The Government is playing games with JobKeeper transparency - Transcript, ABC Radio Canberra





SUBJECTS: The Government’s failings on JobKeeper.

SHIRLEY, HOST: Andrew Leigh, Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on Economics and Federal Member for Fenner, good morning to you and thank you very much for your time on ABC Radio Canberra.


SHIRLEY: So this is a key question, depending on what happens in the Senate today: how disappointed in your Senate Labor colleagues would you be if they let big businesses be quiet about the JobKeeper money they've received and kept?

LEIGH: Adam, for a party of government this is an issue that comes up frequently. We want transparency, and we want to make sure this support goes straight out the door to help the businesses that need it. Unfortunately, it looks as though the Government isn't going to come to the party on transparency. The question for us is whether we then hold up this bill which provides support to New South Wales businesses. Our judgement is that it's important to provide that support, although it's late and inadequate, not only for those businesses that are in lockdown, but of course for Canberra, because Canberra is hurting too. If you talk to people in the tourism sector, newsagents, hospitality, this is a real hit on our economy as well. We need to make sure this support is provided.

SHIRLEY: So your colleague, Senator Rex Patrick, in politics, I should say, but also in this campaign, I think it's fair to say, also wants to see the transparency list pushed through and made a part of legislation. He said to the ABC "a senior cabinet minister once told me that they love playing chicken with the Labor Party because they always swerve." How do you respond to that?

LEIGH: It's terrific that Rex has come on board this campaign in the last couple of weeks. His transparency amendment is the right way to go. If I had my druthers we would get support to New South Wales business and we would also make sure that there was this transparency measure in place, but a responsible party of government can't afford to hold up that support for New South Wales businesses. I'll continue campaigning on JobKeeper. I'll continue campaigning for transparency. When I look at firms like Best & Less, who told their investors that this was a one-off sugar hit from JobKeeper that was never to be repeated, that's the sort of example that you don't need. That is money that, if it was available in the budget right now, could do more to support struggling businesses. You see in the car sector firms like AP Eagers that got $130 million in JobKeeper despite a significant increase in their profits. There's firms that should pay the money back, as Domino's, Iluka and Toyota have done, and do the right thing by the broader community.

SHIRLEY: If you've got crossbench support through Senator Patrick, presumably the Greens, on this, why won't or can't the Labor Party stare down the Government on legislation you say is essential?

LEIGH: In doing so we would be delaying support for New South Wales businesses and for people in lockdown. When my talk to my colleagues in Western Sydney right now that is their number one priority. Transparency is important to them, but number one is getting support to the businesses and the individuals that are hurting right now. That's where we've chosen, as a party of government, to focus, but we will continue arguing the case on transparency. If I had my way, I would love to see this amendment get up. I'd love to see the Government providing more transparency because we know that with greater accountability comes better public behaviour. The public firms have paid back the lion's share of JobKeeper. There's some $225 million paid back by 25 companies. Almost all of that is by public firms, because of the scrutiny that came as a result of listed entities being required to disclose JobKeeper. For the unlisted firms, we're only getting dribs and drabs. I've written to all of the large unlisted private firms, the overseas listed firms, to try and get more information, but they don't have to respond to my letter, and in most cases they didn't.

SHIRLEY: Here's the thing: they don't have to. I mean, some listeners might be struggling to understand why you won't stare the Government down and call their bluff on this because would they really withhold payments to New South Wales businesses hurting right now if you didn't support the bill?

LEIGH: Well, they've already come too late at it, just as they've been too late for vaccination. They've been too slow in supporting businesses, so we want to make sure that business support gets out the door as quickly as possible, but we also need to make sure we've got accountability over JobKeeper. It's a $90 billion program, the biggest one-off program ever run in Australian history, and on my estimate some 15 per cent of that money, some $13 billion, went out the door to firms with rising earnings - and not just firms. Organisations like the Australian Club, the men's-only club in Sydney that voted 2-1 to continue excluding women. We need more transparency around that scheme and I'll continue arguing for that transparency, but I won't do so in a way that will hold up support to people in lockdown.

SHIRLEY: The quandary that you're in, though, is perhaps illustrated by a couple of texts coming on this. Brian says 'good morning, gentlemen. If Labor caves on this they will finally lose me.' Jen says 'I think a list of companies is vital. Is the LNP blackmailing against Labor and the Labor Party are weak on it?' I mean, that, I guess highlights the issue you're facing here, Dr Leigh.

LEIGH: I share the passion of Brian and Jen to get that information out there. I'd very much like to see more information on the recipients of JobKeeper, because that promotes better corporate behaviour. I've been the number one person who has been out there talking about the firms that have received JobKeeper, making the case for them to pay it back. In recent weeks, Rex Patrick has joined those calls, which is greatly welcomed, but I will continue to campaign, as I've done for much of the last 12 months, not just on the businesses, but also on organisations like the Australian Club. You look at the King's School in Sydney, who increased its earnings while receiving JobKeeper, and the private universities getting it while the public universities didn't. I'll be speaking in Parliament in just under an hour about the hit to the Australian university sector - unprecedented, and yet who got JobKeeper among universities? It was just Bond University and the University of New York Sydney campus.

SHIRLEY: These are all reasons you've put forward in previous forums, including here, on why you want to see a public register, but unless you insist on it is there a risk you'll be seen as not having any effect here, and the companies being able to go on as they have so far?

LEIGH: No, not at all, Adam. Every reasonable person watching politics understands that when you're a party of opposition, you often have to make choices and to support something that is not written in the way in which you would have drafted it. That's why we need a Labor Government, because when we have a Labor Government, then we'll be able to have bills which are exactly the way we drafted. From opposition, a sensible party of government has to make a choice and to prioritise things. In this case, we prioritise getting the support out to New South Wales businesses, but that doesn't mean we're any less passionate than we were yesterday about supporting transparency. It doesn't mean that I'm going to back down in my campaign one iota. If you're a firm that saw rising earnings and got a JobKeeper, I will continue to call you out publicly.

SHIRLEY: Dr Andrew Leigh is the Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on Economics. He's the Federal Member for Fenner and is with us on ABC Radio Canberra. 9:26, and it's nice to have your company. Is there going to be another opportunity to raise this as a proposed motion and then certified in legislation where companies may be forced to publicly declare what JobKeeper they received, and whether they've kept it, Dr Leigh?

LEIGH: Yeah, I certainly hope so, Adam. That's the natural way of continuing to pursue the issue. We've got a tax transparency measure passed by Labor, which the Coalition and the Greens watered down a little, but which still ensures that firms with a turnover above $100 million or $200 million have to report their taxable income and tax paid. That's been useful in promoting a conversation around tax transparency every December. New Zealand has their JobKeeper register, and that's seen a higher rate of repayment than we've seen here in Australia. These sorts of schemes are good. The old days where corporations could hide in the shadows their financial affairs are gone. We recognise now that corporations aren't just there for their investors and for their CEOs. They're also there for their workers and the broader community, and part of that social compact is that if you've received JobKeeper then there ought to be some transparency around it.

SHIRLEY: So these are all good spirits. These are some spirits that people listening will support, but I'll leave you with Adrian's thoughts. He's in Moncrieff, and he says 'If Labor backs down from holding the Government to account on this then why are they in opposition in the first place? Hold the Government to account. They will be the ones holding up the payments, not Labor. We don't have enough of this within politics now. If you fight for that support for business and with your principles intact, the young people in society will support you and remember this decision at the next election. Grow a backbone' concludes Adrian. Your response to him?

LEIGH: Adrian, I share your passion about the issue of transparency, but these are our people. This is Western Sydney. This is one of the most multicultural, in parts one of the most disadvantaged, parts of Australia. We cannot afford to be holding up support for people in Western Sydney right now. The Government has failed people of the West:  they've failed them in their slow vaccine rollout; they've failed them in their inability to provide adequate support. It is absolutely vital that we get that support there now, in order that people in Sydney are able to continue to pay the bills. That's our priority. We're in an invidious situation in Parliament where, yes, you sometimes have to make choices. We're not going to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.

SHIRLEY: Dr Leigh, we do appreciate your time. Thank you for it.

LEIGH: Thank you, Adam.


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.