2SM WITH MARCUS PAUL IN THE MORNING
TUESDAY, 26 JANUARY 2021
SUBJECTS: Companies using JobKeeper to pay out executive bonuses; Companies repaying JobKeeper payments after reporting huge profits; Australia Day; Margaret Court; Gender imbalance in the Australia Day awards system and the need for revamp.
MARCUS PAUL, HOST: The first of our Australia Day guests today is Andrew Leigh MP. Good morning to you Andrew and happy Australia Day, mate.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good morning, Marcus. Great to be with you.
PAUL: I see on page 20 of today's Herald, there's a push on corporate Australia to repay JobKeeper. Now you and I have discussed this in the last couple of months. Corporate governance experts are urging more of Australia's big companies to repay funds received through the federal government's JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme, warning taxpayers will bear the brunt of the $90 billion cost for decades, Andrew.
LEIGH: Absolutely, Marcus. And what a great patriotic moment it would be if some of these corporates decided that they'd make a national gesture to give back taxpayer subsidies they don't need for the good of the country, to help those less fortunate than themselves. I can't think of a more generous patriotic gesture than that from some of the corporates who received handouts last year - thinking they would need them - but then had a bumper year of profits.
PAUL: Yeah. Well, let's have a look major Australian companies that have posted strong profits, including Super Retail Group, the local arm of Toyota and Coca Cola Amatil [New Zealand] have said they will repay millions in wage subsidies received over the course of COVID-19, thanks to a surge in consumer spending, prompting better than expected sales and profits. So we need to give credit where it’s due to these.
LEIGH: Absolutely, and those firms have done it as good corporate citizens. They’ve recognised that good corporate citizenship isn't about just giving some money to charity. It's not just about having good statements of policy. It's also about making generous gestures to the entire Australian community. I hope that Premier Investments - a company owned by Solomon Lew, which has seen its best profit year last year despite getting JobKeeper, had so much money it could pay it CEO a bonus of $2.5 million - will now look at itself and say, ‘well, this is the moment to be giving the money back to the Australian community, let’s do it today’.
PAUL: So, who are we calling on? Solomon Lew and his company - what’s the name of his company again?
LEIGH: It’s Premier Investments. It runs Portmans, Just Jeans, Smiggle - they'd be the outlets your listeners would be familiar with.
PAUL: And what, they paid Solomon Lew a bonus of $2 million. They've recorded record profits. But they've done this as well as taking the JobKeeper program?
LEIGH: Solomon Lew’s the major shareholder there, so of the dividend that they handed out last year, he would have earned about $20 million. Mark McInnes, the CEO, was the one who took home $2.5 million as a CEO bonus. Good luck to him, but it's not clear to me that they need taxpayer handouts at a time when the government is bringing the JobKeeper program to a premature close and looking at cutting the JobSeeker unemployment benefit down to poverty levels.
PAUL: This is the problem, isn't it? These acts of corporate goodwill may well be few and far between with funds managers and governance experts not confident that boards will be inclined to return the beneficial stipend. The Director of corporate governance firm Ownership Matters says the likelihood of widespread JobKeeper paybacks is slim, particularly due to the lack of transparency and accountability around the scheme. They said that JobKeeper was extraordinary and generous, but accompanied by very little transparency in the fact that - the fact of the matter is that the Australian taxpayer will be paying for employers who've been unjustly enriched by JobKeeper for the next 30 years. I mean, that's a concern.
LEIGH: It really is, and credit to Dean Paatsch from Ownership Matters. He's somebody who's been on the case with this issue for many months now. And many other shareholders are concerned by this. So Premier Investments had almost half of its shareholders voting against their remuneration report, a significant backlash from shareholders. You can only imagine what the views are out in the Australian community when people see large firms with billionaire shareholders receiving taxpayer handouts, and then not being willing to do the right thing. Now, if Premier Investments had gone further backwards, they'd be approaching the government and saying we need more. But when they've had an unexpectedly good year, they don't do the right thing and give the money back.
PAUL: Alright. Andrew, let's move on to something a little brighter and lighter. Australia Day, what does it mean for you?
LEIGH: It’s a moment to reflect on who we are and where we've come from. I think certainly it's prompted a very different conversation this year than when I was a kid, where I remember the Bicentennial being all focused on white arrival. Now there's a real recognition that it is an extraordinary thing to share this country with a people who've been here for 60,000 years. That's an amazing proud heritage, but for Indigenous Australians, this is a day of pain. So it's prompted a more sophisticated discussion. I think that indicates our growing maturity, and the sense from many Australians that we want a national day to be one that our first Australians can be proud of.
PAUL: Well, you know there's a bit of a concern with the date when even the new Australian of the Year - this amazing young Grace Tame - is one of those who's calling for a change in the date.
LEIGH: Grace Tame has been calling for it. Malcolm Turnbull has been calling for it. More than half of Australians think that the date will be changed within the next decade. It’s worth remembering Marcus that this isn't the date on which the First Fleet arrived in Australia - it’s the date on which the First Fleet moved from Botany Bay up to Farm Cove. Australia Day has only been a national holiday right across the country since 1984. And as we grow and mature, many of our traditions evolve, and this is I think a really welcome conversation. We should be proud of the conversation, we shouldn't hold back from it. We should respect that there are going to be many different views, but only by deeply engaging with our past and listening to Indigenous Australians can we forward as a country. And if you don't listen to Indigenous Australians on the issue of Australia Day, then you're not really listening to Indigenous Australians, are you?
PAUL: Well no, not really. Look, Kerry O’Brien has had a crack again at the awarding of an Australia Day honour - in fact, one of the highest apart from Australian of the Year, of course - to former tennis great Margaret Court. I mean, I think unfairly she's personally come under criticism, but I think the process of awarding such awards is probably where the criticism is warranted. I mean, the decision to award Australia's highest honour to Margaret Court may serve to erode the hard fought gains made over decades in reducing the impact of discrimination against members of the LGBTQ plus community. I mean, that's what the veteran journalist Kerry O'Brien has said in his letter to the Governor General as he rejects his Australia Day award. Is this the right thing to do?
LEIGH: He's following on the back of the decision by Clara Tuck Meng Soo, a Canberra doctor who I know well, to hand back her AO in protest against Margaret Court’s comparison of gay and lesbian advocates to Hitler. You know, these are statements that are utterly beyond the pale from a woman who already has an OBE, already has an AO. The decision today is to upgrade the AO to the AC, which has just come at an incredible painful cost to so many Australians. I think it really does highlight that we need a revamp of the honour system. The share of women receiving awards went down this year, from 40 per cent to 37 per cent, despite the fact we know that most community organisations are run by women. It's women that win the lower ranks of awards, those toiling away in little community organisations, and it's more esteemed blokes in formal organisations that seem to have nominating systems that get them in. We've really got to look at the whole thing more carefully, Marcus.
PAUL: In fairness though, it is worth acknowledging that all of the major awards - the Australian of the Year, the Senior Australian of the Year, the Young Australian of the Year - were all female. So that is good. That's good stuff.
LEIGH: It is great to have an all female lineup on the Australian of the Year again, for a second time. Grace Tame just an extraordinary achiever, a marathon runner on top of her bravery in standing up for sexual assault victims. So there are many people today receiving awards that make us proud. Just because we need to have a more careful look at the system doesn't mean that those who have received awards today shouldn't feel their hearts fill with pride, and their friends and neighbours really, really feel proud for them.
PAUL: Alright, Andrew. Always good to have you on the program. Well done all the hard work on trying to get JobKeeper repaid by these corporates that have made a lot of money in the past year or so during the pandemic. Let's keep on it.
LEIGH: Let’s work together on this one, Marcus. I reckon we can crack the nut.
PAUL: Thanks, mate. Talk soon.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.