Wednesday, 16 June 2021
Resolutions of the Senate
JobKeeper Payment; Consideration of Senate Message
The Speaker has received the following message from the Senate:
The Senate transmits to the House of Representatives the following resolution which was agreed to by the Senate this day:
That the Senate—
(1) notes that the 2021-21 Budget delivered the Jobkeeper wage subsidy, which saw over $1 billion in Jobkeeper payments paid to companies that made a profit or paid executive bonuses; and
(2) calls on the Federal Government to require companies with an annual turnover of more than $50 million that received Jobkeeper payments, and in the last 12 months did one or more of the following:
(a) issued dividends;
(b) made a profit; or
(c) paid executive bonuses;
to repay the Commonwealth an amount equal to the amount of Jobkeeper payments they received, up to the sum of profits made and executive bonuses paid.
The Senate requests the concurrence of the House of Representatives in this resolution.
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"the message be considered immediately".
I will speak very briefly on this. I understand we want to finish by 1.30, so I won't take too much longer. But we need to consider this now. We're talking about whether $1 billion in public money that has been spent should be recouped. This is $1 billion that went to corporations and billionaires that didn't need it. It is not every day that we have a message from the Senate that has passed the very significant divergent political positions that are in the Senate and has got majority support in the Senate requesting that the House agree. When it happens, it is significant. It is very, very significant. The message must be considered immediately because we are talking about $1 billion that could be made available for schools and hospitals, for JobKeeper in places like Melbourne, where we are still doing it tough. If we do not consider it immediately then we are turning a blind eye to the Senate's request that we ask some of these profitable corporations to pay their fair share.
What the motion moved by the Senate asks the government to do is very, very simple. It recognises that during the pandemic the government made a number of payments for wage subsidies. The Greens was the first party in this place to call for payments to be linked to wages, and it was widely welcomed when the government decided to do just that. But it was JobKeeper, not 'profit keeper'. It was JobKeeper. It turns out that, because of the poor design of the system, which was left up to regulations and all in the hands of the Treasurer, the money went to big corporations and billionaires that just didn't need it.
So you had corporations like Harvey Norman, with billionaire Gerry Harvey, having literally a captive audience during the lockdown. Everyone was in their homes. You were locked down. You couldn't go out. There was nowhere to go. So people were buying products from Harvey Norman hand over fist. That led to a more than doubling of Harvey Norman's profits. But, at the same time as Gerry Harvey's corporation was making record profits, the public also paid it $20 million in JobKeeper. He does not need it. Big corporations that are making record profits do not need public handouts.
The government is responsible for the design of the scheme but the government can now recoup some of that money. At a time when every dollar counts, especially for people in Melbourne, casual workers are being asked by this government to go for up to three weeks, without work, on $325. Why is it that casual workers in Melbourne get $300 when they need much more but billionaires, who don't need anything, get a $20 million handout and the government turns a blind eye? Robodebt was a shameful chapter in this nation's history when the government hounded people for money they didn't owe, but when you pay a billionaire $20 million he doesn't need the government turns a blind eye.
We are asking the government to apply one-tenth of the fervour that they applied to jobseekers to these billionaires and big corporations that took money they didn't need. Another one is Kerry Stokes with Seven West Media. They saw a big increase in their half-yearly profits. They took about $45 million in JobKeeper to help them along their way to increase profits and then went out, as well as making record profits, and bought a private jet. The chairman went and bought a private jet. If you can afford to buy a private jet, you can afford to pay back JobKeeper. It is as simple as that.
If it considers this motion immediately and then supports it, this government has the capacity to send a strong message to those corporations that paid out executive bonuses or dividends or made a big profit to pay back the JobKeeper that they clearly didn't need. The Senate has thought about what is fair in the circumstances. It is saying, for example, that if you took $10 million in JobKeeper and made $3 million in profit, you don't have to pay back the $10 million. You have to pay back $3 million. That is fair, so no-one's going to fall behind. We're only talking about big corporations, with turnover of more than $50 million, so it's very fair.
What people are voting on, right now—I say this to members of the crossbench, members of the government, members of the opposition—with this first vote is whether to even have the debate or not. I say to people: irrespective of where you would line up on this question of whether big corporations should be asked by the government to pay back JobKeeper, we should at least be allowed to have a debate on it right now. It is very rare that the Senate says it wants the House to concur with a motion about a policy matter like this. It is not often that you get people across the political spectrum lining up to say, 'Hang on, something has gone wrong.' We've paid at least $1 billion, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office, to big corporations and billionaires that just didn't need it.
I believe—the Greens believe—that if you can afford a private jet you can afford to pay back JobKeeper. If you are paying profits off the back of JobKeeper, you can afford to pay it back. If you are paying dividends, you can pay back JobKeeper. If you are paying executive bonuses, you can pay it back. Even if you don't agree with all of that or you don't agree with every last word in the motion that has come from the Senate, I say to members of the crossbench, members of the opposition and members of the government: let's at least debate it. It is a critical debate that we should have. We should not gag debate in this House, as the government is trying to do by saying, 'Consider it another day,' because we know that if the government kicks this off into the long grass we will not come to this issue, that we will not come back to this resolution. I would urge all members of this place to, at least, let us have the debate and to vote for the amendment to allow this important motion to be considered immediately.
The Labor Party will be supporting this motion, recognising the importance of ensuring that firms that received JobKeeper they didn't need paid it back. Yesterday the exclusive Australian Club voted on whether or not to allow women as members. Apparently, the memo hasn't gotten through to the Australian Club in Sydney that it's 2021. Of the 693 votes that were cast, 62 per cent were against allowing women members. Thirty-seven per cent were in favour. One per cent abstained—apparently, they couldn't decide whether or not women should be allowed into the Australian Club.
But the one thing that 100 per cent of Australian Club members voted for was taking two million bucks of JobKeeper from the Australian taxpayer. And last year the Australian Club didn't do badly: they doubled their surplus. They're not the only exclusive club to have benefited from the JobKeeper scheme. The National Golf Club got $1.2 million of JobKeeper and paid $1 million more to their holding company than in the previous year. It costs $13,000 to join the National Golf Club.
Healthia took $8 million in JobKeeper and paid bonuses of $221,000 to its executives. That is in direct contradiction of what the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Taxation Office and even Jeff Kennett says: if you're taking corporate welfare, you shouldn't be paying bonuses.
And then there's Best&Less, which got millions of dollars in JobKeeper despite rising profits and then told investors, in candid terms, 'This sugar hit to profit is not repeatable.' I'll bet what they're thinking is, 'You only get one Morrison government in your lifetime, and we've had ours.' The member for Melbourne talked about $1 billion of waste, but that may be just the tip of the iceberg. When we look at listed companies, an analysis by Ownership Matters finds that a fifth of the money went to firms with rising earnings. If that's true across the scheme, we're talking about $15 billion to $20 billion of taxpayer money wasted. That's $1,000 for every Australian adult. Who did it go to? Well, it went to billionaires, who massively increased their wealth last year. For example, take Nick Politis, whose car dealerships raked in $130 million of JobKeeper and saw their profits go up, paying out a dividend worth $17 million to Nick Politis. And then there's Solomon Lew, who was on the phone tearfully pleading with the Treasurer to introduce the JobKeeper scheme. His firm went on to set record profits. It's paid back $16 million of JobKeeper, but it hasn't fully disclosed the total amount it received, which is probably in excess of $100 million. Premier Investments should pay back JobKeeper.
And then there's Harvey Norman. Harvey Norman and its franchisees received some $22 million in JobKeeper. They have refused to pay it back, with Gerry Harvey describing what they've received as a 'tiny amount'. This is the very same Gerry Harvey who has been arguing against the Victorian mental health levy and advocating against a wage rise for minimum wage workers. Then there's 1300SMILES, which received $2 million in JobKeeper despite doubling its profits and paying shareholders a whopping dividend. Its majority owner, Daryl Holmes, just bought a $6 million mansion. It would have been nice if Mr Holmes could have bought, say, a $4 million mansion and paid the $2 million back to the taxpayer.
The fact is that if we were talking about people who were homeless, helpless or jobless, the Morrison government would be after them like a rat up a drainpipe. I have here a notice sent to one of my constituents, which says: 'We have checked your JobSeeker payment and found that we have paid you too much,' and there's a bill for her to repay $180.48. But there's no similar bill going to the large corporates in Australia that got more JobKeeper than they ever needed. There's one rule for people with disabilities, who are being hounded by automatic assessments in the National Disability Insurance Scheme. There's one rule for robodebt recipients, who were being hounded and in some cases committed suicide. And then there is a completely different rule for the private equity firms, the hedge funds, the exclusive men-only clubs and the cashed-up firms that took taxpayer handouts and saw increased earnings.
Some have done the right thing. Construction giant CIMIC has paid back all of the JobKeeper support, $20 million, received by its subsidiaries. We've seen Domino's repay its JobKeeper. Iluka has repaid JobKeeper. Cochlear has repaid half its JobKeeper—so, half a cheer there. Energy company Santos has repaid all the JobKeeper assistance it received. When the second commissioner at the Australian Taxation Office, Jeremy Hirschhorn, was quizzed in Senate hearings, he revealed to my colleague Senator Katy Gallagher that there are 20,000 small firms every month who said: 'No, thanks. We don't need JobKeeper.' They're small firms that have very quietly decided that the JobKeeper scheme is for firms that need it and not for those with rising earnings.
The fact is that JobKeeper was paid to firms that didn't need it, and the Morrison government didn't lift a finger. It's been left to those on this side of the House. We've been the ones calling on these firms to repay the money. And so far over $100 million has been returned. It's strange, isn't it? The Prime Minister and the Treasurer talk about the politics of envy when Labor people try to improve their budget bottom line. It's very simple. These large firms should pay the money back that they didn't need. In doing so, they would be according with their own corporate social responsibility statements that say they're not just there for the shareholders and the executives but that they're there for taxpayers, customers and the broader communities. They would do the right thing. They'd burnish themselves in the eyes of the Australian people. They'd recognise that, at a time like this, the last thing we should be doing is giving billions of dollars to billionaires.
That vote was tied, so I need to exercise my casting vote. For the benefit of members who have come in, the debate that has occurred was on the amendment moved by the Leader of the Greens. The vote on the amendment was tied. In accordance with the casting-vote principles, I give my vote with the ayes, because there is not a majority for the amendment to pass. So I give my casting vote, under the well-established principles, to the ayes—that is, that the amendment be disagreed to. That means the amendment has failed. The question now is that the motion moved by the minister be agreed to.