5AA MORNINGS WITH LEON BYNER
WEDNSDAY, 11 AUGUST 2021
SUBJECTS: The Government pursuing pensioners but not billionaires for JobKeeper repayments
LEON BYNER, HOST: My next guest is an Australian politician, but he's also an author, he's a lawyer, former professor of economics at the Australian National University, and has been a member of the Australian House of Reps for Labor since 2010. He's a clever bloke, alright. Now, the reason I'm going to talk to him in a moment is that we have thousands of Australians getting debt notices for pandemic welfare overpayments. Many profitable businesses are evading the same repayments. Now, the Government, of course, is being accused of double standards, and if those facts I've just put to you hold water, which they appear to do, we have a fairness issue here.
Let's talk with the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury, Dr Andrew Leigh. Andrew, it's good to talk to you.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Likewise, Leon. Great to be with you.
BYNER: Now, how much money? Have you done a bit of an audit to work out how much money ought to be paid back to Australian taxpayers on this?
LEIGH: Leon, if you just take the basic question of how many JobKeeper recipients actually saw their earnings go up rather than down, it's some $13 billion. Put into perspective, that's more than the Commonwealth Government spent on public schools last year. It's more than they spend on childcare last year. It's about enough to take a fibre to the home network to every urban premises in Australia. It's a lot of money.
BYNER: Now, a lot of people are getting notices to pay back. There's been a number of high-profile examples where people have been able to put their hand up. One lady was receiving JobSeeker unemployment assistance when the business she was working for applied for JobKeeper and there was a brief overlap in her payments. We're being exceptionally forensic in getting that money, whatever amount it is, but what about the businesses that probably didn't need it, or got it and shouldn't have got it?
LEIGH: Harvey Norman got it and saw their earnings rise significantly. Premier Investments, the retailer, got it and saw their earnings go up. AP Eagers, the car dealership, got it and saw their earnings go up. Given this was a scheme designed for companies with falling earnings, you'd have to say that they miscalculated their earnings. Unlike the welfare recipients, they're not getting a note in the mail from Centrelink saying 'can you please repay?'. That’s despite the fact that if they were asked to repay, they probably wouldn't need to go on a $15-a-week payment plan like one of the constituents I spoke about in Parliament yesterday.
BYNER: There's also a story of a private debt collector contacting people and saying, 'hey, you need to pay us back. Here's a payment plan.'
LEIGH: Yeah, people get into these terrible troubles, and certainly if you've got issues repaying debts you should go to Centrelink first, not to some loan shark, because they are able to work things out.
Fundamentally, this is a question of policy for the Morrison Government. They've chosen not to put any pressure on these large firms that received JobKeeper despite rising earnings. They haven't put any pressure on some of the big private schools, like The Kings School in Sydney or Wesley College in Melbourne, that got JobKeeper despite rising earnings. They haven't put any pressure on the Royal Sydney Golf Club, which saw its earnings rise, despite being one of the wealthiest golf clubs in the nation.
BYNER: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I understand there's 11,000 people who were sent debt notices from the Federal Government, trying to claw back $33 million due to overpayments. So, what's going to happen with that?
LEIGH: Well, that's the process the Government's pursuing. This is a government that put in place the illegal RoboDebt scheme to have computer assessments clawing money back from people without any human oversight. It's a government that wanted to put in place automatic assessment of people on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a measure that was opposed by every sensible disability group.
Now, again, we've seen the Government's being hard on the vulnerable while they're soft on the strong. Those large firms aren't getting any pressure from the Morrison Government to do the right thing, despite the fact their own corporate social responsibility statements say they're not just there for their shareholders, but also for the broader community. If they really believe that, they should repay.
BYNER: Now, the ATO has apparently recovered $138 million in JobKeeper overpayments to business. The Government are arguing we're treating everyone the same. Do you buy that?
LEIGH: Well, we've got back in Australia some one quarter of one per cent of the JobKeeper that was paid out. By contrast, New Zealand has had around five per cent of their JobKeeper equivalent repaid. Why has so much more been repaid in New Zealand? Well, partly it's because they had public register where everybody could see the recipients of JobKeeper and in some cases say, 'hey, that's not fair.' America has a public register, Britain has a public register, but Australia keeps it secret.
We know about the ASX-listed firms, but we don't know about many of the private firms. That means there's not the same pressure that's coming on those large, cashed-up private firms to repay that you'd see in other countries.
BYNER: If people get a debt notice, and there obviously are many who are, obviously they'll have to repay. Your advice as to what they should do?
LEIGH: Well, they need to obey the law. My beef is not with Centrelink. It's with the Government that designed these rules, a government which is constantly going after the most vulnerable, which is happy to send out debt notices to people like Jan, a part-time school teacher who's on the pension who received a notice saying that she needed to repay $1,000 because she got some JobKeeper last year. They'll go after Jan, but they won't go after Gerry Harvey, the billionaire, Solomon Lew or Brett Blundy, billionaires who've benefited because they've got shareholdings in firms that received JobKeeper and then paid out dividends.
BYNER: The public won't like this because they'll see it is terribly unfair, won't they?
LEIGH: Well, it's a hallmark of the Morrison Government. Sadly, this is exactly what we've seen with so many other programs, whether it's carpark rorts or sports rorts, it's their decision to treat taxpayer money like it's Liberal Party money, roll it out the door to their favoured friends and leave vulnerable Australians out in the cold.
BYNER: OK, well, what's your advice to people who get a notice saying 'hey, you've got to repay', and they might think 'hang on a minute, I can't do it all in one hit'? What should they do?
LEIGH: Repay the debt and vote Labor at the next election.
BYNER: That's Dr Andrew Leigh. He's from Labor, of course, the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra