THURSDAY, 10 FEBRUARY 2022
SUBJECTS: Religious discrimination bill; Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg’s JobKeeper mismanagement.
GRAEME GOODINGS, HOST: The lower house in Canberra last night sat, well, pretty much right through the night to pass the religious discrimination bill. It's been one of the most contentious pieces of legislation to go before Parliament in a long time. Five Liberals crossed the floor agreeing to amendments put forward by the opposition. The government ended up voting against its own bill. The legislation passed with the opposition supported by those dissenting Libs. The bill finally passed about 4.30 this morning. Joining me now the federal Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury, Andrew Leigh. Andrew, you’ve had a big night.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: It’s been an interesting night in the House of Reps, Graeme. It's not often the government loses a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. And something I've never seen before, after losing a vote they then turned around and voted against their own bill. So you had the spectacle of the Prime Minister voting against a bill that his party had introduced. It was the most extraordinary ‘take your bat and ball and go home’ attempt that I've ever seen.
GOODINGS: It has drawn a lot of interest from around the nation. Did the opposition get what they wanted?
LEIGH: Not entirely. So what we would have liked to do is to put an anti-vilification measure in place, which would prohibit religious vilification. I spoke to that around 3am. We also wanted to make sure that there was protection against discrimination for older people receiving in-home care. We weren't able to secure sufficient support for that. But we were able to get support for an amendment which ensured that children in religious schools are protected from discrimination. And that's a very important measure.
GOODINGS: And a number of Libs crossed the floor to give you the vote?
LEIGH: Yes, and I really pay tribute to them. It's never an easy thing to vote on the other side from your own party, and I know that many of them wrestled hard with their consciences, particularly Trent Zimmerman who was somebody who took a strong position from the outset. Bridget Archer as well. They did an important thing in voting to look after kids in schools and protect them from discrimination.
GOODINGS: But this isn't the end of this, is it? It’s got to pass the Senate.
LEIGH: That’s right, and Labor is hopeful that further amendments will be able to get up in the Senate and that it will be possible to improve the bill. Now, as you know Graeme, we're trying to do two things here. We're trying to protect the people of faith from discrimination, while at the same time not allowing more discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender Australians. So as we look to balance those two things, we think the government got it wrong. I can't understand why they don't want an anti-vilification measure. I can't understand why the Prime Minister didn't want to protect kids in religious schools from discrimination. He said back in 2018 he wanted to do this, and yet last night he voted against it. So we will continue to stand for those values and principles. Labor is the party of the Sex Discrimination Act and the Racial Discrimination Act, and we’re strongly committed to stamping out religious discrimination.
GOODINGS: Dr Leigh, while we've got you, on another matter - you addressed Parliament regarding what you see as government waste of taxpayer money.
LEIGH: It’s as an extraordinary amount of money. Some $20 billion - around $2,000 for every Australian household - went in the JobKeeper scheme to firms with rising revenue. Labor supported JobKeeper, we think that where it went to struggling firms it did a lot of good. But there's no benefit to Australians in giving JobKeeper to French and Italian billionaires, as the government did. There's no benefit to taxpayers of giving JobKeeper to the Australian Club, a men's-only club in Sydney that increased its surplus. And there's no benefit to the broader Australian community of giving JobKeeper to the King's School, Wesley College and Brisbane Grammar, that were increasing their surpluses at the same time that they were getting millions of dollars in taxpayer cash. So this was a very poorly run scheme, and the way in which the government managed JobKeeper saw a huge amount of money go out the door and is one of the reasons why government debt is now heading towards a trillion dollars.
GOODINGS: They say extraordinary times need extraordinary measures. JobKeeper had to be introduced and introduced quickly. The government would say that they just had to get it out there and worry about the, you know, the side issues later.
LEIGH: We know that the Treasurer even a couple of months into the JobKeeper scheme was being informed by Treasury that almost a fifth of the money was going to firms with rising revenues. He could have changed the scheme at that point, and he chose not to because he didn't want to admit his mistake. So over the following months, we saw tens of billions of dollars more going to firms that didn't need it. The government was too proud to admit that they had made a mistake and Australian taxpayers will be picking up the bill for decades.
GOODINGS: Some firms, some businesses gave the money back, those that said that they really didn't need it. Is it still too late for the government to demand money back from businesses who really should not have taken JobKeeper?
LEIGH: I don't think we can unscramble that egg, and certainly an Albanese Labor Government wouldn't be seeking to demand JobKeeper back from firms that legally received it. Those firms that want to hand it back, we would certainly welcome it, particularly in cases where they used JobKeeper to fund executive bonuses. You look at Star Entertainment or Accent Group or IDP Education, which contrary to what the Business Council and the Tax Office suggested, took JobKeeper and then paid CEO bonuses. Those firms should really look at themselves and see whether they should voluntarily hand the money back. But there definitely won't be a mandatory requirement to repay.
GOODINGS: Dr Leigh, you've had a big day, big night, big week in Parliament. Are you going to take a break this afternoon?
LEIGH: I’m looking forward to having the day wrapped up and finally getting home to see the kids.
GOODINGS: Thanks so much for your time today.
LEIGH: Always a pleasure, Graeme. Thank you.
GOODINGS: Dr Andrew Leigh, the federal Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury. He's literally had half an hour’s sleep.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra