5AA MORNINGS WITH LEON BYNER
WEDNESDAY, 17 NOVEMBER 2021
LEON BYNER, HOST: Our next guest is one of the finest economic minds in the Australian Parliament. He’s an author, a lawyer, former professor of economics at the ANU, and his opinion on these matters is always very well researched and very easy to understand. He makes the point that publicly listed companies, SA companies received almost - listen to this - $55 million in JobKeeper payments during the COVID-19 pandemic. That supported something like 2500 jobs, but only $5.2 million has been repaid. So what can be done about this? Let's talk to the federal Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury, Dr Andrew Leigh. Andrew, it’s good to talk to you.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Terrific to talk to you, Leon.
BYNER: Is there nothing in legislation that can force this? Do we have to rely on goodwill?
LEIGH: No one's going to be forcing companies to pay back, Leon. But I think it is important that companies that saw their revenues rise look at their corporate social responsibility statements. So many of them have warm and fuzzy corporate social responsibility statements. They say ‘we're not just here for our shareholders, we're also out there to do good in the community’. Well, one way you can do that, if your revenues have gone up, is to voluntarily make a repayment. Some South Australian companies really needed JobKeeper. It was absolutely essential, which is why Labor called for it in the first place. But others got it despite having their revenues going up, and that wasn't why the program was designed. They might have thought they needed it at the start, but at the end of the pandemic they might now look back and think about doing the right thing by the community.
BYNER: So I guess what you're wanting to do is to hopefully, in a very gentle way, coerce them into doing the right thing?
LEIGH: It’s only asking. Certainly no one's going to be changing the law retrospectively. That horse has bolted. But we do know that some firms have done the right thing and paid back. Toyota, Domino's, Iluka are among the firms that have voluntarily handed back the JobKeeper they received. Now they've done it with good grace and saying, ‘look, we understand that others in the community are doing it tough’. You look to small businesses which are really struggling even now as the country's still not fully reopened, and which could really use the support. You look at universities. You know, the job losses that you've seen in Adelaide University, University of South Australia and Flinders, they have been massive. Courses closed, research departments shut down. And as a result of the international student revenue falling away, those universities are doing it tough. And yet, they were locked out of JobKeeper, Leon. The government changed the rules three times to keep universities out of the JobKeeper scheme, and instead allowed money to flow not just to firms with rising revenues, but ultimately overseas billionaire shareholders in France, Italy and South Africa.
BYNER: So what is it you'd like these companies to do? I'll just give a bit more information here because Qantas was the biggest JobKeeper recipient claiming, $856 million. Casino groups Crown Resorts, $291 million. The Star Entertainment Group $157 million. And then of course in South Australia, you've got Sealink and they got $20,949,000. What is it you want some of these companies to do?
LEIGH: Well, if you look at a company like Codan, based in Mawson Lakes - they posted a record net profit, $90 million in 2020-21. The previous year, they'd also made a record profit. I think it would be appropriate if Codan looks at the $3 million of JobKeeper they've received and thought about paying that back to the Australian taxpayer. Again, purely voluntary, but I think many South Australians would pat them on the back if they were to make that honourable decision. Santos for example has repaid its JobKeeper in full. Santos said that they didn't believe they needed it. And Maggie Beer is a great standout. You know, Maggie Beer got $820,000 in JobKeeper, but the company has had strong sales and they've made a very ethical decision to hand it back. And like many of your listeners, I'm going to be out there buying some extra Maggie Beer products for Christmas because they've displayed good corporate citizenship.
BYNER: So your message is?
LEIGH: To these firms, they should do the right thing by the Australian taxpayer. Look at their consciences, have a discussion around the board table and work out whether they really needed the money. Of course, if their revenues fell, absolutely. And no one's going to be forcing them to pay it back, Leon, but these companies should recognise they have a corporate social responsibility and should recognise that customers are looking to them to do the right thing.
BYNER: Thanks for coming on. That's the federal Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury, himself a very accomplished economist, Dr Andrew Leigh.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.