2CC CANBERRA LIVE
WEDNESDAY, 20 JANUARY 2021
SUBJECTS: Companies using JobKeeper to pay out executive bonuses; Companies repaying JobKeeper payments after reporting profits.
LEON DELANEY, HOST: The Federal Member for Fenner Andrew Leigh is calling on billionaires to repay JobKeeper payments as their businesses bounce back rather than paying out big executive bonuses or whopping great dividends. Now, there's no legal obligation to repay the money, but a couple of big companies already have. Toyota and Super Retail Group have committed to return the money from JobKeeper because they say it turned out their business last year had ended up being profitable after all and it was the right thing to do, to give the taxpayers back their money. Andrew Leigh is on the phone now. Good afternoon.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good afternoon, Leon. Great to be with you.
DELANEY: Thanks for joining us today. My producer Will wrote this question. It says this, ‘dear Andrew, why do you hate rich people and businesses?’
LEIGH: Will’s got a lovely turn of phrase.
DELANEY: He said you'd laugh.
LEIGH: The call for companies to be good corporate citizens is a pro-business measure. A business isn't going to last long if it doesn't have the respect of ordinary Australians. And I think the expectation of most Australians is that if your firm is doing so well that it's posting record profits, if it's doing so well it can pay the CEO a $2.5 million bonus, if it's doing so well it can pay out a massive dividend - a third of which goes to its billionaire shareholder - then they can afford to pay back government handouts. No one begrudges firms doing well, but the question is: when we're in the teeth of a pandemic and the global downturn, should Australia really be using taxpayer money to fund CEO bonuses and dividends to billionaires?
DELANEY: The figures we've seen coming out of various different economic reports have indicated that since the height of the crisis and the beginning of the recovery process, the people at the top end of the income spectrum have been doing vastly better than everybody else. The people at the very bottom have been bouncing back relatively well, but the people in the middle are in trouble.
LEIGH: Yes. For some people at the bottom of the income distribution, incomes have held up but a lot of people have lost work and the sense of dignity that goes with that. And there's a lot of uncertainty that lies ahead. At the very top, Australia's billionaires’ wealth went up to 52 per cent over the course of last year. So that means for a typical billionaire that started 2020 with $1 billion, they ended the year with $1.5 billion. I don't think many of your listeners would have had the experience of having their income or their wealth go up 52 per cent over the course of last year. So really, the last people who need government handouts are Australia's billionaires.
DELANEY: Indeed. Now there's no legal obligation for this money to be repaid. Toyota says it's the right thing to do. Super Retail Group says it's the right thing to do. And obviously, most of us would agree. But does this indicate that perhaps the program was poorly designed in the first place, and there should have been some sort of requirement for the money to be refunded if it turned out it wasn't required?
LEIGH: I'm not sure we know enough about that yet, Leon, and one of the problems is that the government has been very coy about the simple question: ‘how many JobKeeper-receiving firms had bigger profits last year than the year before?’. Because in order to get JobKeeper, you just had to have a downturn in March. So you could close your stores in March, then open the stores at the end of the month, see a big surge in sales that overwhelmed the temporary drop that you experienced. I don't know whether that's an unusual feature of a couple of firms like Premier Investments, or whether it's much more common across JobKeeper-receiving firms. I'd like it if the government was willing to trust Australians with those data. They’re in the government's hands and they ought to make them publicly available in the interest of confidence in JobKeeper, which was the government’s most expensive and most important program to keep people in work last year.
DELANEY: And it's certainly been very successful in those terms. And of course, we've also seen the example of Qantas, which has been receiving JobKeeper and certainly needed it. But we've now seen Qantas accused of - at the same time as accepting JobKeeper money - cutting the workforce numbers by outsourcing jobs and making people redundant within the organisation. And again, people have asked whether or not that was a fair thing for them to do, take JobKeeper and then cut jobs.
LEIGH: Absolutely. And I've spoken to a range of Qantas baggage handlers in Canberra who have either lost their jobs or are worried about losing them. These are people who've been with Qantas for decades in some cases, have shown extraordinary loyalty to Qantas and haven't seen treatment by the company that’s commensurate with what they've given to the company. So this is again the question about what it is to be a good corporate citizen. Companies aren't just there for their shareholders - they're there for their customers, for their workers, and for the broader community. And companies forget that at their peril. If you think you can get away with behaving like Gordon Gekko in the 1980s, you've got another thing coming. Companies are expected to have an ethic of corporate social responsibility. They're expected to look after the broader community, not just line the pockets of their wealthiest shareholders.
DELANEY: Andrew Leigh, thanks very much for your time today.
LEIGH: Thanks so much, Leon.
DELANEY: Thank you, Dr Andrew Leigh, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Federal Member for Fenner here in the ACT.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra
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