ABC RADIO CANBERRA MORNINGS WITH ADAM SHIRLEY
FRIDAY, 23 JULY 2021
SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison’s historic $13 billion in JobKeeper waste; return of parliament.
ADAM SHIRLEY, HOST: Dr Andrew Leigh is the Federal Labor member for Fenner and is with us on ABC Radio Canberra. Good morning to you, Dr Leigh.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Morning Adam, great to be with you.
SHIRLEY: I used that analogy of the Community Chest or Chance card in Monopoly, a bank error in your favour. If people get a JobKeeper error in their favour, is it their fault?
LEIGH: Adam, I love the fact you started with Monopoly, because it's one of the games I really dislike. It always seems to cause fights in our household and I don't think monopolies are good for the Australian community.
Some of those big firms that got cheques they didn't need have handed them back. Dominoes, Iluka and Toyota are among them, and together they have collectively handed back around $225 million dollars across 25 firms. But that is a small drop in the bucket of what I'd estimate to be $13 billion of taxpayer money that went to firms whose earnings went up during the pandemic, rather than down. Premier Investments, Harvey Norman, Best & Less, Accent Group, the men's-only Australian Club in Sydney, The Kings School - a whole lot of organizations that didn't need taxpayer handouts got them. The total level of waste is more than what the Commonwealth gives to public schools every year.
SHIRLEY: You've called for months now, in and out of parliament, for big companies, privileged schools and the rest that get millions of JobKeeper they don't need to return it. Some won't, so should they be forced to, Dr Leigh?
LEIGH: The first thing is the Government needs to start joining my call. There is something bizarre about the fact that I'm trying to add to Josh Frydenberg's bottom line. He ought to be out there, calling on firms to return money that they didn't need.
Let's face it, if we were talking about welfare recipients, Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg would be demanding the money back. I've had constituents come to me, showing me letters they've gotten from Centrelink demanding back $100 for an overpayment, but when it's the Royal Sydney Golf Club, AP Eagers or 1300Smiles, these organizations seem to be above rebuke from the Morrison Government.
SHIRLEY: Should they be forced to give back JobKeeper if their bottom line is unaffected, or in the black, and they won't do it voluntarily?
LEIGH: Well, let's first have the Government calling on them to pay it back. I'd like to see big business being asked to give back to government coffers, or at least to do the right thing. We've had Premier Investments and Accent Group, who earlier this year said they wouldn't repay because they're holding on to the money to pay staff in a future downturn. Then, when the future downturn came and Sydney went into lockdown, both companies stood down their Sydney staff. They didn't do what they’d promised they would.
SHIRLEY: I'm trying to get to the logical conclusion of your position on this key issue. Should these companies be forced to give back the money if they won't and they don't need it?
LEIGH: Adam, I admire your tenacity, but my answer remains the same. First of all, we need the Government to ask these firms to pay it back. These firms have corporate ethics statements that suggest they're there for the whole community. Based on that, I think they should be repaying. That's also true of schools such as The Kings School or Brisbane Grammar, whose surpluses increased and who received JobKeeper. These organisations say that they're out there to do the right thing. We need stronger pressure from the Morrison Government before we get to the issue of legislation that you've rightly raised.
SHIRLEY: Are there any Canberra-based or listed businesses who also, in your view, should return some of this money to the Government?
LEIGH: I suspect there are, but the fact is we don't know very much about it because the program is so opaque. In New Zealand, there's a public register where you can see every firm that's getting their equivalent of JobKeeper. Meanwhile, in Australia, we've had to pull teeth in order to find out what's going on.
Josh Frydenberg knew a year ago that about 15 per cent of the money was going out to firms with rising earnings, and yet he did nothing to stem the rorts in the program. That means that there's less now available to pay in the Sydney lockdown. We do need the federal government providing more support during the Sydney lockdown, but one of the reasons why it's more difficult to do that is that $13 billion of taxpayer money has been wasted through misuse of the JobKeeper scheme last year.
SHIRLEY: Part of the reason we wanted to discuss this today on this program, for people who might be struggling with the lockdowns across the eastern seaboard, save for Brisbane for now and the ACT, should a JobKeeper program of sorts be relaunched for the people, businesses and regions affected?
LEIGH: JobKeeper without the rorts. JobKeeper ought to go to organisations that didn't get it last time. You think about the university sector as being one of the bigger omissions. Private universities like Bond got it but public universities like the Australian National University didn't, and the ANU has now shed a tenth of its staff. It has been literally decimated during the pandemic. It's bizarre that a time in which we're asking universities to step up research efforts around the pandemic, the Government is not providing them the support they need. We need a better version of JobKeeper this time around to save jobs but not line the pockets of billionaires.
SHIRLEY: The money for the first phase of it, last year's version, has been handed out and it's been accepted. From this point forward, how, specifically, could the JobKeeper rules and legislation change to do what you think it should?
LEIGH: The Government needs to make sure that money cannot go to firms with rising earnings. We also need to see a better account of what happened last year and how on earth this bungle happened. This isn't just another scandal. This is the biggest waste of taxpayer money in Australian history.
SHIRLEY: It wasn't a waste for many businesses and employees though. To brand it that, I guess, ignores what good it did for a lot of businesses and individuals, did it not Dr Leigh?
LEIGH: Well, find me somebody who doesn't like getting a cheque from the Government. The fact is that people enjoy getting handouts, but there are almost a dozen billionaires who benefited directly from JobKeeper through their investments in firms whose earnings rose and paid dividends that went directly to those billionaires.
People like Solomon Lew, Brett Blundy, Gerry Harvey, have benefited from the JobKeeper program. At the very same time, you've got thousands of people who've lost their jobs in the art sector, tourism, and international education and haven't received support from the government.
A year ago, the Government was penny pinching with Pfizer. They wouldn't pay Pfizer $1 billion for enough doses of vaccine to vaccinate all Australians, and yet they were paying billionaire investors and millionaire CEOs $13 billion in JobKeeper that they didn't need.
SHIRLEY: Dr Leigh, no doubt this will be raised again in the weeks ahead for Parliament sitting. Just on that separate but related point, how comfortable, how safe do you feel about Parliament sitting again in a matter of days, given the lockdowns and the spread of Delta through major capital cities at the moment?
LEIGH: It'll need to be done with a skeleton staff. I think we need the minimum number of people in order to keep Parliament running, and in the past non-essential staff have been asked to stay home. I know many of my parliamentary colleagues either never left Canberra or have arrived in recent days in order to quarantine for 14 days ahead of Parliament. That provides us with reassurance. Hopefully many of my colleagues are also fully vaccinated. Those who are over 50 have no excuse for not being fully vaccinated by now, and that provides, again, a measure of reassurance.
Right now, I think we're all, in Canberra, feeling pretty lucky, aren't we, Adam? As we look around the rest of the country, we see outbreaks going into regional New South Wales. We've got things managed very well here but there's also an element of luck in any pandemic.
SHIRLEY: And trepidation, given we are surrounded by it in the ACT. If you could update as well, you said you hope as many of these parliamentarians and your colleagues are vaccinated with both shots. What are the specific rules or guidelines up to the minute on whether MPs and representatives have to be?
LEIGH: There's nothing at the moment. I'm fully vaccinated, but that puts me in a minority of Australians. We've only got about a tenth of the population fully vaccinated, the lowest rate in the OECD as you and your listeners well know. There's an obligation on parliamentarians to be stepping up and getting the shots, both in terms of protecting the Parliament itself but also to set that strong example to the whole community
SHIRLEY: It would be an interesting percentage study to do on how many MPs and Senators actually have the vaccine, both shots. Dr Leigh, thank you for your time on some pressing issues today.
LEIGH: Thanks again, Adam.
SHIRLEY: Dr Andrew Leigh, who's the Member for Fenner in the ACT.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra