2SM WITH MARCUS PAUL IN THE MORNING
TUESDAY, 8 DECEMBER 2020
SUBJECTS: BonusKeeper; Industrial Relations proposals; Sports rorts.
MARCUS PAUL, HOST: Imagine, if you will for just a moment, getting $70 million in taxpayer subsidies for JobKeeper and then using that money to perhaps dole out executive bonuses and dividends. Well, that's what Solomon Lew's Premier Investments have apparently done, and there are increasing calls for Premier to repay around $70 million in government subsidies. Let's speak to Andrew Leigh, the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury about this. Morning, Andrew.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good morning, Marcus. Great to be with @MPinthemorning.
PAUL: Thank you. You and I have discussed this before at length. It’s JobKeeper, but you effectively have renamed it BonusKeeper, it that right?
LEIGH: Absolutely, Marcus, just for a small number of firms. Of course, most businesses did exactly the right thing when the pandemic hit. They used that money to support workers. But a small number of firms - and I'm sad to say that Premier Investment seems to be one of them - have used the money to pay out significant dividends, a large portion of which goes to their billionaire owner, and to pay executive bonuses. And I said: if you're doing so well that you can take taxpayer subsidies and pay it out to millionaires and billionaires, maybe you should give it back to the taxpayer first. Maybe we can support some of those people in nursing homes who are suffering right now, and we can support some of those people who are going to lose their jobs between now and Christmas. There are people out there really hurting, and I don't think it's the people with billion dollar wealth or million dollar salaries.
PAUL: We know Premier - which are one of Australia's largest specialty retailers and own Smiggle, Peter Alexandra, Dotti, Portmans. Jackie E, Just Jeans, JJ's, etc - look, they have apparently done quite well most recently, enjoying a profit bonanza. So they should consider, you say, following the lead of British retailer Tesco in paying back the extra government support they've received this yea. Will that happen, do you think Andrew?
LEIGH: Look, I'm not holding my breath, Marcus. But Tesco was a really interesting case study. Because they came under pressure in the UK after receiving significant taxpayer subsidies and paying out dividends. And they said, ‘alright, we did the wrong thing - we'll pay the taxpayer back’. In doing so, they enabled the British Government to support more people who are doing tough in that economy right at the moment. When Australia’s got a million people out of work, we've got debt headed towards a trillion dollars, we just can't afford to be paying out taxpayer subsidies to firms that are enjoying a profit bonanza.
PAUL: A couple of other issues that I wanted to touch base with you on this morning. Part timers in food and retail jobs will lose overtime payments when they take on extra hours as a part of a government plan that will also criminalise wage theft, but shield small businesses that get bad employment advice. This new so-called part-time flex role, which will be announced today, will create a new category of employment for tens of thousands of businesses in the food, accommodation and retail sectors. This is all part of an industrial relations overhaul to be put to Parliament this week. What are you making of it all, Andrew?
LEIGH: Marcus, we’ve got wage growth at historic lows and a whole lot of households doing it tough, so I'm really worried about cutting take home pay and reducing job security. We know that under these changes, it's going to be possible for employers to label somebody as a casual even if they're doing a permanent ongoing job - with no repercussions or penalties. Sure, casuals have the ability to request a permanent position after 12 months, but the employer can basically just refuse that request-
PAUL: That’s right! Then they have to – sorry, Andrew. Then they have to again, after a certain amount of time, reapply to be called a full-time worker. So this cycle can go on for years and years.
LEIGH: That's right. And there are reasonable reasons for some people to be on casual work, but casualisation has been a real problem in the economy in terms of creating jobs that are too fragile to pay for a mortgage or to raise a family. People subsisting on casual jobs for many years – the oxymoron of the ‘permanent casual’ – somebody who's just moved from contract to contract. People want stable work. They want a steady pay cheque. They want the certainty of knowing that they're going to be able to feed their families.
PAUL: I mean, unions I see have cautiously welcomed the move to raise penalties for underpayments. I mean, these penalties should have been harsher in the first place for corporations like 7/11 and others that have been busted before. I mean, it's kind of offering a little bit of an olive branch if you like, but I mean it's all very well to increase penalties and try and stop underpayments which shouldn't be happening in the first place. But as you say, if it’s at the expense of people getting into more full-time work, well then really it's not much of a trade-off is it?
LEIGH: That’s right, Marcus. We've been calling for years for wage theft to be taken more seriously, particularly where it's systematic across franchises as we saw in the case of 7/11. But the coalition a couple of years back was trying to offer an amnesty to employers who were under-paying superannuation - that's just wage theft as well. So I'm not sure if they've got a great record on looking after workers. And the big picture is that wage growth is lousy. Union membership is among the lowest it's been in the last 100 years. We've had industrial activity at historic lows. We've had inequality at historic highs. So we need to do more to tilt the balance back towards workers to make sure that workers get a larger share of national income. Profits are going up, wages are flatlining, and many households are hurting right now, and I don’t think this is the package of reforms that Australia needs.
PAUL: Alright. Something else I wanted to get your thoughts on. The Joint Committee on Public Accounts and Audit’s lengthy inquiry into the $220 million regional jobs and investment package - and the, you know, the sports rorts scheme, the community sport infrastructure programme - is now calling for sweeping changes to the administration of taxpayer grants schemes. So in other words, we're watching you with your pork barrelling, you lot. Put an end to it. That's basically what I read into this. The federal government agency that oversaw the so-called sports rorts scandal has been told to seek urgent legal advice after an inquiry found there was, quote, significant uncertainty, unquote, over the legality of the grants.
LEIGH: Yes. As my colleague Julian Hill pointed out, ‘we needed a whole new section to remind ministers they have to follow their own rules, which would be funny if it wasn't so farcical’. The fact is that this has been an ongoing rolling scandal. There's now uncertainties over the legality of the grants. We know that it was essentially a tick-a-box exercise where they were choosing based on political needs rather than on sporting needs. I love sport – running, cycling-
PAUL: I’ve seen the photographs, you marathon man, you. I've seen the photographs. You’re doing well.
LEIGH: And I know so many of those sporting clubs do great work, and they need those resources. So they’re the ones who are most frustrated by the fact that the government is playing politics with what should be an unbiased grant allocation program to support local sport and the terrific benefits it brings the community into health.
PAUL: Oh, absolutely. And look, I think the general public out there don't mind money being spent on these types of endeavours and activities, as long as it's evenly distributed. You shouldn't be disadvantaged just because you come from a community that may well be an LNP or an ALP held seat. It shouldn't be on who votes for whom - it should be an equitable distribution of taxpayer money right across the board.
LEIGH: That's right. The Department assess the grants, give them the score out of 100. You had grants with a score of over 90 that weren't getting funded and grants with a score of under 10 that were getting funded. It was just partisanship, pure and simple. And that's not the way taxpayer dollars should be spent. These are dollars which are which are raised from people in order to support the public interest. Ministers need to be reminded that they have a serious obligation. It's a great honour to serve as Minister of the crown, and I'm just not sure what some of those clowns get that.
PAUL: Yeah, well I think you and Julian Hill do. We're big fans of Julian on this program, and I love the fact that he is able to get up there in the House of Representatives and really give it to them both barrels. I think we need to hear more of people like you and Julian, because you're talking too much sense at the moment, Andrew. Okay?
LEIGH: Well, it's a great pleasure to work with Julian. I'm on the Public Accounts and Audit Committee with him and our offices are next door to one another, so I'll pass on your high praise.
PAUL: Alright, mate. We'll talk soon, next week. Thank you.
LEIGH: Thank you, Marcus.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.