House debates

Monday, 15 February 2021

Private Members' Business

COVID-19: Income Support Payments

4:46 pm

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fenner, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that the Jobkeeper program is the most expensive one-off program ever implemented by an Australian Government, estimated to cost around $100 billion—it has been effective in supporting jobs, but the unprecedented spending requires close scrutiny;

(2) acknowledges that millions of Australians were excluded from Jobkeeper, including short-term casuals, arts sector workers, and the entire university sector;

(3) recognises that:

(a) the Jobkeeper program is scheduled to be terminated at the end of March 2021, despite severe problems in many sectors and regions across Australia, and the warnings from economists that support should not be withdrawn prematurely;

(b) while many were left out of Jobkeeper, the program provided support to firms that:

(i) recorded record profits in 2020; and

(ii) paid executive bonuses; and

(c) the practice of paying executive bonuses by firms receiving Jobkeeper has been criticised by the Australian Taxation Office, the Business Council of Australia, former Liberal Premier of Victoria Jeff Kennett and the Australian Labor Party, but not the Government; and

(4) calls on the Treasurer to make a statement to the Parliament no later than 25 February 2021 revealing how much Jobkeeper support was paid to firms that:

(a) saw their profits increase from 2019 to 2020; and

(b) paid executive bonuses.

When the pandemic hit, Labor were quick to call on the government to follow the lead of other countries and put in place a wage subsidy program that would save jobs. According to Treasury, JobKeeper has saved some 700,000 jobs since it was put into place.

But with unprecedented spending, unprecedented scrutiny should be required. It is not good enough that the government treats JobKeeper money like it is Liberal Party money and refuses to provide appropriate accountability to the Australian people for some of the reasonable concerns about JobKeeper. One of those is that firms have taken JobKeeper and used it to pay executive bonuses. The firms that have done this include Accent Group, IDP Education, Star Entertainment Group, Lendlease and Premier Investments. The practice has been criticised by Jeremy Hirschhorn from the Australia Taxation Office; by Jeff Kennett, the former Liberal premier; and by Jennifer Westacott, the head of the Business Council of Australia. All of them recognise that it is not appropriate, if you are receiving taxpayer subsidies, to be paying your multimillion dollar CEOs additional bonuses—in the case of Premier Investments, a bonus of $2.5 million, more than most Australians will earn in a lifetime, paid out in a single bonus to a firm receiving JobKeeper.

And yet, extraordinarily, we haven't heard a word from the government on this issue. It has only been Labor that has been critical of firms paying executive bonuses. When we pointed out that firms that were receiving JobKeeper appeared to have seen their profits rise, the Prime Minister said I was engaging in the politics of envy. Prime Minister, this is not the politics of envy: this is the politics of fairness, the politics of decency.

Some firms have done the right thing. I'd give three cheers to Toyota Australia, Super Retail Group, Domino's and Iluka, and 1.5 cheers to Nick Scali, who have paid back half of the JobKeeper they have received. Yet other firms have failed to follow suit. It is ironic that at a time when debt is going to $1 trillion, it is Labor that's publicly calling on firms whose profits rose while receiving JobKeeper to pay the money back. You would imagine the Treasurer might be part of that call, but he is missing in action.

Today we saw another firm report increased profits, Seven West Media, whose largest shareholder is Kerry Stokes, reported an underlying profit up 25 per cent, having received around $35 million in JobKeeper. I called on the Treasurer to ask the House Economics Committee to initiate an inquiry into the extent to which JobKeeper went to firms that then became more profitable. I'm yet to receive a response to that letter to the Treasurer.

We've seen the hypocrisy from the Treasurer of the drip feed of information about certain aspects of the JobKeeper program. He is in The Australian today on page 11 providing a breakdown of JobKeeper numbers by time, region and industry. Yet he won't disclose some of the issues that have been raised by sensible critics about the JobKeeper program.

The Taxation Office now has four business activity statements and one income tax return for every business that received JobKeeper. The tax office must disclose the actual experience of businesses over this time, in aggregate. We're not asking for the details of every small business to be made transparent. But for businesses with a turnover of $1 billion that forecast a 50 per cent turnover drop from March to June 2020, the Australian public have a right to know how much JobKeeper went to those that did not experience that forecast drop in turnover. For businesses with a turnover below $1 billion that forecast a 30 per cent drop, how much JobKeeper went to those that did not in fact experience such a drop? How much JobKeeper has gone to firms that have paid executive bonuses? How much JobKeeper has gone to firms that paid out stonking dividends to billionaire shareholders?

Australians want the truth. The Morrison government has the receipts, so why won't they tell the taxpayers where the billions of dollars went?

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is there a seconder for the motion?

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. I now give the call to the member for Moncrieff.

4:51 pm

Photo of Angie BellAngie Bell (Moncrieff, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, Labor really are struggling to be relevant as an opposition at the moment, and that's never clearer than when they talk about JobKeeper. In fact, they love to say it was their idea—when it suits them, of course. The truth is that on the other side of the House they are huge fans of JobKeeper, because Australians are big fans of JobKeeper. As Labor members talk to their constituents, they are having conversations about JobKeeper that are very similar to the ones government members on this side of the chamber are having.

JobKeeper was fast, it was effective and it was very welcome, particularly in my electorate of Moncrieff. It was understood to be a temporary measure because of its huge scale and the risks to the economy of prolonging it, and those on the other side know that. Only last week, when the Minister for Tourism, Trade and Investment joined me in Moncrieff, on the Gold Coast, the conversations with local tourism operators reflected that reality: that business operators indeed accept that the government must adjust its economic measures as the situation evolves, and they said so loudly. Every one of them thanked the government for their JobKeeper lifeline. It's commendable that the member for Fenner is making an effort to be constructive on JobKeeper—and I note that he's now left the chamber. However, no program of this scale—rapidly implemented, as was necessary—could have achieved perfection. I'm also not sure that he'll achieve very much from this temporary measure when the real issue is: what is our next changing economic circumstance, and will we manage it?

Let's be clear on some points. JobKeeper was always a temporary program that needed to taper off with the improvement of our economy, for two very good reasons: (1) to not jeopardise the very recovery it's designed to bridge and (2) because it would be irresponsible to not limit the program to its necessary levels, given the potential debt burden for the next generation. I note that those on the other side grin. They grin in agreeance, of course.

The evidence that the recovery is underway is very clear, with over 785,000 jobs created over the past seven months. Fewer businesses and their employees are in need of JobKeeper and other temporary economic support. On the Gold Coast there has been a 59 per cent reduction in the number of people on JobKeeper—in one of the worst-affected regions. This job creation over the past seven months means that fewer businesses and their employees are in need of JobKeeper and other temporary economic supports. The Treasurer has always been clear on this issue. He said:

Based on what we know today, there should be no expectation that JobKeeper will extend beyond the end of March. It was always a temporary program.

In Moncrieff, the government's other stimulus measures have also been very effective in protecting jobs, keeping businesses in business and of course keeping those doors open—absolutely. Over $200 million in personal income taxes has gone into Moncrieff. There have been business investment incentives, the JobMaker Hiring Credit and the HomeBuilder program, and they've all assisted the local economy. In fact, I think there was around $28 billion in support from the federal government to the Gold Coast alone across the five electorates.

The Morrison government has delivered the tremendous support that Australians have needed: $267 billion in direct economic and health support. Of the $251 billion in direct economic support, around $148 billion has already flowed to Australian households and businesses. The JobKeeper payment has provided $83 billion of support to businesses and their employees since the start of the pandemic to date. This has kept businesses in business and Australians in those all-important jobs.

It's clear in Moncrieff and at the national level that the economic circumstances of families and businesses vary quite dramatically, depending on industry, location, business model and exposure to ongoing uncertainties like state government border closures. That's why I'm very focused, now and in the future, on the government tailoring further measures as required. In Broadbeach in the last week we had one of the Gold Coast's largest employers, Atlas Staff, hosting a round table with the Minister for Trade and Tourism with stakeholders from the tourism and events industry and local ministers Andrews and Robert. I organised the round table because the Minister for Trade and Tourism knows, as I do, that supporting an industry starts with listening to it.

Certainty and confidence were the two main points that came out of that round table—certainty and confidence. That means better management of outbreaks by state governments and more stability on border conditions. That means tourists are able to move freely, with confidence, between states. That's what we need in Moncrieff and that's what we need on the Gold Coast.

4:56 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

5:01 pm

Photo of Katie AllenKatie Allen (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

COVID-19 has resulted in the most severe global economic crisis since the Great Depression. Across the world, the equivalent of 600 million people have tragically lost their jobs. The global economy is expected to have contracted by four per cent compared to just 0.1 per cent during the global financial crisis. Australia has not been immune to this crisis. In April 2020, more than one million Australians lost their jobs or saw their working hours reduced to zero and the economy entered into recession for the first time in nearly 30 years. However, Australia's economy is now fighting back. In the September 2020 quarter, real GDP increased by 3.3 per cent, well ahead of market expectations and our international counterparts. From May to December last year, over 784,000 jobs were created. Ninety per cent of the 1.3 million Australians who either lost their jobs or saw their working hours reduced to zero are now back at work. That said, while Australia's recession may be over, it is important to note that our economic recovery is not.

One key source of support thus far throughout these challenging times has been the JobKeeper program. It's on the lips of every working Australian. We know it has helped keep businesses in business, it's helped keep workers at work and it's helped families keep food on the table. I'm grateful to the member for Fenner for providing this opportunity to highlight the unprecedented support undertaken by the Morrison government to save lives, cushion the blow and help Australians remain in jobs. In fact, I'm very proud of this particular Liberal approach that the Morrison government has taken to keeping people connected to their jobs.

As this motion outlines, JobKeeper is the largest economic lifeline in Australia's history. In its first phase, it supported over one million business and over 3.8 million jobs, including 6,800 businesses in Higgins. One such business in my electorate supported by JobKeeper was Carnival for Kids, a party shop and children's party venue owned by local mum, Catherine. When COVID-19 hit early last year, Cat watched her busy calendar of upcoming parties and school holiday programs evaporate and, with that, her business confidence and her dreams for the future. She feared having to say goodbye to long-term dedicated staff, and dreams and plans to expand her business felt out of reach. However, thanks to the JobKeeper program, as well as additional targeted government support, Cat has now been able to not only maintain her business but also invest in new capital and keep her staff employed in her team. In fact, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and I had the privilege of seeing firsthand just last week how local kids are enjoying the fantastic premises and fantastic cupcake-making in her glorious and funky studio, in large part thanks to the government's support. A big shout-out to Cat for hosting us; it was great fun being with the kids. Unfortunately, it was the day before lockdown in Melbourne. It was a lovely day, but we've had to backtrack now that we're in lockdown. A shout-out to Cat and all the community for the work they are doing in supporting their businesses.

Mr Deputy Speaker Gillespie, you would know as much as I do that the creative and performing arts sector has also been a major beneficiary of JobKeeper, contrary to what members opposite would have us believe. Earlier this month, you, as Chair of the Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts inquiry into Australia's creative and cultural industries and institutions, which in fact I called for, heard that approximate coverage of JobKeeper within the creative and performing arts was around 50 to 60 per cent. By contrast, coverage for all employment was around 30 per cent. We are about the creative and performing arts sector and we are getting on with the business of delivering ongoing support for it.

So where to now? It's important that we continue to support, as we have, all small businesses, including tax relief, targeted funds for new apprentices and trainees through the JobMaker hiring credit system, and the JobTrainer system. There's so much more that we continue to do. We're about jobs, building back the economy and rolling out the COVID vaccine.

Certainly the historic and grand nature of the JobKeeper scheme highlights the Morrison government's commitment to ensuring that Australians are supported when they need it most.

5:06 pm

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me put on the record that at every step of the way the Labor Party has backed in JobKeeper. It was our and the union movement's idea, and we backed it in from day one. We gave the government all the license in the world. In fact, we backed laws in the parliament that gave the Treasurer extraordinary powers—wartime powers—to change the JobKeeper requirements as he saw fit. We'll get to that later.

At the end of 2020, 1.54 million Australia were still on JobKeeper. There is a recovery underway, but let's not forget 1.54 million Australians still need this payment. This includes 24,000 Tasmanians who still rely on the subsidy. They need this to keep the lights on, to put food on the table, to get the kids to school—life's essentials. The figures are better on the mainland, but in Tasmania a quarter of the jobs lost during COVID are yet to return, so JobKeeper is absolutely essential to my state. More than 45,000 Tasmanians remain unemployed or underemployed, and the recovery from the pandemic in my state is precarious. There's a budget update out today in Tasmania. Unemployment is forecast to be 6.75 per cent in 2022 and 5.5 per cent on the mainland.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 17:08 to 17:18

Before the suspension I was saying that Tasmania is still in a precarious employment position, with forecast unemployment of 6.75 per cent for 2022 and 5.5 per cent on the mainland; jobs growth in Tasmania projected to be 0.5 per cent in 2022 and 1.5 per cent on the mainland; and economic growth projected to be three per cent in 2022 and 3.5 per cent on the mainland. I give those figures to show that, in Tasmania, the jobs recovery is not as fast as on the mainland, which is why JobKeeper is so important to our state.

The unfortunate thing is that the government just doesn't seem to realise this. The government seems hell-bent on saying 'end of March; that's it'. We have Hobart City Mission in Tasmania preparing for a doubling of demand for emergency relief support. We have the TasCOSS CEO, Adrienne Picone, calling on the Tasmanian Liberal government to:

… go into bat for Tasmanians by advocating for the JobSeeker payment, which currently sits well below the poverty line, to be restored to a liveable, humane rate.

Of course she's saying that because with JobKeeper coming off, more people will go onto JobSeeker, which is unliveable now. The welfare people in Tasmania know there's a cliff coming. They can see the cliff coming.

Families and small businesses that are working hard to recover from the COVID-19-induced economic downturn are bracing themselves for the unplugging of the JobKeeper lifeline. Entire sectors, including tourism and hospitality, are now in crisis without government support. These sectors have not recovered. They are not recovering as fast as we would hope. We have lockdowns in Melbourne this week. The situation is fluid. And tourism and hospitality in Tasmania is not recovering as we would hope. Sadly, in the communities built around these sectors jobs have already been lost, and more will go. The tourism industry is crying out for support. Luke Martin, CEO of the Tourism Industry Council Tasmania, says: 'You can't just leave a whole bunch of businesses to fall off a cliff in March and not expect a lot of trauma. There has to be some form of support.'

It's not good enough and, in conclusion, I would like to turn my attention to the rorts side of this equation. Labor support JobKeeper, we always have. We gave extraordinary power to the Treasurer to fix issues. The government got the payments out quickly—terrific; we supported that. We gave the Treasurer the power to fix the problems as they emerged, and he chose not to exercise that power. When the issue emerged of highly profitable businesses giving their CEOs and their executives and their boards and their shareholders millions and millions of dollars in dividends and bonuses, he could have stepped in and fixed it like that. He chose not to. Yet this is the same government that will go to the ends of the earth to chase down $10 from a Centrelink recipient. It's not good enough. It's a double standard of gargantuan proportion. I fully support the member for Fenner in his call for an inquiry into this. Who got the money? If they didn't need it, they should be made to pay it back. The government can't sit on its hands and pretend this problem will go away. It's unfair. It's so demonstrably unfair to the millions of Australians who pay taxes in the belief that it's going to where the relief is needed and not to those who don't need it.

5:22 pm

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

JobKeeper has been a lifesaver in my electorate of Bonner. Since JobKeeper was rolled out in March 2020, the payments have provided $83 billion of support, to date, to businesses and their employees. In my electorate of Bonner more than 5,200 businesses utilise this payment to stay in business and to keep staff in their jobs. While those opposite accuse this program of being a waste, I ask you this: is it a waste to save lives and livelihoods? Is it a waste to save our economy and help businesses recover quickly? Is it a waste to protect Australians from a recession and far worse consequences?

Last year the Reserve Bank of Australia confirmed our government's quick action to roll out JobKeeper helped reduce total job losses by at least 700,000. That's 700,000 people who were able to put food on the table, pay their mortgage, buy school supplies for their children, keep the lights on, afford medicine and health services and put fuel in their cars. Thanks to JobKeeper and our economic recovery plan 80 per cent of those Australians who sadly lost their jobs, or saw their work hours reduced to zero, are now back at work. I wouldn't call those outcomes a waste, I would call them a win for all Australians.

When JobKeeper first rolled out, I knew we were doing the right thing. In my electorate, I had businesses who had never contacted me before get in touch to share their gratitude for this vital support. Here are just a couple of examples. 'Dear Ross. I just wanted to provide a message of support for the federal government's suite of measures in support of small business during the COVID-19 crisis. The small business stimulus and JobKeeper program will provide a lifeline to our business that will contribute greatly to our chances of survival and recovery on the other side of the pandemic. Despite the inevitable flak that the government will cop in the coming months when a small minority attempt to take advantage of this program, I know that this is excellent public policy. This support will make a substantial difference to the lives of all those who are connected to our business. I would be grateful if you could pass this message on to the team of policymakers. Regards, Anthony of MIG Training.' Consider the message delivered, Anthony, and thank you.

The next feedback is from Peter at Wallum Nurseries: 'Our business was falling off a cliff prior to JobKeeper. Once the wage subsidy scheme was implemented, we were able to ensure that we could maintain all our staff, and since then we've even hired another four people part-time.' And, finally, there is some feedback from David at Tangalooma Island Resort on Moreton Island: 'The Morrison government's ongoing leadership and management through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be underestimated. We are deeply appreciative of this critical support we have received as a business in the hospitality and tourism sector during this crisis, specifically regarding the provision of the JobKeeper stimulus package. During this crisis, JobKeeper has been the single most effective form of support our business has received from any level of government. It has enabled us to endure crippling economic conditions and provide an opportunity for our business to build our recovery on the other side. Tangalooma Island Resort employs over 350 staff and provides essential services to our property owners, government emergency services and the ongoing operation of our general resort, hotel and tourism services. The COVID-19 crisis placed us in a position of extreme financial vulnerability, which escalated drastically when we were forced to shut down due to the Queensland government's restrictions. The JobKeeper initiative allowed us to continue our operations, where practical, provided our staff with an ongoing link back to our company and provided us with the opportunity to navigate the complexities of resurrecting and reopening our multifaceted business and broader community again. The significant impact that JobKeeper has had on our business is difficult to articulate but, to put it simply, it's like we would still be in a shutdown mode and would have been forced to lay off in excess of 90 per cent of our employees had this initiative not existed.'

To those opposite JobKeeper has been deemed a waste, but to the thousands of businesses and people these wage subsidy has helped it has been a wonderful lifesaver.

5:27 pm

Photo of Josh WilsonJosh Wilson (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm grateful to the member for Fenner for bringing this important motion forward for debate and I urge anyone who is watching or listening to get behind his efforts to scrutinise the uneven and unfair application of JobKeeper. That's something you'd think that the government itself might do in relation to the largest one-off commitment of taxpayer's funds in Australia's history but, unfortunately, you'd be wrong.

There is a basic obligation on government to take action that's necessary and effective, but to do so in a way that is honest and fair. After being dragged by Labor to accept the need for a wage subsidy in the face of a pandemic, the Morrison government has delivered a program that is full of holes and full of blind spots. There is no support for universities, no support for arts and cultural workers, no support for local government employees and no support for nearly a million casuals in Australia at the time of a pandemic. But when it comes to large, profitable companies, companies which actually increased their profits through the circumstances of the pandemic, they have been well looked after. They have received tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money. As a result, they've paid enormous dividends and executive bonuses.

Crown Casino received $111 million in JobKeeper and yet paid a dividend to shareholders of $203 million. Harvey Norman's profits jumped by 160 per cent. They received $9 million in JobKeeper support and then paid $75 million in dividends. And Premier Investment, a retail conglomerate that includes Just Jeans, Portmans and other businesses, received more than $40 million in JobKeeper support but made a bigger profit in 2020 than in 2019. It paid out $57 million in dividends, of which the chairman, Solomon Lew, alone received $24 million. In the circumstances of a pandemic, with economic pain and suffering all around, those companies received $160 million of taxpayer funded support they clearly did not need.

What did the Prime Minister say about that situation? He said:

Now, if there are some companies that feel that they want to hand that back, great! Good for them.

Good for them!

What did the Minister for Human Services say about the people the government had wrongly and illegally targeted with the industrial-scale cruelty of robodebt? He said: 'We'll find you, we'll track you down, you'll have to pay those debts, you may end up in prison.' No good for poor people, no good for disadvantaged Australians, for veterans, disability pensioners and the unemployed. Not good for them; for them threats, collection letters and legal action. For them penury, deprivation and despair.

As millions have struggled through this pandemic, lost jobs, lost wages and been forced to ransack their superannuation in a falling market, the billionaires of Australia have seen their wealth increase by 50 per cent. How can that be right, and how can a government program contribute to that kind of grotesque outcome? Those massive holes and blind spots, the squeezing of those who have least and taxpayer funded sunshine for those who have plenty corresponds exactly to the value system of this government. We've seen it from the beginning. It goes back to Joe Hockey and their concept of lifters and leaners. While they peddle the rubbish of transcending ideology and occupying the magic world of the pragmatic middle ground, look at the reality: business tax cuts that never trickle down; penalty rate cuts that result in no new jobs; wages as a share of national income at a 50-year low; unemployment support below the poverty line, with fully one quarter of all single-parent households below the poverty line. At the same time, there are tax cuts for profitable big businesses; personal tax cuts the vast majority of which benefit high-income earners; and taxpayer funded handouts to businesses whose profits have gone up.

This is a hands-off government. It's a 'nothing to see here' government. It's a 'how dare you question us' government—a government of the spreadsheet for the spreadsheet of their own self-interest; a government that is always there for friendly companies that could use $80 million for water that never arrives or $30 million for Leppington land worth a tenth of that. But it is never, never there for those doing it tough. There are millions of dollars worth of carrots for those doing well, and for those doing it tough it's always the stick.

I know what the government will say. They always get wounded and indignant and say, 'We reject the politics of envy.' In the meantime Solomon Lew profits $24 million while a million unemployed Australians crunch back down to $40 a day. In the meantime Australian billionaires grow their wealth by 50 per cent in a single year while 17,000 university workers lose their jobs and a million casuals are denied support.

What will the Prime Minister do? He'll get angry and defensive and say, 'We're not into class warfare.' Not half they're not.

5:32 pm

Photo of Ken O'DowdKen O'Dowd (Flynn, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Morrison government has always maintained that JobKeeper is a temporary program designed to taper off as economic confidence and momentum builds. Based on what we know, expectations that JobKeeper will extend beyond 30 March are not on. However, we also know the way COVID-19 can extend another wave. We'll have to be flexible, and the Treasury is aware of that fact.

But it always has been a temporary program. We're seeing through the 750,000 jobs created so far in the past seven months that fewer businesses and their employees need JobKeeper and other temporary support measures. The government's economic plan also includes a range of stimulus measures apart from JobKeeper and JobSeeker, to keep Australians in jobs and in business, including personal income tax, HomeBuilder and the apprenticeship wage subsidy scheme, instant cash write-off and business investment incentives, and JobMaker hiring credits.

With the economic recovery well under way, Australians have a cause for optimism and hope as we emerge out of this COVID-19 recession. Let's keep the fingers crossed there. JobKeeper remains available to those businesses and organisations experiencing a decline in revenue until the end of March. We'll see what happens after that. All these calls have been received about job shortages. There are lots of industries in my electorate that are saying they cannot get workers to their businesses. I can quote Emerald Tavern. It's short of ten staff: bottle shop, bar staff, kitchen staff and a chef. The Biloela piggery has vacancies for six workers, but cannot get one. SwarmFarm, a robotic farm near Emerald, at Gindie, wants 10 extra workers—mechanical engineers, agronomist and market developers and leaders to market their products. Many restaurants in and around Gladstone and Biloela are short of workers. That's the problem Australia's got. I say, let's get Australia working again.

5:35 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Like many of my colleagues in this place, I love to spend non-sitting weeks on the streets of my electorate, speaking with small businesses and having in-depth conversations with constituents. Back in August, when I drove my 'conversation caravan' down to Mansfield, a small town on the edge of the Victorian Alps in the south of my electorate, the message was clear from the main street small businesses, local tourism operators and local financial advisers. All of the people I spoke with told me that JobKeeper was a critical lifeline. There was a mood of restrained pessimism. JobKeeper had saved countless businesses from financial ruin and kept employees with no immediate alternatives with pay in their pocket and a connection to their employer.

Fast forward to last week when I drove that same conversation caravan down to Murrindindi shire and the townships of Alexandra, Yea and Marysville on the fringe the Yarra Valley just outside Melbourne. I spoke with many businesses and community organisations, from Helico Australia and the Grant Street newsagency in Alexandra to the Lake Mountain reception centre and the Marysville and Triangle Community Foundation. It was clear to me that community views have pivoted dramatically since August. For the first time in months I felt a spirit of optimism and energy to get business engines running again and employees back on the books. Quite a number of businesses had already stopped using JobKeeper, and many were keen to do so soon. Some were also concerned that the blunt incentives that JobKeeper is built upon had been open to exploitation, and some told me about market distortion as a result of JobKeeper. All of that might have been a forgivable consequence when we needed to get money out the door asap at the peak of the crisis, but we need to be more diligent now.

It's also important to note that it's not optimism all around. I've heard from many travel agents, event businesses, catering services and the like that JobKeeper is still a critical lifeline to them. These businesses aren't ready for any kind of bounce back soon, not least the end of March, and to do so for them would be a disaster. We must also not forget local artists and dedicated academics and administrative staff at our regional universities—all our universities—who were nonsensically locked out of JobKeeper and remain in insecure positions.

What does this tell us? We have to apply common sense when it comes to tapering JobKeeper. First, we need to be there for the businesses ready to jump back in again. They're brave, and we should acknowledge and support their courage and enthusiasm. We should offer these businesses a staged process to make sure they're best positioned to hit the ground running. It also means we should be there if the unexpected happens again, like the snap lockdown in Victoria. This road is not a straight one. Second, we cannot abandon those who are still in economic peril—wedding businesses, casual academics, local painters and freelance graphic designers. The list goes on. These businesses and contractors are still hurting. If the government were not able to be there for them last year, they have a higher duty for them to show up now. Third, we need to get other macroeconomic settings right.

While RBA Governor Philip Lowe was optimistic in his statements earlier this month, they were very cautious and based on some long-bow assumptions. The cash rate remains at 10 basis points. We've just seen another $100 billion out the door in government debt. Wage growth is stuck at the bottom of the barrel, and all prudent economic modelling suggests no significant improvements until 2024 at the very earliest. Sure, you cannot run the Australian economy on tax dollars forever, but that does not mean you can abandon fairness and equity. For example, permanently raising JobSeeker to give those who have few savings the chance to income-smooth and bounce back is smart, value focused economics, not state dependency.

The same goes for how we taper JobKeeper. This should not be about turning the tap off overnight. It's also not about picking winners and losers sector by sector. It's about being rational, considered and specific about how we wean off JobKeeper so that the economy at large is best positioned to recover and thrive again.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.