For 3rd time in 18 months, P.E.I. government asks Ottawa to fund basic income pilot

P.E.I. Minister of Social Development and Housing Ernie Hudson is preparing another letter — his third in the past 18 months — asking the federal government to contribute funding for a basic income pilot program here.

Liberal MP calls lack of response so far from his own government 'unacceptable'

P.E.I. Minister of Social Development and Housing Ernie Hudson is writing his third letter to his federal counterpart, asking for funding for a basic income pilot project for the Island. So far, he's gotten only a 'we received your letter' reply from a staff member. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

P.E.I. Minister of Social Development and Housing Ernie Hudson is preparing another letter — his third in the past 18 months — asking the federal government to contribute funding for a basic income pilot program here.

This latest request comes on the heels of a report from the provincial legislature recommending the province ask Ottawa to contribute unspecified funding to support a $270-million-a-year program to provide a guaranteed annual income of $18,260 to more than 50,000 Islanders.

The report, authored by MLAs from all three parties that have members in the legislature, suggests the program could function as a national pilot.

But so far, Hudson's letters haven't prompted any written response from the ministerial level — just a note from a federal staffer following the second letter saying Hudson's message had been received.

"I regret the delay in replying," the staffer wrote in a letter dated Jan. 23, 2020 — two months after Hudson wrote to the federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen, and seven months after he wrote to Hussen's predecessor Jean-Yves Duclos. 

"Please be assured that your request will be given due consideration."

Hudson is asking Ottawa to go beyond the meagre commitment it made following a similar request from the previous Liberal government of P.E.I. At that time, the Trudeau government offered to provide data and administrative support for a basic income pilot in the province, but not funding.

P.E.I. called 'excellent location' for pilot

"We are committed to finding real solutions that tackle and eliminate poverty but we recognize that it will take a collaborative effort among all levels of government," Hudson wrote to Duclos on June 19, 2019.

An all-party committee of the P.E.I. legislature, of which Social Development Minister Ernie Hudson was a member, has recommended the province begin 'immediate negotiations' seeking federal support for a basic income program that would cost $270 million per year. (Legislative Assembly of P.E.I.)

P.E.I.'s diversity of job types and income levels would make the province "an excellent location for a universal basic income pilot project," Hudson wrote. 

Five months later, when Hussen took over the portfolio, Hudson wrote again.

"I would appreciate speaking further on this important initiative for Prince Edward Island and how we can partner with the federal government. I suggest scheduling a meeting in the New Year if possible."

The two ministers met face-to-face on March 3 in P.E.I., at which time the province says "they had a very brief discussion regarding [a] basic income guarantee."

Then the pandemic hit.

In four or five phone conversations between the two ministers so far in 2020, the province says, the topic of discussion has been housing, not a basic income.

Island lobster boats prepare to lay their traps for the 2019 season. Hudson says P.E.I. would be a good site for a federal basic income pilot project because it has a diversity of job types and income levels. (Brian McInnis)

"Our government is committed to ensuring that Canadians are able to keep food on their table and a roof over their heads during this difficult time," a spokesperson for Hussen said in a statement to CBC News. "We prioritized getting money out the door quickly to support Canadians during an unprecedented crisis…

"With regards to basic income, our government has offered to share available data with provincial and territorial governments interested in implementing guaranteed basic income pilots or programs within their jurisdictions."

Liberal MP calls lack of response 'unacceptable'

That's the same position outlined in a 2017 letter from Duclos to P.E.I.'s former Liberal minister of social services, Tina Mundy.

Malpeque MP Wayne Easter says Hudson deserves his own response, and called out his own government's failure so far to provide one. 

"It's unacceptable, to me, that a federal minister does not reply fairly swiftly to a provincial minister's request," Easter said.

"Indecision is worse than no decision. If the federal government or that particular minister believes that it can't be done at this time, just state so, and [say,] 'We'll consider it for future reference.'"

Easter is chair of the House of Commons finance committee and part of a group of MPs and senators from multiple parties hoping to convince the federal government to move forward on a basic income pilot project.

"I think there's lots of benefits to a basic income guarantee — everything from people living with dignity [to] getting more people out of poverty, helping seniors, giving people the opportunity… to better educate themselves and gain a better job," Easter said.

He is lobbying his government to finance up to three pilot projects for at least five years, and make Prince Edward Island one of them.

"Monitor everything from human behaviour to health impacts to the impact on poverty… Then you would have a solid foundation [on] which to make decisions in the future."

No path forward right now: PM

At a virtual town hall meeting in early December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he "didn't see a path to moving forward" with a basic income guarantee "right now," although he said the continuing discussion around a basic income guarantee is "a really important conversation to have."

The federal Liberals have a minority government and rely on support from opposition MPs to get measures passed in the House of Commons. 

Malpeque MP Wayne Easter said it's 'unacceptable' that the Liberal government in Ottawa hasn't responded to recent requests from P.E.I. for funding for a basic income pilot project. He's part of a group of MPs and senators who want the Trudeau government to explore the idea. (Wayne Easter/Zoom)

A report released in July by the Parliamentary Budget Office pegged the potential cost to offer a national basic income program for six months at between $48 billion and $98 billion, not including an estimated $15 billion in savings because a basic income would replace some other benefit programs.

Green MLA Trish Altass, who chaired the all-party committee that recommended P.E.I. begin "immediate negotiations" with Ottawa over funding for a basic income guarantee, said "it's great to hear that Minister Hudson has been writing letters and plans to write another letter to his federal counterpart."

Asked whether the $270-million price tag is something either level of government can afford at a time when both are running record deficits, Altass said: "I think this is the time that we have to take a step back and recognize that, you know, when the pandemic hit, we were not really prepared… to be able to support people through this crisis situation.

"If we had already had a basic income program in place... it would have actually made that process a lot easier for everyone."

More from CBC P.E.I.


Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.


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