Mays, Marston and Tomlinson (eds) Basic Income in Australia and New Zealand

Jennifer Mays, Greg Marston and John Tomlinson (eds), Basic Income in Australia and New Zealand: Perspectives from the neoliberal frontier, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, xv + 268 pp, 1 349 71028 7, pbk, £86

The editors’ introductory chapter categorises Australia and New Zealand as representatives of ‘liberal’ (punitive and means-tested) welfare states alongside the UK, the US, and Canada, and as ‘neoliberal’, meaning the privatization of public services, trade liberalization, blaming the unemployed for their unemployment, increasing conditionality in welfare provision, and increasing inequality, poverty, stigma, and economic insecurity. The editors argue for Basic Income as a necessary response to this situation, and on the basis of both the negative and positive freedoms that it would deliver.

In chapter 2, Keith Rankin recounts New Zealand’s history of universal provision (in pensions, healthcare, and education), understands the counter-intuitive nature of Basic Income, suggests that the concept of ‘public equity’ could enable the current tax and benefits system to be rearranged to include a Basic Income, and proposes an employer-administered tax credit, which would unfortunately be a lot more complicated to administer than a genuine Basic Income. In chapter 3, John Tomlinson recounts the history of Australia’s complex benefits system, including its universal elements; provides tables that compare Basic Income with that system; again argues for Basic Income on the basis of both negative and positive freedoms; and is somewhat pessimistic about Basic Income’s political feasibility in Australia compared with Rankin’s more optimistic assessment in relation to New Zealand.

In chapter 4 Rob Watts argues for Basic Income on the basis of its many advantages over Australia’s current social security system, and on the basis of the security that it would provide as people experience increasing employment market turbulence; and in chapter 5 Susan St. John discusses New Zealand’s unconditional pension, and the minor changes that would be required to turn it into a Basic Income for elderly people. In chapter 6 Richard Denniss and Tom Swann advocate a credit facility that they call a ‘basic loan’ and suggest that this has something to do with Basic Income, which it does not; and in chapter 7 Charles Sampford studies the high Marginal Effective Tax Rates suffered by people on means-tested benefits and proposes removing the taper rates: but unfortunately, the conditionalities that he then attaches to his proposed income means that he ought not to be calling it a Basic Income. He calls his chapter ‘Paying for a Basic Income’, but unfortunately no figures are given.

In chapter 8 Greg Marston advocates Basic Income as a means of developing countries providing the economic security that their populations will need as they implement the slow growth economies that tackling climate change demands. In chapter 9 Jon Altman advocates a Basic Income for indigenous Australians, and suggests that a variant of an employment project for a community of indigenous Australians was a Basic Income, which it was not. And in chapter 10 Jennifer Mays discusses the history of Australian income provision for people with disabilities, including the otherwise unconditional Blind Pension, and advocates a Basic Income as a means of including people with disabilities in mainstream society.

Two criticisms are in order. As often happens in a volume of this nature, there is a certain amount of repetition (for instance, the objection to Basic Income on the assumption that people will no longer seek employment receives similar responses in several of the chapters). More seriously, three of the chapters are about payments that are not Basic Incomes, and in two of them the term ‘Basic Income’ is used to describe them. It is a significant flaw in an edited collection if different authors are using the same term to refer to different things.

But having said that, this book usefully restricts the debate on Citizen’s Basic Income to the situations of two particular countries (although mainly Australia), which enables us to understand the particular political and other challenges that the idea faces in a particular context. The one thing missing in this respect is costed illustrative Basic Income schemes for the two countries, and if ever there is a second edition then the editors might wish to include these, along with microsimulation evaluations.