TUESDAY, 1 SEPTEMBER 2020
CARRIE BICKMORE: Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury Andrew Leigh isn't a fan of JobKeeper as it is, and he joins us now. Andrew, executive salaries are quite complex. A lot of them earn the bulk of their pay through bonuses. It is a bit simplistic to say that they should just go without?
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: JobKeeper was designed as a program to keep battlers in work, not to top up the salaries of millionaires and billionaires. Firms ought to recognise they have a social obligation to spend this money on looking after their workforce.
BENJAMIN LAW: That said, Andrew, if a company has landed themselves in serious trouble and has since turned that around, shouldn't they be entitled to enjoy the benefits of that success?
LEIGH: This is taxpayer money we’re talking about. It was given to firms for one specific purpose: to make sure that the unemployment rate didn't skyrocket as much as it would otherwise have done. I don't remember any member of parliament standing up when we were debating JobKeeper and saying, ‘this will be great because it will be used to pad profits and pay highly paid CEOs even more.' Indeed, you’ve seen a New Zealand company Mainfreight saying, ‘we don't deserve this money‘, and giving it back to the New Zealand taxpayer. If only we had a few Aussie firms that took that approach.
WALEED ALY: Yeah, and it’s fine for them too say that, but if the aim was to keep Australians in the jobs that they had before the pandemic hit, then it seems it’s been a success, even in the cases that you cite. So for example, Accent - which is one of the companies that you talk about - say that they managed to keep all of their staff, despite the fact that there was a big drop in their revenue and then because they managed to ride that storm, changed their business while the country came out of lockdown and then became successful again, all those people got to keep their jobs and their executives hit the targets that triggered those bonuses. What's actually wrong with that picture? That's the program working.
LEIGH: Australia will officially go into recession tomorrow, and before Christmas probably 400,000 people will lose their jobs. We are in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and yet a million casuals are being left out of JobKeeper. If these firms don't need the money, they ought to be giving it back to the taxpayer so it can go to people who are struggling to put food on the tables for their families.
ALY: But how do you know they didn't need the money? The point is they did need the money in order to weather the storm, to keep people in those jobs. They did weather the storm, the people did stay in their jobs, and now that business has recovered. I just don't know how else you would want the program to work.
LEIGH: This is a government handout. It was aimed at supporting the jobs of the most vulnerable. Unemployment takes twice as long to come back down as it did to go up, since it’s easier to break up an employment relationship than it is to create one. So the government can use this money much more effectively.
ALY: For all that, you lost the vote on this today. What are you going to do from here?
LEIGH: We’ll keep on pressing the issue. This is about good corporate citizenship. This handful of firms ought to look around at the great majority of firms that have done absolutely the right thing by JobKeeper. In some countries this has been legislated. In Denmark, for example, you’ve got to choose between getting a government handout and paying a dividend. But the government has offered no moral leadership on this issue, so I think it's important that people like me continue to speak out.
ALY: You are speaking out. You’ve spoken to us. Thank you very much for that, and no doubt we’ll speak again.
LEIGH: Always a pleasure, thanks.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.