PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
WEDNESDAY, 25 AUGUST 2021
SUBJECTS: Government’s historic JobKeeper waste; Labor’s JobKeeper transparency amendment; Government’s vaccine failure; Labor’s vaccine incentive.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: JobKeeper is the biggest program ever put in place as a one-off by the Australian Government, and it involved more waste than any Australian government program has seen. We know that some $13 billion - almost $1,000 for every Australian adult - was given through the JobKeeper program to firms with rising earnings. Yes, JobKeeper saved some jobs. But there weren't jobs saved by giving money to AP Eagers, the car company with rising earnings. There weren't jobs saved by giving money to Premier Investments and Harvey Norman. There weren't jobs saved by giving money to Accent Group, who used part of it to give a $1 million bonus to their CEO. JobKeeper went to the Australian Club, a men's-only club in Sydney that increased its surplus. It went to independent schools such as The Kings School, Wesley College and Brisbane Grammar, who saw an increase in their surplus. JobKeeper went to the Royal Australian Golf Club, that surely didn't need taxpayer handouts. While the Government changed the rules three times to keep public universities out, JobKeeper went to Bond University and New York University's Sydney campus.
Last night in the Senate, Labor moved an amendment which would ensure more transparency over the JobKeeper program. This amendment would require the Tax Commissioner to publish all JobKeeper recipients with a turnover above $10 million. The American, British and New Zealand wage subsidy programs had transparency around them. Under each one of those programs the public knew every single recipient. You can just log onto a website, search the database or download a spreadsheet and find exactly who got wage subsidy support in Britain, the United States and New Zealand. You can't get that information in Australia because Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg run the most secretive government in Australian history. Only as a result of ASIC having disclosure rules that required listed firms to say what JobKeeper they'd received has the Australian public even got a small amount of insight into what's gone on with this program. Through the request that I put in with the Parliamentary Budget Office, we've learned that some 15 per cent of the money, $4.6 billion in the first quarter, went to firms with rising earnings.
Now, this is a similar amendment to one that came up a fortnight ago, but with a crucial difference in the bill it's being attached to. A fortnight ago, the JobKeeper transparency amendment was attached to a bill providing support for Australians under lockdown. We can't hold up support for Australians under lockdown in order to get more transparency on the JobKeeper program. Labor's amendment last night was attached to a bill which shuts down offshore banking units - a worthy goal, but one on which the Government has delayed for the better part of a decade. They can hardly complain if Labor insists on transparency as well as a long-overdue crackdown on offshore banking units.
Labor has led the fight on ensuring we have more transparency on the JobKeeper program. We ferreted out the waste that has been involved in this program. For $13 billion we could have delivered a fibre-to-the-home National Broadband Network to every urban premises in Australia. It is a scandalous waste of money.
These weren't Liberal Party dollars. These were taxpayer dollars. Taxpayers have a right to find out how their money was spent. Labor will insist on this amendment, and we will fight to make sure that the Morrison Government comes clean with how it has spent money through the JobKeeper program.
Happy to take any questions.
JOURNALIST: Mr Leigh, National Cabinet is considering some exemptions for people who have been vaccinated. Considering this will help kickstart the economy if people are going to restaurants and going to bars, would you support these kinds of exemptions?
LEIGH: Well, if National Cabinet's looking at incentives for getting vaccinated, Labor strongly supports that. In fact, we put on the table a very strong incentive: $300 for everyone who's fully vaccinated. That's backed by a series of research studies, including one from Oxford University that showed a 50% uptake in the rate of vaccination as a result of those incentives. So yes, we should certainly be looking at vaccine incentives. We've seen private sector incentives through Telstra and Qantas, and we believe that the Government should be doing more to encourage vaccination. On the Government's original targets, 70-80 per cent of the population would be fully vaccinated now. That is how badly they’ve slipped. We're only at about a quarter of the population fully vaccinated, and lower in some groups, such as the 15 per cent rate among Indigenous Australians.
JOURNALIST: Andrew, what's the difference between taxpayer money going to companies that are profiting and Labor's plan for incentives that would have given money to people who've already been vaccinated?
LEIGH: You don't want an incentive in place that encourages people to hold off getting vaccinated in the hope of getting the cash. That's why Labor said that our vaccine incentive would have gone to everybody. That's the sensible way of rolling out such a program, and of course it puts money in the hands of people who will put it straight back into the economy. Right now, we know that there's plenty of parts of Australia where retailers could do with having that extra $300 flowing through their stores, supporting jobs and supporting the local economy. This is good in terms of its fiscal effect, but it's critical in terms of the incentive effect that it sends. We know that these lockdowns cost something in the order of $4 billion a week if they're happening across the nation. If a $300 vaccine incentive payment can accelerate us getting out of lock downs by just a week and a half it will have paid for itself in increased economic activity. And that's before you look at the fiscal impact those $300 payments delivered into the community.
JOURNALIST: Isn't that what JobKeeper was doing, effectively putting money back into people's wallets?
LEIGH: You look at the effect of the JobKeeper program, Treasury estimates it saved some 700,000 jobs, most of them for about half a year. If you do the maths, you figure out that every job over the course of a full year ended up costing somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000, well above the average wage. JobKeeper went to firms that didn't need it, and whose employment wasn't supported. The Government should be welcoming more transparency. If they had nothing to hide, they would immediately be supporting Labor's sensible amendment to disclose the entities with a turnover above $10 million that received JobKeeper. It's in the national interest. But they fight against it just as they fought against disclosure around their rorts in car parks and sports, just as they're refusing to implement a national integrity commission. This is a government that is allergic to public scrutiny. Labor will fight for more public scrutiny over the JobKeeper program. Any other questions?
JOURNALIST: Andrew, you're an ethical sort of guy. I'm just wondering your thoughts about Pfizer and them making such a big profit on vaccinations? Have you got any thoughts on that?
LEIGH: The pharmaceutical companies that have produced the vaccine for COVID ought to be commended. There were thoughts when this pandemic first hit that it might take the better part of a decade to turn around a vaccine. I think we are fortunate that the pharmaceutical companies have done their job. The real pity is the Morrison Government didn't do theirs. We know that in July 2020 the Government could have gotten 40 million doses of Pfizer, enough to vaccinate every Australian adult, for the cost of about $1 billion.
JOURNALIST: How do we know that?
LEIGH: That has very clearly been reported through a series of pharmaceutical insiders. There's a good expose in The Guardian talking about this. That cost is being borne by Australians every few days now under lockdown. The foolishness of the Morrison Government refusing to pay $1 billion to Pfizer for enough doses to vaccinate every Australian adult in mid-2020 and then wasting $13 billion in the JobKeeper program for firms with rising earnings shows you their inability to manage the public finances in the national interest.
JOURNALIST: Mr Leigh, just to clarify, so Labor still believes the $300 incentive would still be relevant now, even though more than half of the eligible population has received the first jab?
LEIGH: Absolutely. We believe that this is an incentive that is strongly needed. You look at vulnerable populations such as the Indigenous community, where vaccination rates still sit at 15 per cent. We know from other countries that vaccine uptake tends to be rapid as you go towards 50 per cent but then to tail off. Joe Biden was well ahead of his early targets, but on some of his later targets he's actually struggled to meet them as vaccine hesitancy has come into play. One study of 14 countries found vaccine hesitancy higher in Australia than in any of the other 13 countries that were surveyed. So, it is an issue. It's going to be an issue as we push towards getting those higher vaccination rates, and that's why the incentive just makes sense. It's a practical idea. Scott Morrison was the minister who presided over ‘No Jab, No Pay’. He ought to understand vaccination incentives as well as anyone. Thanks, everyone.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra