Basic Income after COVID-19 – Social Security, Work & Wealth

On Friday 10th December 2021 I attended the Australian Basic Income (ABI) lab’s inaugural workshop. ABI is a research collaboration between the University of Sydney, Australian National University and Macquarie University. It’s an exciting group newly formed in 2021 which aims to be the preeminent hub for basic income research and outreach in the Asia-Pacific region.

Workshop introduction

Overall takeaways

First of all, what a great day! It was an all-day session filled with a diverse group of speakers ranging from social policy/economics academics, unions, nonprofit representatives and most importantly Aussies themselves who need and interact with Australia’s punitive welfare system.

One of the main thrusts of the discussion on Friday was how Australia implemented a sort of basic income ‘light’ during the height of the pandemic (a Jobkeeper supplement of $250 per fortnight with mutual obligation suspensions) which drastically improved the quality of life for those on Jobseeker – and then walked back the changes in a stroke of policy amnesia.

Nonprofits such as Good Shepherd surveyed Jobkeeper clients to learn more about their experiences. Below is a very brief snapshot of some of the positive impacts on recipients:

  • Feeling less alone
  • Feeling themselves for the first time in years
  • Able to buy good food, exercise

I’ll use this blog post to as a quick round-up of the key notes and takeaways I drew from the three sessions.

Session 1Organiser overview

Session 1 notes

Maiy Azize – Deputy Director, Anglicare Australia

  • Anglicare divested from employment services about a decade ago because of the exploitative nature of being a contracted Australian job service provider
  • Australia’s welfare system is amongst the most compliance-heavy regimes in the world
  • Welfare states feature a care vs control duality – with Australia leaning further into the latter

Kristin O’Connell, Anti-Poverty Centre & Australian Unemployed Workers Union

  • Focusing on the question ‘how to live lives with purpose?’
  • People are not just mechanised parts of an economy
  • Key concept: “Conditionality is the engine of the party machine”

Session 1 summary thoughts

This session was the most raw in terms of discussing the positive impacts of improving Jobseeker payments and suspending mutual obligations. These temporary policy amendments drastically improved people’s lives – only for the status quo to be reinstated.

Session 2 – Organiser overview

Session 2 notes

Alison Pennington, Senior Economist, Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute

  • A distance has grown between work and income
  • Unemployment is planned, not structural – women are priced out of being wage labourers, with the high cost of childcare
  • There is a high level of underutilisation in Australia
  • The Australian nurses’ union is a good example of an industry that was mostly dominated by women which organised to become one of the most powerful unions in Australia

Assoc Prof Shaun Wilson, Macquarie University

  • Author of new book Living Wages and the Welfare State: The Anglo-American Social Model in Transition
  • Proponent of the broad progressive potential of a living wage
  • Challenges for UBI
    • Not winning support from Piketty & Krugman
    • How to put an electoral coalition together

Tim Kennedy, National Secretary, United Workers Union

  • The UWU advocated for keeping a high jobkeeper
  • Notes worker fragmentation and loss of solidarity
  • Current organising campaign is “jobs you can count on”
  • UWU’s position on UBI ranges from ambivalent to contested
  • The union focuses on worker power rather than waiting for governments
  • UWU meets their members where they’re at – 1st order of business is addressing wage suppression
  • BI doesn’t address asset inequality
  • BI is on the horizon for unions, has potential to inform UWU’s ‘theory of winning’

Session 2 summary thoughts

A fascinating session that helped me to better understand the role and enduring relevance of unions in the context of a potential UBI. Income security is an outcome for both the union and UBI movements. However, this session reinforced awareness in me that workers have powers to seize the means of production and improve their bargaining position – whilst the basic income movement is dependent on putting together an electoral coalition. The key takeaway here is understanding how union actors may view UBI as an inferior tool compared to industrial action when considering their theory of winning for workers.

Session 3 – organiser overview

Session 3 notes

Martijn Konings, University of Sydney

  • The economy is characterised as an asset economy featuring asset inflation
  • The economy can be described as a post-Keynesian political economy

Professor Miranda Stewart, University of Melbourne

  • An asset like home ownership is not taxed apart from stamp duty

Session 3 final thoughts

The key takeaway I got from this session was that labour has been divorced generating wealth, and that the key driver of wealth nowadays is in holding assets. I feel particularly grim about the outlook of people (young people especially) who can’t get a foothold into the asset economy and hope to learn more about how basic income may contribute to the solution.

Concluding thoughts

A big thanks to Dr Troy Henderson, Dr Elise Klein & Dr Ben Spies-Butcher for organising the workshop! Overall, it was a thought-provoking day with lots of two-way interaction between the panelists and attendees in each of the three sessions. My main question is how resonant within the Australian consciousness are the stories of those who benefitted from the basic income-esque natural experiment? How do we as basic income advocates leverage the momentum out of the last two years of crisis to evolve Australia’s punitive and inefficient social policy and make the good changes stick?

I recently got invited to join the local organising committee for the 2022 Basic Income Earth Network’s congress which is going to be held in Brisbane next year (hybrid online & in-person). I look forward to exploring my above questions further there.

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