JobKeeper was good scheme, but Treasurer wasted $13b - Transcript, 2CC Radio


SUBJECTS: JobKeeper; pandemic support for businesses.

LEON DELANEY, HOST: I saw that the Deputy Leader of the Federal Labor Party, Richard Marles, made a promise that businesses will not be required to pay back JobKeeper money, even if they received it unnecessarily. Now, the context of this, of course, is that for quite some time, a number of people have been calling for businesses that received the money but did not need it to give it back. Indeed, some have given it back, but not all of them. Leading that charge was our very own local Member for Fenner, Dr Andrew Leigh, who's on the phone now. Good afternoon.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good afternoon, Leon. Great to be with you and your listeners.

DELANEY: Has your party just thrown you under the bus?

LEIGH: Not in the least, Leon. We've always said that firms that didn't need JobKeeper should pay it back. We've never said that they must. We've always been absolutely clear that Labor wouldn't retrospectively try and unscramble this egg. That doesn't change the fact that Josh Frydenberg has presided over the greatest waste of taxpayer money in Australian history. He took JobKeeper, a really important program to save jobs, and then saw $13 billion - about $1,300 for every household in Australia - go to firms with rising earnings. That extraordinary waste is something that Labor will continue to pursue. We will continue to ask firms that didn’t need it to pay the money back. But in the face of a Liberal scare campaign that was suggesting we're somehow going to do something retrospective, it was important for Richard to point out that we weren't going to retrospectively require it.

DELANEY: Well, of course, you have been very vocal in your calls for that money to be repaid, such is your enthusiasm and ardour. I think some people may have interpreted that as meaning that, you know, should Labor be elected, they might take some action.

LEIGH: I've never said that we were going to require firms to repay, but I have said that for firms that didn't need the money, who'd enjoyed rising revenues, they ought to look at the corporate social responsibility statements and decide if it was the right thing for them to do to repay. I was pleased that Harvey Norman made that decision earlier this year after significant public pressure from Labor, and no pressure whatsoever from the Liberals. It's got to be said, Leon, that I've done more to encourage firms to repay JobKeeper than Josh Frydenberg, whose budget we're talking about. It's kind of ironic, that. Labor won't mandate it, but we will ensure that there is more transparency over who received JobKeeper, and we'll continue to pursue the Government over one of the most scandalous mismanagements. JobKeeper saved jobs, but it didn't save jobs by giving money to firms with rising revenue. That's not how you save jobs.

DELANEY: Now, as part of your campaign, you were the one that asked the Parliamentary Budget Office to actually look into the numbers and identify firms that, in fact, received money that they did not need. Some of those firms were subsequently named publicly. You might not be threatening to mandate it, but you have been actively trying to name and shame, haven't you?

LEIGH: We've certainly been calling out the firms that didn't need it - firms like Eagers Automotive that got $130 million of your money, despite having one of the most profitable years ever. They made $200 million last year, Leon, and in just the first six months of this year they made another $200 million. Eagers Auto should absolutely repay, and that would be consistent with their corporate social responsibility statement. I think an organisation such as the Australian Club, the men's-only club in Sydney, which increased its surplus and got $2 million worth of JobKeeper, I think they should repay, too. I will continue to call out those organisations. What we won't be doing is to retrospectively be changing the law. These organisations claimed under rules which Josh Frydenberg put in place, and our beef is with Josh Frydenberg, fundamentally, for getting it wrong.

DELANEY: OK. There's also a motion in the Senate that has been put forward by the independent Rex Patrick, but I believe Labor supports this motion, calling for the ATO to make public a list of about 20,000 companies and the JobKeeper money that they received. What will that achieve?

LEIGH: Transparency has been important in terms of getting firms to repay. Almost all the money that's been paid back has been by listed entities because the stock exchange requirements were that if you were a listed firm, you had to tell the stock market whether you got JobKeeper. In other countries, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, the United States, there's a public register that listed all the firms that received their wage subsidy programs. That's why in New Zealand, for example, you've seen more than 10 times the rate of wage subsidy repayment by firms that didn't need it. We think that transparency is appropriate for larger entities; not for small businesses, but for larger firms.

DELANEY: The Treasurer has suggested that the move is not a good idea because, he says, it would be unfair to companies that applied for the taxpayer assistance in good faith when the rules did not require that their names and financial affairs would be made public. So, is this a breach of good faith if you do make those details public?

LEIGH: Josh's argument would apply equally to listed entities, too. Under Josh's approach, taxpayers wouldn't even know that Harvey Norman got JobKeeper. It's an absurd notion, because after all, ASIC required those listed companies to disclose JobKeeper after the bill passed the parliament to enact JobKeeper. Transparency isn't something that was built into the system. I think that was a real problem. We think that for large entities, if we're talking about a multinational that got taxpayer subsidies during the pandemic, it's only right that Australians know where it went. This isn't Josh Frydenberg's money. This is our money.

DELANEY: Well, that's right. Now, speaking of multinational organisations, apparently there's a story in the Australian Financial Review about multinational organisations perhaps cheating the system. What do we know about that?

LEIGH: Yes, this is a really concerning revelation that came out this week, suggesting that some multinationals had been claiming under a 30 per cent downturn rule rather than the 50 per cent downturn rule, and suggesting that when the Tax Office went back through that about a third of the applications were found to have problems in them. Again, it goes to the administration of the scheme: a scheme which Labor supported, indeed we called for wage subsidies to be put in place, but a scheme which was so badly mismanaged by the Liberals. If they hadn't mismanaged it Leon, then it would be more money available now to support businesses in lockdown. I've spoken to plenty of Canberra business owners who are doing it tough right now. I was just speaking today to somebody who runs a beauty business who, of course, hasn't been able to operate during lockdown. She's just scraping by, hoping that the business will be able to get going again. Support for firms like that is less because the Morrison Government gave too much JobKeeper to firms with rising revenues.

DELANEY: Of course, there's been a lot of people in the business community in the ACT blaming the ACT Government for their less-than-stellar delivery of assistance to businesses in the Territory. Of course, the ACT budget was handed down yesterday afternoon. What more could the ACT Government have done?

LEIGH: I think the ACT Government has done as much as it can under the circumstances. They've worked hard to make sure that money is getting out the door, and I've worked with businesses to ensure that they're getting their cheques as quickly as possible. We know that the ACT budget has huge pressures on it right now, and that the amount of support forthcoming from the federal government is going to be dropping rapidly. They've said they'll be cutting their support as the ACT hits 70 and 80 per cent full vaccination, and that again will throw more pressure on to the ACT budget.

DELANEY: A moment ago you were telling me how local businesses are going to the wall because they're not getting the support they need, and the moment I turn around to ask about the ACT Government's contribution 'oh no, they've done as well as they can.' Isn't that a little bit one-sided?

LEIGH: Well, we know that, fundamentally, the federal government has been scaling back its supports. It's applied some pretty rough rules in terms of scaling back supports, and it's acted as though everything just jumps back to normal the moment you hit 70 or 80 per cent vaccination. The ACT approach, I think, has been more nuanced and kinder to those local firms that really need their support right now. I wouldn't be saying everything the ACT Government's done has been perfect, Leon. I'd never argue that to you, Leon, but I think they've been there. They've been engaged. They've been listening to local firms and dealing with those issues as they arise. 

DELANEY: In that case, could you name one thing that they've done that's not perfect?

LEIGH: I think getting money out the door has been a challenge and making sure that applications are processed as speedily as possible. That's one thing that I know we've worked with the ACT public service on, just in making sure that support comes as quickly as it can. It was a system that was put together very rapidly, and challenges in the timely delivery of money has been one area where I know if we had this pandemic all over again, they'd hope to do it more speedily. Hopefully that'll never be the case. 

DELANEY: Well, hopefully we won't need to, but the one thing that I've said over and over again, the criticism I keep hearing from businesses is that the assistance from the ACT Government has been too difficult to access, too slow in coming, and when it does arrive it's too little, too late. That seems to be a pretty widespread feeling across the ACT business community.

LEIGH: I've also spoken to a lot of businesses, Leon, who are very grateful for the support that they received from the ACT Government. It's a challenge, and you'll hear a lot of different accounts here, but I think the important thing to note is that the ACT Government wasn't the government that was giving money to multinationals with rising revenues last year. That was the federal government, and as a result of that disastrous mismanagement of JobKeeper there's less available for them to support small businesses right now.

DELANEY: Marvellous stuff. Thanks very much for chatting today.

LEIGH: Thanks as always, Leon.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.