COVID-19: Income Support Payments

February 15, 2021

When you're a government, you make mistakes—especially in a crisis, including in a pandemic. You bring in policies that might not have had every detail thought through. You spend a lot of money and, in hindsight, you may have done things differently. That's forgivable, although you wouldn't have thought so if you had heard the Abbott opposition and subsequent Liberals carrying on a treat during and after the global financial crisis.

But on this side, we are a responsible opposition which puts the interests of the country ahead of political pointscoring. During COVID we've been extraordinarily focused on being constructive rather than combative. We did the right thing. But we won't sit back and watch the Morrison government patting itself on the back for adopting our idea and the union movement's idea of wage support or fail to call out the behaviour of big businesses which have pocketed JobKeeper payments when they didn't need them.

JobKeeper is the most expensive one-off program ever implemented by an Australian government. The estimate is that it will cost around $100 billion. We've supported the existence of the scheme and, in fact, we're calling for it to be maintained for businesses which have not yet recovered, and that's to protect jobs. But there are big businesses which have taken advantage of the scheme to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. These big listed companies have literally pocketed the JobKeeper funds.

Premier Investments, the owner of Smiggle, Just Jeans and Portmans, made a bigger profit last year than it did in 2019. It paid shareholders $57 million in dividends, and Solomon Lew received more than $20 million of that. It also paid its chief executive, Mark McInnes, a $2.5 million bonus, taking his total pay to more than $5 million. That's not bad during a pandemic. So how much JobKeeper did Premier Investments receive? It was $40 million.

Some big businesses which found that times weren't as tough as they expected have done the right thing—not Premier but some others. Nick Scali is an example; it has handed back most of its JobKeeper—$3.6 million. Hopefully, they'll hand it all back but what they've done is a start. Toyota returned $18 million and the owner of Rebel and BCF is repaying $1.7 million. Domino's has paid back JobKeeper. Platypus and Hype DC owner, Accent Group, took $14 million of JobKeeper funds but it hasn't paid any back. Instead, it paid a bonus of $1.2 million to its head and $50 million in dividends.

After 25 years of working in the listed corporate world my experience is that while big businesses will sometimes do the right thing out of a sense of social responsibility, mostly governments need to mandate it. That's the bit I don't get from the Morrison government. It had no hesitation in hounding welfare recipients that it had overpaid. It sent them threatening letters as part of the robodebt witch-hunt, yet the Prime Minister won't support the call from the Business Council of Australia, from the former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, from the Australian tax office and from us, Labor, who are critical of firms hanging on to JobKeeper at the same time as paying themselves huge bonuses, big dividends and making big profits. It is forgivable to make a mistake, but it is unforgiveable not to learn from and correct those mistakes.

The university sector was told repeatedly last year that it did not deserve JobKeeper. Hardworking academics in my electorate are being told that overpaying big business is more important to this government than the work that they do. Most people working in the arts and entertainment industry were excluded from JobKeeper. Local government employees were excluded. Casuals of fewer than 12 months service were excluded from JobKeeper payments. People on temporary protection visas and international students all missed out. Small businesses in my electorate were left out. Where two people were in a partnership, only one person was eligible for JobKeeper, yet many big businesses raked it in. That shows you whose side this Morrison government is on. It shows you not with their words but with their actions.

There's been a 50 per cent increase in the average wealth of Aussie billionaires in the last year, yet regions like the Upper Blue Mountains, where international tourism is crucial for local jobs, are about to lose the one thing that has helped them keep some staff employed some of the time and allowed their businesses to keep their heads above water. The Prime Minister and Treasurer need to come clean on their mistake. They need to tell us how much JobKeeper support was paid to firms who had an increase in profit, paid executive bonuses and paid huge dividends. It's absolutely clear whose side this Morrison government is on.