Fairness is another casualty - Op Ed, The Herald Sun and Courier Mail


The Herald Sun and Courier Mail, 15 September 2020

When coronavirus hit, the Australian Government followed other nations in implementing JobKeeper, the most expensive program in Australian history. It’s also the most effective. Labour economists estimate that JobKeeper saved 700,000 to 900,000 jobs.

To keep the connection between firms and workers, JobKeeper was paid to companies. Most firms did the right thing with the money. But not everyone. IDP Education and Star Casino used JobKeeper to pay executive bonuses. Harvey Norman and Crown Casino paid out massive dividends, benefiting billionaire shareholders.

It ain’t fair. JobKeeper was meant to save the jobs of battlers, not line the pockets of billionaires. If your firm is getting taxpayer assistance, the boss shouldn’t be getting a bonus, and shareholders shouldn’t be getting a stonking dividend.

Some rewarded the top and penalised the bottom.

Retailer Accent Group received $13 million in JobKeeper and gave CEO Daniel Agostinelli a $1.2 million bonus. But in the stores, it was a different story. An employee of one of Accent Group’s brands wrote to me: ‘Yes the company has kept employees on the books, but it doesn’t mean everyone got shifts. Casuals not on JobKeeper - managers were told not to roster them when we re-opened unless desperate. … We ran understaffed and overworked so that the company could profit without using many employees. I suppose it’s not illegal, but it’s unfair.’

The head of the Business Council of Australia condemned the use of JobKeeper to pay executive bonuses. But the Morrison Government hasn’t said a peep.

Australian egalitarianism faces many threats. Multinationals sheltering profits in tax havens. Big firms taking advantage of the recession to buy up their rivals, further concentrating markets. A power imbalance in the workplace that divides employees, reducing the labour share and increasing the profit share. Too little investment in ensuring disadvantaged school students are taught by great teachers and have an equal chance to attend university. A political philosophy that talks about ‘leaners’ and ‘lifters’, and ignores the role that luck plays in all our lives.

Recessions worsen inequality. If Australia is to build back better, we need to put equity at the heart of the reconstruction. Invest in education or clean energy, and all the money flows back out into the economy, creating more jobs.

Government has a chance to reverse the rise in inequality, and ensure that Australia is once again a society that prizes ‘we’ over ‘me’.

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.


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