as the public tokens of exchanges of time. This shift from agrarian, feudal, home production and hunter gathering social systems, to forms of mass production and colonisation, created the mass trade bases of today’s post-industrial system. This history created a range of inequalities …”

Similarly, Tiwari, Harris and Van Dan Akker summarise:

Indigenous people are concerned with the long-term welfare of their whole community, not individual households. They rely on extended families that live across the country, each area producing seasonal products at different times (Sercombe, 2005). Traditional economies are environmentally sustainable, because for Indigenous peoples the land is their ‘homeland’ and nature’s resources such as game, fish, seeds and fur are used as ‘trading’ tools, but on a limited basis. The natural harmony is to be maintained. They therefore use the natural resources available to them in a way that could be considered self-supporting and viable across a long term.

In her piece ‘the law of obligation, aboriginal ethics: australia becoming, australia dreaming’ Mary Graham states a compelling argument for tackling inequality and injustice:

The Aboriginal approach to sustainable social and political structure is that a stable world must be in place for young people and future generations; that while the natural environment may have times of uncertainty (earthquakes, ice ages, etc.), the human environment must not be allowed to become fraught and uncertain it must retain its stability throughout the changing natural conditions. If people feel that their government holds their best interests in the sense of security and safety policies and practices, then confidence is retained. People need to maintain confidence in their system.

My reflections in this piece are shaped by my own perspective and experience as a white person, a settler- colonialist living in a society that has not yet addressed the ongoing injustice of colonisation. I know however that it is fundamental to our work in this space that we begin to rework and challenge the very frameworks embedded in our thinking here.

Historical lineage of the Universal Basic Income

In the white, Western world, there is a long lineage of thinkers, who have discussed different forms and variations of a universal basic income, and related concepts. In her historical account, Dr Elise Klein mentions Thomas Moore’s Utopia as one of the first thinkers to float the idea of providing “everyone with some means of livelihood”. Bertrand Russell, one of the founders of the Fabians, proposed an unconditional income that he described as the “‘vagabond’s wage’, sufficient for existence but not for luxury”. In Australia, the Henderson Inquiry, led by Professor Ronald Henderson, recommended a ‘Guaranteed Minimum Income’, which was never implemented.

ChatGPT, AI, and why technology should benefit everyone

In recent decades, that push for a guaranteed liveable income, or some other form of a UBI, has grown more pressing with technological change. As I write this, the writers and actors’ strike in the US is playing out, a crucial test case for how the intersection of workers, big corporations, and new technology will play out. The tremendous advances in technologies in recent times only reinforce the need for some form of UBI, to ensure that people are protected as the relationship between work, income and technology is disrupted by new advancements.

But the simple reality is that we’ve known for a long time that new technology would drive the need for a UBI, or something like it, and the questions of how to distribute the benefits of new technology are not new ones. As Bertrand Russell wrote in 1932:

Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen instead to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines. In this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever.

More recently, many have written about the need for a UBI or something like it, to respond to the waves of technological innovation we’ve seen — AI is just the latest, most urgent form of a question that to date, our society has repeatedly failed to grapple with. Writing in 2016, Godfrey Moase from the National Union of Workers wrote:

… in Australia, we are experiencing a structural imbalance between unemployment, underemployment, insecure work and overwork by those in full-time employment. Each of these factors exist in relation to each other. Australian workers, an incredibly generous bunch, donate enough unpaid overtime to their employers that it amounts to a total of 14.7% of total hours worked.

Let’s be clear about what this means about the relationship between working hours and employment precarity.

No one need be unemployed. No one need be underemployed. The stress and anxiety some of us feel for not getting work or enough of it are linked—they are both opposite ends of our antiquated and unbalanced approach to work.

Our suffering is a social choice.

A guaranteed liveable income has to be an important part of the conversation about the implications of AI, and feature front and centre in debates about how we distribute the wealth and other benefits that come from technology.
UBI and human rights

An important contributor to our thinking on UBI and other platforms is the conception of social security as a fundamental human right. That fundamental linkage to international human rights informs our commitment to the eradication of poverty as a fundamental goal in the Australian Greens charter.

It’s also embedded in international agreements. Article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explicitly recognises the right to social security.

An important part of the evidence to the Community Affairs Inquiry on the extent and nature of poverty in Australia was on the role of social security as a human right. Economic Justice Australia outlined in their submission:
The right to social security and a basic income is a fundamental building block of all human rights; other legal and human needs cannot be fulfilled without financial security. This right is also central to guaranteeing human dignity for all people.

A fair social security system is fundamental to addressing poverty. It provides a safety net necessary to keep a person (and their children) clothed, housed and fed, as well as stability to enable them to plan for the future and engage in their community.
Australian Lawyers for Human Rights also provided specific evidence about that link:

Poverty is a violation of human dignity. ALHR submits that poverty in Australia must be approached from within a human rights framework. As a party to the core international human rights treaties Australia has recognised the inherent dignity of all people and the universal, indivisible and interdependent nature of all human rights. However, as a nation we have largely failed to develop effective anti-poverty strategies that recognise and address the wide range of human rights impacted by poverty.

What a UBI would mean for society

As well as recognising what a Guaranteed Liveable Income would do for individuals, it is clear it would have real benefits for broader society.

There is considerable research interest in exploring these benefits. So many problems in our society arise because of poverty. People who are living with constant financial stress, being threatened with eviction from insecure housing are more likely to resort to coping strategies such as abuse of legal and illegal drugs. When lives are upended constantly and there is not enough food to go round, no money to pay for medications, no security or stability there is an increased likelihood of antisocial, violent and criminal behaviour. Children brought up in poverty are less likely to finish school, to have health problems attended to and are more likely to have a lower sense of self worth. They are less likely to reach their full potential and society misses out.

In addition as Matthew Smith writes:

UBI could give people the means to focus more on engaging with their communities, rather than simply earning an income. This would include carers, parents and volunteers. A UBI provides proof to such workers that their labour is valued and appreciated.

UBI would shift our focus from economic growth, which doesn’t benefit everyone, to social and emotional growth, which would. It would allow people to reassess what matters most to them and give them a platform to live more meaningful lives.
The Greens and UBI

Within the Australian Greens using social security payments to address income inequality, and provide for people’s basic needs has been a consistent theme of our policy platform. As a founding member of the Victorian party , I’m proud that the charter of the Australian Greens , written over thirty years ago, specifically sets out a vision to “to eradicate poverty by developing initiatives that address the causes as well as the symptoms of poverty”.

Social justice has always been part of the work that the Greens have pushed and campaigned for. In their 1996 book, The Greens, Bob Brown and Peter Singer wrote:

A Guaranteed Adequate Income Scheme would help to reduce the pressure on people to find employment when often no job exists for them. It would make it easier for people without money to study, or to volunteer for community work … the Greens propose that the federal government investigate the costs and benefits of this highly promising innovation.”

  • Internationally, Greens parties around the world have pushed for action to bring us closer to a universal basic income in a range of countries:
  • Scotland — the Greens have passed motions in Holyrood calling for UBI trials;
  • England and Wales — the Greens have announced a plan for a fully costed universal basic income;
  • Ireland — the Greens have also put forward a clear proposal for introducing a UBI;
  • Japan — the Greens have a basic income approach;
  • New Zealand — a commitment to work towards a UBI as part of an election policy;
  • United States — a proposal to tax the wealthy to fund a UBI;
  • Canada — Greens negotiated for a pilot project in British Columbia in 2017.

Here in Australia, as well as the conceptual work in advocating for radical change, we have continued to focus on the improvements to our social security system that will lead us to a fairer, better system. My former colleague and predecessor in the social services portfolio, Senator Rachel Siewert, was a powerful advocate for those impacted by poverty, and a key advocate for many of the changes that made such a difference during Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which are discussed below. I’ve sought to continue that legacy in my role as social services spokesperson, fighting for concrete changes that will improve the income support system, whilst simultaneously outlining a clear vision for the radical change that’s needed.

At the 2022 election, we put forward a proposal for a Guaranteed Liveable Income that built on existing structures within the income support system, but would have taken us radically closer to a system to ensure everyone has the resources they need.

As we said when that policy was launched:

The Liveable Income Guarantee would see all government income support payments raised above the poverty line, mutual obligations abolished, and unfair restrictions on who can access the payment removed, to ensure that everyone has the means to cover their basic essential needs. With cost of living a pressing issue and wages growth stagnant, the Greens also argue the policy for a universally available payment will help lift wages from the bottom up, while also boosting the economy by ensuring more money is spent on essentials in local businesses.

The policy evidence for increasing income support

As well as the values that inform our policy approach, we also know that income support is one of the single best tools to address poverty. Academics Ben Phillips and Vivikth Narayanan, writing at the Australian National University, concluded in a research paper:

… increasing overall social security spending by up to 20 per cent yields strong benefits in terms of reducing poverty and financial stress when targeted towards working age payments with high rates of poverty and financial stress. These include JobSeeker Payment, Parenting Payment Single, Disability Support Pension and Carer Payment.
It’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact amid false claims of ‘complexity’, and ‘wicked problems’, but the simple reality is that income support payments, as a fundamental form of wealth redistribution, are powerful, effective policy tools to address income equality and reduce poverty. Academic Elise Klein submitted to the Poverty Inquiry that:

While poverty cannot be attributed to one single factor, our research suggests that social security policy settings directly affect the prevalence of poverty in Australia.
Similarly, the Melbourne Institute for Applied Economic and Social Research said it clearly in their submission: “The level of income support to a large degree determines the level of poverty in Australia.”

We know that a better income support system can reduce poverty, because we saw that happen during the pandemic. In the space of a few short months, as the world reeled in response to the COVID-19 wave surging across the globe, the Australian government responded to community pressure and made changes that activists and campaigners had been advocating for years: a supplement to double the payment rate for working age payments, reduced conditionality, and a more generous means test to make the payment more accessible. The evidence shows that those changes worked, and quickly:

One survey found that the “Supplement and suspension of mutual obligations improved respondents’ physical and mental health and contributed to their overall wellbeing. These dramatic changes enabled people to turn their attention away from day-to-day survival and towards envisioning and working towards a more economically secure future for themselves and their dependents.”

A briefing note by ACOSS concludes that the supplement: “Immediately alleviated financial stress, allowed people to buy essentials like food, pay off debt, and meet the cost of items and services that were generally unaffordable like medical, or household goods.”

There are, of course, always arguments about the efficiency of different approaches. But far too often, ‘efficiency’ is code for brutal attempts to claw money from those who already have too little, at great human cost. As the Robodebt Royal Commission clearly outlined, fraud was miniscule, but that did not prevent senior Liberal Ministers from expending great energy in a failed and illegal scheme that demonised those who had done nothing wrong, persisting in the face of the evidence with a flawed, punitive and ideological approach. If we are serious about making changes that will improve people’s lives, then we must develop policies that genuinely approach social security as a right rather than as a political punching bag.

Who holds the purse strings?

One argument we invariably hear against a guaranteed liveable income, is the cost. It’s true, there would be a cost. But in choosing to pay the costs of a scheme that would transform the lives of our fellow community members, we are also choosing to value their lives — to say that their human value, their innate human dignity — is something that we value and cherish.

In contrast, sadly, too often it seems that powerful people are content with a different set of choices and values. Nuclear submarines. Tax cuts for the ultrawealthy. Every choice is an expression of values, and the simple reality is that our government has chosen for decades to prioritise the billionaires and big corporations. We are advocating for a different choice — one that would make a huge difference in the lives of community members and have substantial community-wide benefits.
Our plans to tax billionaires and big corporations which would enable us to pay for a Guaranteed Liveable Income would radically transform how we allocate wealth, and we believe would have far reaching beneficial consequences for Australian society.

Which version of a Universal Basic Income?

  • The Guaranteed Liveable Income proposal that we took to the 2022 election was a fully costed initiative with clear proposals and associated costs. That initiative included key components, including:
  • An increase in the rate of payments to $88 a day, above the Henderson Poverty Line at that point in time, and;
  • Removing mutual obligations, and other conditional barriers that are preventing people from accessing income support.

The policy was well received, including by academics who have thought deeply in this space, such as Fabian member John Quiggin and others.

We chose this model of a UBI because we felt it was a proposal that took account of current politics and circumstances, and would shift the dial considerably in socialising the idea of a UBI in Australia. We put it on the election table as something for people to seriously consider and be able to review and critique, get behind or challenge.

But we do not consider it set in stone. We welcome a strong public debate about the parameters of what a Universal Basic Income, a Guaranteed Liveable Income, or other similar proposals should look like. There are important questions to work through including about the rates of payment, means testing and the intersection with the minimum wage. Important work is being done on these and other issues at the Australian Basic Income Lab, and in other conversations around the country, in university lecture halls, between advocates, community settings, and elsewhere.

Campaigning for the change we need

Sadly, however, that’s not yet where the broader national debate is. So, there is a pressing question for us, as a political party intent on seeking positive, progressive change to a system intent on maintaining itself, is — if it’s such a great idea, why don’t we already have a universal basic income? What political forces are aligned against it, and how can we advocate for the change that we are striving for?

We know that poverty has been, and continues to be, an ongoing challenge that impacts millions of people. We know what the solutions are — there’s clear evidence, and even if there’s debate around the parameters, there’s no serious debate left about the broad thrust of what’s needed.

So why don’t we already have a Guaranteed Liveable Income, or a similar framework?

A UBI is politically charged because it’s an issue where the strength of the idea in itself is not sufficient to see it adopted. There are considerable forces lined up against it who won’t immediately benefit or who are doing very well out of the status quo . As Machievelli said regarding the introduction of a new order of things; ‘the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new’.

The simple reason why a UBI is contentious and a long away from being adopted is because the distribution of wealth in our society is bound up with political power. The kind of meaningful wealth redistribution that would be required, if we were to implement a Guaranteed Liveable Income, or something like it, would change the balance between the haves and the have-nots in society. It would signal a meaningful shift in the allocation of resources between people, and a change in the relationship between people and government.

For that reason, there are many who have vested interests in maintaining the status quo,who will actively oppose attempts to move towards a fairer, more just system.

Billionaires, big corporations, and the right-wing media aligned with them, are all fighting to maintain their power; and to prevent the change that’s needed. They do it because it suits their interests to have a pool of people in poverty who are forced to accept work with low wages and exploitative conditions. It suits them to not have to pay higher taxes to help pay for a guaranteed liveable income. They exert their pressure through media and donations, to ensure that the old political parties do not deviate too far from the status quo.

These structures, and their capacity to fight against the change that’s needed are the reason that I remind people so frequently in and out of Parliament — poverty is a political choice. If the old parties had the courage to confront the vested interests fighting against change, then we could see dramatic changes overnight, as we did during the pandemic.

Of course, I’m glad to see the Liberals out of power, and some of the worst dangers of a fourth term averted. But sadly many of the frameworks they introduced, such as the Stage 3 tax cuts, mutual obligations and compulsory income management are still in place. And income support continues to be manifestly inadequate under the current Labor government, even after the ‘carefully calibrated’ increase of $4/ day to jobseeker, student and youth allowances in this year’s budget.

As University student Sam Thomas told the Inquiry into the Government’s so-called ‘Strengthening the Social Safety Net’ legislation:

“I wouldn’t call it a safety net, I would call it a parachute with holes. If you are on JobSeeker, you are going to hit the bottom at some point.”

Ultimately, the most significant changes in our society are driven by the community, championed by some politicians and other influential people, then accepted by a majority of politicians through required legislative change, because they know that their seats and their power are at risk if they don’t accept the change . So if we’re going to see a genuine shift towards a guaranteed liveable income in Australia, it’s going to come from the community.

To see meaningful, substantial change will take a movement. It will rely on people coming together — from the grassroots, from advocacy organisations, from unions, political parties, and a whole host of other contexts — to fight for the change that’s needed. Groups like the Antipoverty Centre, the Antipoverty Network South Australia, and the Australian Unemployed Workers Union , are organised by and for people with direct experience of poverty. The Community and Public Sector Union has a campaign to re-establish the Commonwealth Employment Service and immediately suspend mutual obligations, and the ACTU and individual unions have called for a meaningful increase in income support. The Australian Council of Social Services coordinated an open letter before the budget that saw multiple leading figures, including Labor backbenchers, signing on to call for an increase in income support. That was part of a broader push across civil society for a meaningful increase in the rate of JobSeeker as part of the 2023-24 Federal Budget.

That push was not successful this year, but the campaigning has only just begun. The pressure rattled the government — they know they are vulnerable on the issue. And they know that poverty is not going to go away. However, the pressure isn’t strong enough yet to outweigh the pressure from vested interests, particularly the pressure by wealthy elites and big corporates who are making obscene profits and who are fighting tooth and nail to maintain the status quo.

But it showed that the pressure can and must come from a broad campaign across society, to drive change in government policy; including through electing people who will be guaranteed to stand up for these changes in the parliament and to be ready to use political levers to achieve these changes.

I was one of the founders of the Greens in Victoria 30 years ago because I saw a gap in who was being elected to Parliament. I well remember a conversation I had with a Labor backbencher who told me that they didn’t need to deliver on the progressive changes we were urging them to deliver because the people who were concerned about these issues would vote for them anyway. I realised that was true. There was nowhere else for their vote to go.
So, we began the process of building the Greens to be an electorally successful force for social change. Thirty years on we are seeing the fruits of those decades of work.

While Labor backslides on its social and environmental agenda, then there is fertile political ground for the Greens, now an established electoral party deeply embedded in the progressive movement. We will continue to advocate, build power and campaign for election on a platform of real change.

With effective and sustained campaigning eventually one of two things will happen. Either Labor will feel sufficient community and electoral pressure and they will shift. Or if they don’t, they will lose more seats and have to negotiate with us to form Government, and indeed to get any legislation through the Parliament. And we will pursue our agenda tenaciously in those negotiations.

No matter how the path unfolds, Greens campaigns in the community and electorally will continue to seek power in order to share that power with the community; weaving together and negotiating improvements to the current flawed and failing system, steadily building towards the transformative change needed to achieve our vision of a better, fairer world.





About the author

One of the original founding members of the Greens in Victoria, Senator Janet Rice has campaigned for progressive policy tirelessly since 1992. Janet has been re-elected as senator three times since 2013 and currently serves as Chair of the Community Affairs References Committee and Deputy Chair of the Community Affairs Legislation Committee.

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