2CC CANBERRA LIVE WITH LEON DELANEY
THURSDAY, 18 MARCH 2021
SUBJECTS: Morrison Government’s JobKeeper waste exposed; the Morrison Government withdrawing support too soon for those who need it; unemployment rate.
LEON DELANEY, HOST: I'll bet you're very pleased you're not in the Senate, Andrew Leigh. Good afternoon.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good afternoon, Leon. Yes, always pleased. Every day, I get out of bed in the morning and I'm pleased I'm not in the Senate. It's a delight to be in the people's house.
DELANEY: Indeed. What do you make of that motion that was passed by the Senate? Is it bigoted, as the Greens senator suggested, or is it just a merely a reflection of common sense?
LEIGH: Leon, we've just had some massive rallies across Australia over the issue of sexual harassment, which we know affects two-fifths of women. We've had a woman allegedly raped within 50 metres of the Prime Minister's office. The idea that motions like this are what the Senate should be debating seems utterly ludicrous to me. Let's focus on the big issues.
DELANEY: Alright. One of the big issues and you've just touched on the biggest one that's been dominating discussion in recent weeks, of course. But one of the big issues is this other matter that has arisen with ASX listed companies, big companies, big successful companies enjoying the benefits of the JobKeeper wage subsidy program and yet, in the end, turning out to be far more profitable than they expected and in effect did not need the money. Now, some of them have done the right thing and handed it back. Turns out a lot of them have not. Now, every day there's more revelations about companies that have been engaging in this particular practice and of course there's a report now that suggests about 20 per cent of JobKeeper payments went to companies that basically did not need the money. What can be done about that?
LEIGH: The Prime Minister needs to be as tough on firms that are using JobKeeper to pay executive bonuses as he is on social security recipients. When it comes to social security recipients, he wants income management, he wants to run an illegal Robodebt scheme. When it comes to large firms sending money to billionaire shareholders and millionaire CEOs, he doesn’t lift a finger. You know, this has been the biggest program in Australian history. You, me, every one of your listeners spent on average 4000 bucks on JobKeeper. So we have a right to know that that money was well spent, and this report today suggests a lot wasn't. It suggests that maybe a fifth of the money went to firms that clearly didn't need it because their profits were going up, not down.
DELANEY: Should those companies be forced to pay it back?
LEIGH: I think they should pay it back as a matter of morality. Firms that say that they're committed to corporate social responsibility need to look at themselves pretty hard and say, ‘why do I need corporate welfare when there's people out there struggling?’ I spoke to a local travel agent the other day, Leon. He runs a couple of local travel agencies. He’s cut his staff back from 16 to 14, but says that if he doesn't get more support, that'll be down to four at the end of the month when JobKeeper ends. But it doesn't have to end, if we can get the money back from firms that never needed it in the first place.
DELANEY: Now obviously, you've mentioned the travel sector there - that's been one of the hardest hit sectors of all right across Australia. And it does lead into one particular company, which is kind of a special case. Now Qantas obviously has been affected by the downturn, quite clearly. And you can mount the argument that yes, they certainly needed JobKeeper in order to keep people in employment. The problem here though is there's been a bit of a twist with Qantas actually moving to get rid of many of their staff and outsourcing those services instead. So do they find themselves now in a position where they should be repaying the JobKeeper, or what would you say about Qantas?
LEIGH: JobKeeper was designed for firms like Qantas, which have seen a massive hit to their revenues as a result of government decisions – it was the government that chose to shut down the international borders. So it's appropriate that JobKeeper was put in place. I haven't been universally praiseworthy of everything that Qantas has done, but I think that's the kind of company that should be getting it. The kind of company that shouldn't be getting it is Harvey Norman. Harvey Norman's profits were going up at the start of last year and rocketed up at the end of last year. They ended up making nearly a billion dollars in profits last year, and yet they won't even repay the $22 million the head office and franchisees received through JobKeeper. Good luck to them on being a profitable firm, but they don't need corporate welfare, Leon.
DELANEY: Yeah, now the JobKeeper program as a general principle has been a successful and very important economic support during the pandemic. It cuts out in less than two weeks now. Are you concerned about the prospective hit to unemployment?
LEIGH: I’m really worried about it. Jeff Borland, who's one of Australia's most respected labour economists, reckons the hit to jobs could be somewhere between 150,000 and 250,000 jobs. We've still got 1.1 million people on JobKeeper. If you look at places like Cairns where you've got a lot of people in the tourism industry, if you look at the arts sector in the ACT, you’ve got a lot of people still dependent on JobKeeper and not able to go back to the way things were before. We held an event today with the people who run mass participation in sporting events. They’re still hurting as a result of the shutdown of major sporting events, and the fact that now they're putting on events with carry over registration. So people who are going to do the Canberra Marathon as I am in a couple of weeks, many of them will be rolling over the registration from last year, which means the people who are running it aren't getting any new revenue. So there’s a lot of sectors still hurting in the economy right now.
DELANEY: The unemployment figures today that have been released reflect further downward trajectory in unemployment, which is welcome news. But those figures refer to February, don't they? So there's a lot of unknowns about what to expect over the next couple of months, aren’t there?
LEIGH: Absolutely, and the idea that we just hang up our hats once unemployment is gone below 6 per cent sets terribly low expectations of what the economy can achieve. We had the Reserve Bank Governor last week saying that he thinks that target unemployment should be below 4 per cent. Jeff Borland said it similarly today, and many economists believe that until you get the unemployment rate down to something like 4 per cent you won't get wage growth going again. Once you get unemployment lower, you get less discrimination against people with disabilities, Indigenous Australians, people who might not otherwise be as attractive to employers. So there's many reasons we need to be more ambitious with unemployment. We’ve got a lot further to go yet.
DELANEY: Indeed. Thanks very much for chatting today.
LEIGH: Pleasure, Leon. Thank you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra