SUBJECTS: JobKeeper being misused as BonusKeeper and DividendKeeper; allegations of sexual assault against a cabinet minister.
MICHAEL ROWLAND, HOST: Now, we are going to be joined very shortly by the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury Andrew Leigh, who is calling on the companies - many companies - who have accepted JobKeeper payments and have gone on to make pretty big profits to return them. Especially those companies that have made big bonuses, delivered big bonuses to their executives. Andrew Leigh joins us now from Canberra. Good morning to you.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Morning, Michael. Great to be with you.
ROWLAND: So how extensive would you like this review of JobKeeper to be, and what sort of companies are you talking about?
LEIGH: JobKeeper was meant to save the jobs of battlers, not to allow billionaires to buy another yacht. But the fact is that there's many firms which have enjoyed their biggest profit year ever in 2020, despite receiving JobKeeper. Good luck to them, but they shouldn't be receiving taxpayer handouts if they've been that profitable. And many of these firms, contrary to tax office advice, paid executive bonuses. I’m thinking of firms like Premier Investments, which runs Just Jeans and Smiggle, that paid a $2.5 million bonus to its CEO - more than most of your viewers will learn in an entire career. They also paid out a significant dividend, a large chunk of which went to their billionaire shareholder, Solomon Lew. They simply don't need taxpayer handouts, and they should give the money back.
ROWLAND: Okay, but what levers if any are available to the government to demand the return of that money?
LEIGH: Transparency. We simply don't know some basic facts about JobKeeper. We don't know how many of the JobKeeper recipients enjoyed higher profits in 2020 than in 2019. Firms could claim JobKeeper based on a forecast downturn, and we don't know how many firms actually suffered the downturn that they told the tax office they'd have. We don't know how many firms paid executive bonuses and how many firms paid excessive dividends. A few firms have done the right thing. Toyota, Iluka, Domino's are a few of the firms that have paid the money back, but too many have used it to line the pockets of shareholders rather than to support jobs as it was intended. Harvey Norman, for example, had their biggest ever profit year - $600 million profit they reported last Friday, and yet they won't pay back the JobKeeper that the head office and subsidiaries received from the Australian taxpayer. That's just not on.
ROWLAND: Okay, looking at the broader JobKeeper scheme. As we know, it expires at the end of this month. Would the opposition like to see that rolled over in entirety or only for certain sectors?
LEIGH: We do think that more needs to be done. It probably needs to be a targeted scheme. But if you look at sectors like higher education, the arts sector, tourism - particularly those bits of Australia where domestic tourism hasn't made up for the drop in international tourism - then we need to do more in order to support employment. Right now, for every available job there's eight job seekers. So no matter how hard job seekers try, we simply don't have the demand available. And we're coming off a period in which wage growth has been lacklustre for many years, so we need to move on to a better trajectory. Higher productivity, higher wage growth - a lot has to improve in the fundamental structure of the Australian economy. The government just seems to be in a kind of business-as-usual approach, Michael. They think it’d be fine if we got the world back to where it was in 2019. But for Labor, that's not good enough. We need to be a lot more ambitious in terms of where the economy goes, and part of that lies in getting the resources back from firms that didn't need JobKeeper so we can support parts of the economy that do.
ROWLAND: Okay. And just before you go, to the other big story around - of course, the minister, the cabinet minister at the centre of that 1988 rape allegation, as we know will reveal himself today, protest his innocence and insist he is going to stay in cabinet. Should that minister step down?
LEIGH: The friends of the woman who's deceased wrote in their letter that they thought there should be a full investigation, and they suggested that might be done by somebody like the former Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Vivienne Thom. There's precedents for ministers standing aside in such circumstances. Arthur Sinodinos, for example, stood aside when he was being investigated under the Australian Water Holdings issue. When he was New South Wales Premier, Neville Wran stood aside while he was being investigated for attempting to influence a court case. So there is that precedent, and I think the Prime Minister should think very carefully about that, particularly given the strong statements he was making last week about the seriousness of sexual assault.
ROWLAND: Andrew Leigh in Canberra, we'll leave it there. Thanks for joining us this morning.
LEIGH: Thanks, Michael.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.