2CC CANBERRA LIVE
WEDNESDAY, 3 FEBRUARY 2021
SUBJECTS: Auditor-General conducting an audit of the JobKeeper scheme; Companies using JobKeeper to pay out executive bonuses; Companies repaying JobKeeper payments after reporting huge profits; Scott Morrison failing to properly denounce Craig Kelly’s spreading of dangerous misinformation.
LEON DELANEY, HOST: The Morrison Government's JobKeeper wage subsidy will now come under scrutiny from the Australian National Audit Office. And in particular, the office will be taking a look at the Australian Tax Office and how they've managed the delivery of that particular support service, that particular support measure, and whether or not the ATO has been effective in enforcing the rules and the integrity of those payments. The audit was something called for by our very own local representative Dr Andrew Leigh back in December, who said that JobKeeper needed proper scrutiny. Andrew Leigh’s on the phone now. Good afternoon.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good afternoon, Leon. Great to be with you and your listeners.
DELANEY: Thanks very much for joining us today. Yes, JobKeeper - fantastic idea, great policy, has worked really well. The only problems with it is where it wasn't given to people who needed it and the fact that they're going to cut it out perhaps sooner than they should. Aside from that, were there other problems?
LEIGH: Leon, it's gone to firms which were more profitable in 2020 than they were in 2019, where their profits went up rather than going down. It's gone to firms that used JobKeeper to pay large executive bonuses, in one case a $2.5 million bonus - more than many of your listeners will earn in a lifetime. It's gone to firms that have paid out significant dividends, chunks of which have gone to billionaires such as Solomon Lew, James Packer and Gerry Harvey. So we do need appropriate scrutiny around JobKeeper, because as you say Leon, there are sectors of the economy that need JobKeeper to continue past the end of next month. The Government's cutting off JobKeeper from people who need it while allowing JobKeeper to go to people that don't need it.
DELANEY: Now people like Solomon Lew and Gerry Harvey, they haven't broken the law or anything. They followed the rules, and it's just that maybe the rules weren't necessarily thought out properly.
LEIGH: It's about ethics, not about law. The fact is that there are firms such as Toyota Australia, mining firm Iluka, Super Retail Group - which runs Supercheap Auto, among others - that have chosen to hand the money back. They've said to the Australian public, ‘look, we know times are tough, we know that the government's borrowed a trillion dollars, it's important to this money go back to the taxpayer’. But then there’s firms like Solomon Lew’s Premier Investments and Gerry Harvey's Harvey Norman that have chosen to hang on to the cash. They've forgotten the basic fact that firms aren't just there for their shareholders. They're also there for their customers, for their workers and for the broader community.
DELANEY: Well, that's one of the fundamental debates of economics that continues to rage after decades, isn't it? Whether or not a company is there for its shareholders, or it's there for everybody else as well.
LEIGH: It’s interesting you say that, Leon. When Milton Friedman put forward the shareholder theory of value in the 1970s, it did lead to a whole lot of this Gordon Gekko Wall Street mentality that you could just let greed rip. But pretty much all Australian firms have moved away from that. There's not an Australian firm that doesn't have a corporate social responsibility mantra, that doesn't give some money to charity. If these guys really believe their corporate social responsibility missions, then they should do the right thing when they've got a tough ethical call to make and they should hand money back to the taxpayer so it can be used to support people in the arts sector, the university sector, the tourism sector, who are going to continue to do it tough after March.
DELANEY: What do you anticipate the ANAO will find when it conducts its audit?
LEIGH: I hope they'll get to the bottom of one of the big questions - how much of the $100 billion that were spent on JobKeeper went to firms whose profits went up rather than down? I hope they'll figure out how much went to firms that paid out executive bonuses. But that relies on cooperation from the government, and the government's been very secretive about this information, Leon. They’re treating it like it is Liberal Party money they're handing out, rather than taxpayer dollars. They're not providing the appropriate degree of transparency that you would expect of the biggest single expenditure scheme put in place by Australia. You know, for every person in the country, JobKeeper cost $4,000. So every person has a $4,000 stake in getting to the truth of how the money was spent and ensuring that it was spent as effectively and efficiently as possible.
DELANEY: Given that we are now experiencing an economy which is growing again, by all evidence that's available - we're seeing unemployment lower than it had been forecast and trending downwards. Given the tangible results we can see from JobKeeper, aren’t you asking questions that effectively amount to looking a gift horse in the mouth?
LEIGH: This is the whole ‘nothing to see here’ approach which the government has been trying to pursue. They say that simply because unemployment is not double digit, therefore they don't have to provide proper transparency. But if you add in unemployment and underemployment, you're up to 2 million Australians, Leon. The government is not forecasting unemployment to come back down to pre-pandemic levels for years to come. Wage growth is lacklustre, and the government's even trying to push through industrial relations legislation that would allow employers to cut wages. So this is a pretty tough situation so many Australian households. As the OECD has said, you can't withdraw support from the economy prematurely or you risk throwing the economy into a tailspin.
DELANEY: Indeed. Now, I've got to ask you, did you like so many of us enjoy this morning on your television the spectacle of the Punch and Judy show - I'm sorry, the Craig and Tanya show?
LEIGH: [laughter] I thought Tanya was standing up for the forces of science, standing up for the chief medical officers and standing up for the experts who've taken us through the pandemic. Craig Kelly has been peddling misinformation left, right and centre. He’s been backing hydroxychloroquine, an unproven drug which the experts say shouldn't be taken. He’s compared the lockdown put in place by Dan Andrews to Nazi Germany. He is been a vocal critic-
DELANEY: Rather than misinformation, isn't that simply a matter of opinion?
LEIGH: You can have your own opinion, but you can't have your own facts. And Craig Kelly would love to have his own facts. The thing is, the government is spending $24 million on a vaccine information campaign while allowing one of their own backbenchers to be a superspreader of misinformation, to be undermining the message that the government wants to be pursuing. Because we only get out of this pandemic, Leon, if we get vaccines into people's arms. We only do that with public confidence in science, and Craig Kelly has been undermining that from go to woah.
DELANEY: Do you now extend your congratulations to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison for finally hauling Craig Kelly over the coals?
LEIGH: If that’s a hauling over the coals, it's a pretty low temperature one. He's taken a very modest approach to Craig Kelly's comments. He hasn't stripped him of his committee assignments, including his chair of the Law Enforcement Committee and his appointment on the parliamentary science committee. Now Craig Kelly had his preselection saved by Scott Morrison at the last election and again Scott Morrison is coming in to save his bacon. Because he knows that, as Craig Kelly has said, there's a dozen or more members of the Coalition party room who share these wacky anti-science views, who share these dangerous views on COVID, much as they have dangerous views on climate change. The same climate change deniers are now attacking the sensible science-based health policies that we need if we're going to get the economy going again. This isn't just a health issue. We don't get the economy going again until we get the place vaccinated. We can't get the place vaccinated unless people have confidence in vaccines. So there's money and lives at stake right here.
DELANEY: Indeed. Thanks very much for joining us today.
LEIGH: Thanks, Leon.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.