Robots might take our jobs but free money is not the immediate answer
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Robots might take our jobs but free money is not the immediate answer

Billionaires including Tesla’s Elon Musk, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Virgin’s Richard Branson are some of the latest flag bearers of a universal basic income.

It's not a new idea, but it has regained attention as a way to fight inequality that could worsen under the new gig economy, and especially automation.

A universal basic income is a periodic no-strings attached cash payment that aims to cover peoples’ basic needs regardless of their economic circumstances or whether or not they work.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg supports the idea of a universal basic income.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg supports the idea of a universal basic income.

Photo: Bloomberg

In late April, Finland decided to end its experiment with giving some of its citizens free cash.

It had trialled a type of universal basic income system involving a random sample of 2000 unemployed people aged 25 to 58 being paid a monthly €560 stipend. The trial’s results are not expected to be released until late next year.

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Supporters say it's too early to dismiss its merits and note there are still other countries undertaking or considering their own basic income trials such as Canada, Spain and Scotland.

But opponents say the experiment was a flop and point to other failed attempts,  most notably, in 2016 when almost 77 per cent of Swiss voters rejected a plan to give a basic monthly income of 2500 Swiss francs to each adult, and 625 francs for each child under 18.

In late April Finland decided to end its experiment with giving some of its citizens free cash.

In late April Finland decided to end its experiment with giving some of its citizens free cash.

Photo: Shutterstock

So what do Australians think? The idea has also been raised here in the past, and is now back on the political agenda at the current Senate inquiry into the "Future of Work and Workers”.

The inquiry, which was set up to “inquire and report on the impact of technological and other change on the future of work and workers in Australia”, has received more than 150 submissions so far.

These cover a range of views from those who argue the gig economy and automation will destroy jobs and worsen inequality (predominantly put forward by the unions), to others that say technology will create new job opportunities and in this way society as a whole benefits (advocated by most employer and business groups).

Professor John Quiggin, from the University of Queensland says it is not as simply as arguing that “robots will take your job”. But his submission does point out that “political and economic conditions now are less favourable to workers than at any time since the 19th century".

He calls for a “guaranteed minimum income”, or GMI, which at least initially, would not be unconditional but allows people to “live decently without paid work and without being required to search for work”.

It would be necessary to combine a GMI with some form of employment guarantee, he says, and to maintain minimum wages at a level significantly higher than the GMI. 

Many argue that the gig economy  and automation will destroy jobs and worsen inequality.

Many argue that the gig economy and automation will destroy jobs and worsen inequality.

Photo: Supplied

Dr Ben Spies-Butcher from Macquarie University and Troy Henderson from University of Sydney also don't accept that technology will destroy the  future of work.

Instead, they argue, it will make work less "stable and predictable". Workers will have to change jobs more often, and due to changing demographics, there will likely be an increase in unpaid care work.

Australia's income support system, especially Newstart, they argue "is poorly designed to address these concerns".

They instead suggest an "affluence-tested basic income" that would taper rates for welfare benefit withdrawal so that those on middle-to-high incomes get relatively small basic income payments, and those on very high incomes don't get any payment.

They also suggest we "individualise payments" so that our social security system no longer pays recipients different amounts based on their relationship status, which they say is an outdated concept.

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While Productivity Commission chairman Peter Harris, in his submission, agreed that digital disruption could increase inequality and might ultimately require the consideration of a universal basic income, he said it was “premature to embrace the measure at the moment”.

I have to agree. I do not envisage the dystopia that gig economy cynics do.

My hope is that governments create institutions and systems that support the most vulnerable in society. That is what the Finnish experiment was about.

Australia should focus on targeted programs that help the most vulnerable, and education and training systems to equip citizens with the right skills for the future.