2SM WITH MARCUS PAUL IN THE MORNING
TUESDAY, 23 FEBRUARY 2021
SUBJECTS: $100 million in JobKeeper payments returned to the taxpayer by companies reporting huge profits; Growing pressure on Harvey Norman to return JobKeeper payments; the Coalition’s NBN cover-up; JobSeeker.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: [audio from Parliament] Last March, retail billionaire Gerry Harvey told 60 Minutes that COVID was “pretty much nothing to get scared of.” He went on to boast that sales of his freezers were up 300 per cent. Since then, more than 2 million people have lost their lives, and Harvey Norman has experienced a once-in-a-lifetime retail bonanza. Its dividends last year totalled $300 million, more than $100 million of which went to Mr Harvey. This Friday, it is expected to announce a six-month profit around half a billion dollars. Yet Harvey Norman head office and its franchisees have benefited from millions of dollars of taxpayer support through the JobKeeper program. And it’s not the only profitable firm to do so. Recently, Crown Perth, Empired, Janison, MaxiTrans, hedge fund K2 and investment bank Moelis have announced JobKeeper-fuelled profits. Some profitable firms have repaid. CIMIC’s recent announcement takes the total repayment past $100 million. These ethical firms realise that JobKeeper was designed to keep battlers in work, not help billionaires buy their next racehorse. Gerry Harvey once said donating to charity was "helping a whole heap of no-hopers to survive for no good reason". He claims he’s changed. Well, Friday is his chance to prove it. Mr Harvey says his sales have been “going crazy”. So it’s crazy to think that he needs a taxpayer funded handout. Pay it back, Gerry.
MARCUS PAUL, HOST: Well, well said. Andrew Leigh MP joins us on the program. Hey, mate.
LEIGH: G’day, Marcus. How are you?
PAUL: Well, thank you. What's the likelihood that Gerry Harvey will repay these millions of dollars in JobKeeper payments?
LEIGH: He can certainly afford to, Marcus. He's got plenty of money in the bank. He's done extremely well out of the pandemic. I don't think there's another octogenarian around who's done as well out of the pandemic year as Gerry Harvey. He’s seen increased sales, going back to early 2020. I’m frankly not quite sure how Harvey Norman managed to qualify for JobKeeper, but they did and they've managed to get significant subsidies for head office and for the franchisees. And the fact is that when we've got a million people out of work and a million other people wanting more hours, the challenges of climate change and declining productivity, Australia needs money to spend on important investments. We don't need to be subsidising Gerry Harvey.
PAUL: No. And well done on the work you've done so far. I mean, I've heard and I've read the information here - $100 million plus has so far been clawed back and I think that's in - well, mate, to be honest, I know you're very modest but that's of course mostly due to your hard work on this. And it's been good that you've been holding these multinationals to account, big Australian companies who you know otherwise probably would have kept this money.
LEIGH: That’s right, Marcus. We've been working hard on this and it was really good to see CIMIC stepping up and deciding to repay their JobKeeper in full. Cochlear has repaid half of their JobKeeper, and other firms have said they're considering doing it. They're in line there with their corporate mission statements and the values of everyday Australians, who recognise that government ought to be there when you need it, but a pandemic isn't just a chance to snaffle money for shareholders. JobKeeper is a program designed to keep battlers in jobs, not to assist billionaires buying another case of champagne-
PAUL: Or racehorse, as you've mentioned.
LEIGH: Indeed, in the case of those who are into thoroughbreds.
PAUL: Alright. Well, look, it's not necessarily to shame these big businesses, but I mean they need to reassess their moral compass. Why isn't the government doing more to claw this money back? I mean, Josh Frydenberg in particular is being less than enthusiastic in chasing down these big companies to repay Australian taxpayer dollars.
LEIGH: Yeah, it beats me, Marcus. I mean, if there was $100 million going off to some welfare recipients, then you'd bet Scott Morrison would be out there demanding the money back. But when it comes to billionaire-run firms, then he's suspiciously silent. It's very odd that I should be spending more time worrying about the government's bottom line than Josh Frydenberg. And when you look at companies such as the investment bank Moelis which is receiving JobKeeper or the hedge fund K2, no one was saying at the start of last year ‘this is going to be a way of propping up the profits of hedge funds and investment banks’. That's not why JobKeeper was designed. Firms that have come through the pandemic well, seeing increased profits, there's no reason they shouldn't be paying that money back to taxpayers.
PAUL: Well, speaking of money, what about the NBN and the cost and the failure involved with this? What's the latest on this, Andrew?
LEIGH: Well, as you know Marcus, in 2013 when Tony Abbott came to office he ripped up the plan to have full-fibre NBN - which would have been pretty valuable during the pandemic, if Australians could have enjoyed the sort of broadband speeds that many other countries enjoy. We now know that Tony Abbott exaggerated the extent of the cost difference there by perhaps $10 billion, and that full-fibre NBN would have been a lot cheaper than the coalition claimed. As you know, last September they rapidly changed course and said they'd spend another four and a half billion dollars on extending the fibre rollout. But it's much more expensive to go back and patch it up than it would have been to do it right the first time. Do it once, do it right, do it with fibre.
PAUL: Alright. Just on another issue, I see the Prime Minister will seek party room endorsement for a modest permanent increase to the dole in exchange for so-called stricter mutual obligation reporting conditions once this $150 COVID-19 JobSeeker supplement ends next month. Many have suggested it needs to be in line or at least above the poverty line of roughly $80 a day. What's your take on this?
LEIGH: Well, let’s see what the government does. There's been a lot of talk on this, and I'll wait to actually see an announcement before expressing my own view. But I do think it's important that we recognise that this is money which supports some of the most vulnerable in the community and therefore flows right back into retail sales. People at the top of the distribution save about a quarter of their income, those at the bottom of the distribution spend it all-
PAUL: Yeah, of course.
LEIGH: So if you want to ensure that the economy is humming, then putting money into the pockets of the lowest income earners is an important way of doing that.
PAUL: Alright, Andrew. Always good to have you on the program. We'll chat next week.
LEIGH: Terrific. Thanks, Marcus.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.