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Universal Basic Income is the policy that an innovative society needs.

By John Tomlinson - posted Friday, 15 January 2016

Australia currently has a Prime Minister who claims he wants to create an innovative nation. I lost sight of how innovative we truly are whilst driving through the smog haze caused by the coal fired electricity generators around Yallourn in Victoria and similar monstrosities in the Upper Hunter in New South Wales. Our previous Prime Minister thought wind turbines an eyesore but at least you can see them clearly in the absence of choking smog.

We used to ride on the sheep's back until the wool market collapsed. Then we put our trust in extractive industries, particularly coal, other hydrocarbons and iron ore, but the price we are getting for them has gone through the floor. Prices do not appear likely to recover in the foreseeable future.

We have a well-developed tax avoidance industry propping up the big end of town and giant multinationals, which appear to believe that tax on profits is something that bears no relation to their operations. When we create an innovation we are often too mean to develop it here and happily let it go overseas to find risk capital and a new home.


Along with New Zealand we once had the most advanced universal social welfare and generous industrial protections in the world, which European observers described at the time as "Socialism without doctrine". But that was over a century ago.

Since the mid 1980s we have turned away from generous universal social protections and towards loading onerous obligations upon those who apply for working age social security. We have made their lives increasingly unbearable by extensive means testing. "Reciprocity" and "mutual obligation" have been the catch cries of Labor and Coalition governments respectively.

Tristram Hunt, a British MP, writing in the Guardian about the English Labour Party's continuing obsession with the Blair/Brown governments, but with equal relevance to the Australian Labor Party's preoccupation with the Hawke/Keating governments suggests we need to develop a:

socialism that embraces technology and modernity and sees the function of the state as supporting and empowering citizens in an age of insecurity.

The quickening pace of globalisation, changes to the labour market, the rise of robots and supercomputers, and the urgent need for social security reform are here to stay. And we need credible answers, which embody our values, to all these challenges.

Another Guardian writer John O'Farrell writing about the current Dutch pilots of universal basic income (UBI) makes the point that a UBI is about to be paid in Utrecht and 19 other municipalities in the Netherlands:


Everyone will get about £150 a week, whether working or not. The unemployed won't find themselves penalised for finding work, and the hope is that the state will spend less money snooping on benefit claimants, moving on the homeless or locking up those driven to crime.

The idea is so refreshingly contrary to the petty conditionality that is killing the welfare state that it began to fill me with optimism that there may be a few people lying in this political gutter still looking at the stars. Once upon a time, universality was the underpinning principle of welfare. Every mother got child benefit; every child got free school milk, until that was snatched away …

In Namibia and India pilot programs have demonstrated that people who are guaranteed a non-conditional minimum survival payment are far more productive, less criminal, more innovative, more inclined to send their children to school and health clinics than those without such a guarantee.

Finland is preparing to run a series of pilot programs to test whether universal basic incomes are an appropriate way to proceed in that country. They are employing a number of university-based institutes to run evidence-based experiments.

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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