By Roderick Benns
If there’s one thing retired Conservative Senator Hugh Segal knows a thing or two about, it’s political strategy. Segal was chief of staff to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the 1990s and associate secretary of cabinet in Ontario in the 1980s.
So when he thinks about the Liberal Party of Canada’s policy resolutions last year, about supporting a basic income guarantee, he knows how much they have potentially differentiated themselves from their main rivals.
“I think for the Liberal Party to say ‘we’re going to do pilot projects’ is a very prudent and constructive thing to say. They’re on the side of trying something new, with all the appropriate calibration and assessment,” Segal tells Leaders and Legacies. The retired senator – and now master of Massey College – has been a long-time proponent of basic income policy.
“If it (a basic income policy) ends up in their actual platform, then that will mean the NDP and the Conservatives will have to respond.”
Segal refers to the 2014 federal Liberal policy convention, where two resolutions were made and accepted by delegates that steer the party toward a basic income guarantee for working-age Canadians. However, this does not mean it will necessarily find its way into the party’s platform for this fall’s federal election.
Segal says that if the Liberals did put some kind of basic income guarantee in their platform, it would at least ensure the issue of poverty “will actually be discussed.”
“In the 2011 election the word ‘poverty’ never once came up. So who has the best approach would be a great debate,” he says.
When asked if he every broached the topic of basic income to Brian Mulroney’s government in the early 1990s, when he was serving as Mulroney’s chief of staff, Segal said indeed he had.
“Not only did I broach it, I chaired an interdepartmental committee on income security…and we looked at the means for moving in this direction.”
What the government eventually decided to focus on, though, says Segal, was to “radically change the structure of family allowance, tilted toward those with greater need, and to end universality.”
He points out the government was faced with an austerity mindset near the end of their reign in 1992-93.
While Segal has been the most vocal Conservative proponent for basic income policy for many years, he is now being joined by another prominent retired Conservative. Distinguished philanthropist and former Senator Michael Meighen, has now also spoken out in favour of pilot projects, declaring the policy to be “very attractive on paper,” and that it deserves to be tested.
Meighen advocated for a basic income guarantee under the banner of Conservative Party leader, Robert Stanfield, when he ran for office in the early 1970s.