ABC CANBERRA BREAKFAST
THURSDAY, 25 MARCH 2021
SUBJECTS: Morrison Government’s JobKeeper waste; the need to change the culture of sexual harassment and entitlement in Parliament House.
LISH FEJER, HOST: JobKeeper is due to wind up the end of next week as the government shifts to a new system, but we're hearing a lot about JobKeeper that has been kept in companies’ pockets. Dr Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities, and federal Member for Fenner in the ACT. Good morning.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good morning, Lish. Great to be with you.
FEJER: And you. You spoke very strongly, you've spoken out in the past about this and the need to change it - to get big companies that are posting record profits over the Coronavirus year to have to hand it back. You spoke yesterday. What was the response?
LEIGH: An interesting attack from Solomon Lew, who got fairly personal in his response to me. I mean, I don't really like this stuff, Lish. I didn't get into politics in order to pick fights with people. But if I'm going to end up in a public stoush, then it might as well be with a billionaire asking him to return corporate welfare that in my view he didn't need.
FEJER: Are you hearing that it's just in your view, or are you hearing from constituents and people that this is actually something that is right to do?
LEIGH: [laughter] Yes, I am. To be honest, I haven't had anyone contact me and say that billionaires whose profits have gone up during the pandemic should not repay. The Australian Financial Review editorial yesterday called on him to repay. I've had strong support formally and informally from Liberal Party colleagues. Craig Kelly came out yesterday. The Business Council of Australia and the tax office say you shouldn't use JobKeeper to pay executive bonuses, as Premier Investments - Solomon Lew’s company - has done. So I think this is a pretty strong view right across much of the business community and the general public.
FEJER: Is it just up to him then just to do the right thing? Or is there some law that can be passed or changed to not just encourage him, but make him pay back? Not just him - I mean, this is across the board from big business to smaller businesses as well. Not saying at all that it's across the board, but there are some businesses that have posted profits.
LEIGH: That’s a really astute point. I think there's two questions. One's around corporate morality. I think it's important that firms who say in their corporate social responsibility statements that they're there for the general public do the right thing. If they got corporate welfare and their profits went up, they should repay it. But it's also really worrying that although Parliament gave Josh Frydenberg extraordinary discretion for the JobKeeper bill, that he then allowed a system to run which has seen perhaps a fifth of the money go to firms with rising earnings. JobKeeper was designed for large firms whose earnings had fallen by 50 per cent, and yet around a fifth of the money - according to analysis by Ownership Matters - has gone to firms with rising profits. That could mean $10 to $20 billion wasted of taxpayer money. That's enough to extend JobKeeper for another six months right now. That's the cost of the entire Building the Education Revolution program that did school construction in every school in Australia. That is waste on a gargantuan scale.
FEJER: Can the government claw it back?
LEIGH: The government should certainly be honest with the Australian people about what's happened. That's the starting point for working out what we do about it. But right now - although Treasury has these numbers, Treasury knows precisely how much JobKeeper went to firms with rising earnings - they're just not levelling with the general public. Some firms said that they were going to experience a downturn. You could get JobKeeper for six months based on a forecast downturn. A simple question is how many of those firms actually experienced that downturn? These are questions that the Australian taxpayer has the right to know, given that the taxpayer’s footing the bill. JobKeeper as a whole cost around $4,000 for every Australian. We're talking about around $500 for every Australian potentially wasted.
FEJER: On the last day of Parliament, what’s the feeling up there on the hill at the moment, Dr Leigh?
LEIGH: The gender conversation has been a long time coming. This is the blokiest workplace I've ever worked in. The macho and frankly sometimes misogynistic culture needs to change. The Women's March 4 Justice was a really important initiative. There's been a lot more that's come out in the fortnight since, much of it just abhorrent behaviour that suggests that people regard Parliament House as being a place where you can engage in Animal House-like activities, and that they just don't recognise what an honour it is to work in that place. Every time you walk into Parliament House, whether you're a member of parliament or a staffer or a political journalist, you should realise what a privilege it is to serve the Australian people in that way. And yet there seems to be people that don't recognise that privilege and who walk around with a sense of entitlement, mistreating others in the process. I hope Kate Jenkins’s new inquiry has some pretty far reaching reforms, but you've got to wonder about the government's ability to implement it, given that they've still not implemented her last report on sexual harassment.
FEJER: Dr Andrew Leigh, thanks for joining me this morning.
LEIGH: Thank you, Lish.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra