The Labour Party is signalling major reform of the social welfare system that it founded, saying it will investigate "new models of income security for New Zealand, including considering a limited trial of a universal basic income."

The policy commitment is one of "10 Big Ideas" outlined at the start of the party's two-day Future of Work conference in Auckland, which leader Andrew Little said was a contribution to "a worldwide debate about one of the biggest public policy challenges we face today" and comes half-way through a policy development process Labour hopes will reposition it ahead of the 2017 election after losing at the polls in 2008, 2011 and 2014.

The UBI commitment is the most radical of the ideas outlined, although the scale of the initial trial indicates how cautious the party is about whether the concept can be made to work.

The concept is to replace the current range of social welfare and other benefits with an equal payment to every citizen, irrespective of income, to deliver sufficient income for adequate living standards, especially in a period of fast-changing transition in the work force. The UBI would be paid for by higher taxes on higher incomes and structured to prevent a beneficiary who finds work being penalised as the UBI would not reduce as they start earning.

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As a further step, Labour would abolish secondary tax, as well as further strengthening rights to collective bargaining.

Finance spokesman Grant Roberston warned that the global economy was changing at "warp speed".

Every worker would have a "training plan", assisted by the right to three years of tuition fees-free tertiary education during their lifetime. Income inequality had to be addressed, with the wealthiest New Zealanders now eight times richer than the least wealthy, with technological change threatening to marginalise those left behind, said Robertson.

Letting the market alone work could be "crippling to democracy", if citizens saw prosperity as being out of their reach, he said.

Other big ideas generated in the consultations so far include: digital equality, meaning access to fast internet and digital technology no matter where a person lives or their income; new models of capital-raising and investing in research and development; creating regional business clusters to get the best from local and emerging industries; partnering with Maori post-settlement entities; and establishing a Pasifika working futures plan.

On accelerating technology uptake in business, Labour is examining how the government might support venture and seed capital funding and crowd-funding, along with the introduction of research and development tax credit and reform of the science system "to simplify it and reduce waste."

Robertson also called for a wider definition of what constitutes paid work, including voluntary and family care, and reassess how we pay people.

- BusinessDesk