5AA MORNINGS WITH LEON BYNER
MONDAY, 30 AUGUST 2021
SUBJECTS: Government’s JobKeeper waste and secrecy
LEON BYNER, HOST: Andrew, it's good to talk to you again.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Always great to talk with you, Leon. Thanks for having me on the program.
BYNER: Now, more than $13 billion in JobKeeper payments were given to businesses which recorded increases in revenue, and that has fuelled a lot of discussion that the wage subsidy was the biggest budget waste in our history. Do you still hold to that?
LEIGH: I can't think of the bigger one, Leon. This amount of money would have built fibre-to-the-home broadband for every urban home in Australia. It's more than the federal government spends on public schools in a single year. It’s almost $1,000 for every Australian adult.
The fact is it didn't have to be this way. Josh Frydenberg knew a couple of months into the JobKeeper program the money was flying out the door to firms whose revenues were going up rather than down, and yet he did nothing to stem the tide. If this had been money going to pensioners, you'd bet that they would have cracked down on it lickety split, but because it was money going to some of their mates they allowed those cheques to go out the door and Australia is the poorer for it.
BYNER: Now, this is a piece of data that's worth sharing with the public: more than 13 per cent of the $98 billion subsidy went to entities earning increased turnover between 1 April and 30 September in 2020, compared to the same period a year earlier. What's happened here?
LEIGH: You got JobKeeper based either on an actual downturn or a forecast downturn, and many firms appeared to have forecast a downturn but then gotten a bonanza. You look at retailers such as Harvey Norman or Premier Investments or Accent Group, you look at car dealers such as AP Eagers that turned a $200 million profit last year and a $200 million profit just in the first half of this year, and many of these organisations have refused to pay back any of their JobKeeper. They've just held on to the money. In some cases-
BYNER: -Can the Government turn around and say 'sorry, you were not one of the parties that was in need of this. We want the money.' Can't the Government do that?
LEIGH: Well, they could at least put some moral pressure on, Leon. I'm struck that it's me as an opposition MP that's helping to bolster Josh Frydenberg's, bottom line. We've got back some $225 million from 25 companies, but that's just a quarter of one per cent of the amount that was paid out.
Part of the reason for that is the lack of transparency. Most of the repayments have come from listed firms, because after the program was in effect the corporate watchdog, ASIC, asked listed firms to disclose their JobKeeper receipts. But for big private companies we don't know who got JobKeeper and that means there's not the public pressure on them to do the right thing.
BYNER: Why don't we know? I mean, this is public money, taxpayers’ money. Where's the accountability that exists everywhere else, doesn't it?
LEIGH: Absolutely, and that's the approach that Conservative leaders took in Britain, in the United States, with their JobKeeper-like programs. It's the approach Jacinda Ardern's government took in New Zealand. If you got those wage subsidies in those countries, then the public found out about it. Here, it's been secrets, and right now we're having a battle in the Senate with Labor looking to disclose the names of JobKeeper recipients with a turnover above $10 million and the Coalition fighting for secrecy.
BYNER: How much do you reckon might be refundable, if we get the figures? I know you've got a few estimates, and we have to be a little careful about those, but in general terms how much money could be at stake here that the public should or could claw back?
LEIGH: If you're just talking about the money that went to terms with rising earnings, that is at least $13 billion. That's a massive amount of money. To put it into context, you could have bought enough Pfizer vaccine to vaccinate every Australian adult in the middle of 2020 for just $1 billion, so $13 billion is a massive amount of money.
We need to be putting that pressure on because it's important to have some accountability over this. The Coalition talked about how money was spent during the global financial crisis, but that is a drop in the ocean compared to the waste under Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg.
BYNER: So is there gonna be a clawback or not?
LEIGH: I think the first thing to do is to put pressure on these firms to do the right thing. Those hedge funds, investment banks, luxury car dealers, exclusive golf clubs, that got JobKeeper and saw increases in their surpluses, their revenues, ought to hand the money back. Many of them have corporate values statements that say they're not just there for the shareholders, they're there for the broader community. They ought to live by those values and hand it back.
BYNER: What's your next move? Because obviously what you're doing at the moment, whilst we understand hearing it, there doesn't seem to be sufficient moral pressure on companies to do anything.
LEIGH: The first move is to try and get that additional transparency. That's a battle that's going on in the Senate right now. We know that Australians are strongly supportive. There was a poll over the weekend that found that just 9 per cent of Australians said firms which got JobKeeper and saw an increase in their revenues should keep it. I think back to the words of Peter Strong, the head of COSBOA, the small business organisation, who said that for some of these big firms to hang on to the money despite rising revenue is pretty close to theft. I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but they're pretty firm words. Because we wasted so much money on JobKeeper last year there isn't the support available for firms in lockdown this year.
BYNER: So, what happens now?
LEIGH: We continue to put the pressure on. If your listeners want to put the pressure on they should call up your local Coalition representative and senator and ask why the Liberal Party's standing in the way of transparency, why they don't believe Australia should do what New Zealand, Britain, and the United States did and disclose the firms that got JobKeeper. What have they got to hide?
BYNER: All right, Andrew Leigh - thank you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra