2CC CANBERRA LIVE WITH LEON DELANEY
MONDAY, 3 MAY 2021
SUBJECTS: Government’s failure to seek JobKeeper repayments; Australians stranded in India.
LEON DELANEY, HOST: On 2CC, federal Greens leader Adam Bandt has called for companies that made a profit while receiving JobKeeper to pay the money back. In fact, he says he's going to attempt to amend the federal budget next week to force companies to do exactly that. But if this sounds like a familiar story, I can tell you that there's a reason for that - our local member for Fenner, Andrew Leigh, has been banging this drum for quite some time, and he's 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. You have been banging this drum for a while now. Do you think you're getting more allies, or is Adam Bandt trying to steal your thunder?
LEIGH: Well, it's beaut to have the Greens getting on board with this. I think it's an important campaign, and since last September I've been calling on many of these firms to pay the money back. We've had more than $200 million so far committed in repayments, but given that one estimate is that there is $15-$20 billion which went to firms whose profits rose last year, we're still yet to see the lion's share of the money.
DELANEY: Well, Adam Bandt apparently has, with the help of the Parliamentary Budget Office, identified 65 companies that paid out executive bonuses or recorded significant profits, and that if they paid back their JobKeeper it would provide an additional $1.1 billion for this year's budget. Are you saying there's actually more money out there that should come back?
LEIGH: Well, the estimate that was done by Ownership Matters was that if you looked at the listed companies, a fifth of the money went to those with rising earnings. Given that this was meant to be a subsidy for firms whose earnings were cratering, it's pretty shocking. And if that's true right across the whole scheme, you're talking about$15-$20 billion. Now, my focus isn't really on Adam Bandt. It's on Josh Frydenberg and Scott Morrison, the fact that they have not lifted a single finger to call on large firms to repay the money. It ought to be the obligation of the Federal Treasurer to strengthen the budget, rather than leaving it to the Labor Opposition to be calling on firms like Premier Investments and Harvey Norman to repay in full the JobKeeper that they never needed.
DELANEY: Well, you mentioned Premier Investments, and in the news today they've promised to repay $15.6 million in JobKeeper payments. They've described that as the net benefit that they received. I'm assuming their argument is that for at least part of last year they were in fact not profitable and feel they were entitled to the assistance at that time. Is that not a fair argument?
LEIGH: Premier Investments had their most profitable year ever last year. They paid a $2.5 million bonus to their CEO and they paid a stonking dividend to their shareholders, a big chunk of which went to Solomon Lew, one of the large billionaire shareholders. Premier Investments doesn't need a cent in corporate welfare from Australians. At a time at which we've got people in the art sector, the university sector, the tourism sector, really struggling, Premier Investments are rolling in clover. Indeed, their profits are so strong that they should not have paused for a moment before repaying JobKeeper.
DELANEY: They're a company that owns a lot of retail outlets that were closed for a significant period of time, especially in Victoria. Doesn't that count for something?
LEIGH: They closed down for a short period of time, and then after they reopened sales came roaring back. The earnings numbers to tell the story there, Leon. Their earnings were higher in 2020 than they were in 2019. When people couldn't spend as much on services, they stepped up and spent more on goods. I don't begrudge them their record profits. What I do think is appropriate, though, is that they hand back the JobKeeper they've received. They've been a little coy about how much that is. One estimate suggests maybe $110 million. That would suggest that the $15 million they've committed to repay today is only a small fraction of the total benefit that they've received from the taxpayers.
DELANEY: Well, presumably the Government would know how much they received, so if the Government was to follow your advice then perhaps they'd be in a position to do something about it. Does this mean that you will support Adam Bandt's move to amend the budget?
LEIGH: We'll have a look at all these proposals as they go through, but my main focus is on the Government. This is a scheme which provided almost unique discretion to the Treasurer to make sure that he cracked down on rorts, and he simply hasn't done that. If this was welfare recipients then he'd be out there attacking them left, right and centre. When it is some of Australia's most cashed-up companies, he's not willing to lift a finger. The fact is, the Federal Treasurer ought to be much more concerned about the misuse of JobKeeper by firms whose earnings were rising rather than falling. It was a scheme which allowed you to get JobKeeper based on a forecast downturn. Josh Frydenberg won't even tell us how many firms receive money based on a forecast class downturn and then didn't actually have that forecast downturn. He's treating it like it's Liberal Party money rather than taxpayer money.
DELANEY: Meanwhile, there's a lot of criticism of the Federal Government for their ban on travel from India, including stranded Australian citizens. Some have even speculated this policy is racist. Whether it is or not, at the very least, it may well be in contravention of our human rights obligations because all citizens are entitled to return to their home country, are they not?
LEIGH: Well, certainly there's international agreements, and I hope the Government has taken them into account. It's been interesting. The Government was trumpeting over the weekend that this was some kind of a new crackdown, and then Simon Birmingham was on Adelaide radio saying that, in fact, these were just the rules that existed all along. Well, when we had surges of COVID in the United States and Britain you didn't suddenly have the Government coming out and talking about the draconian penalties that would hit Australians who returned home. We need more information from the Government as to how they're going to support expat Aussies in India; what their plan is to get stranded overseas back; whether there's options to vaccinate Australians left behind in this high risk situation or to provide financial support to those who are in strife right now.
DELANEY: What would be the Government's position if Australian citizens were unable to return from India and subsequently became infected and died? Whose liability, whose responsibility, would that be?
LEIGH: Well, clearly the moral failing is the Government's failure to put in place a system of national quarantine, which would have allowed us to get more stranded Aussies back. The Government has been leaving quarantine to the states, despite the fact that the Constitution explicitly lists quarantine as a federal responsibility. If they'd done better on quarantine, we'd have more stranded Aussies back home, we'd have much less of a problem now. If they were more generous in overseas aid then we would be able to step up in assisting India in a way in which we we've been much too miserly over recent years.
DELANEY: Indeed. Thanks very much for chatting with us today.
LEIGH: Always a pleasure. Thanks, Leon.
DELANEY: Thank you. Andrew Leigh, the Federal Member for Fenner on 2CC.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.