Tuesday, 31 August 2021
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the member for Fenner proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The government's decision to give $13 billion of JobKeeper to firms with rising revenue.
I call upon those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
Seventy-year-old Jan Raabe is a pensioner in Frankston who works as a part-time teacher. Because her employer got JobKeeper, Jan received too much in her age pension. She's now repaying it at a rate of $15 a fortnight because that's all she can afford out of her part pension. Still, she's repaying more than billionaires Brett Blundy, Marc Besen, James Packer, Nick Politis and Len Ainsworth combined. They're just some of the nearly a dozen billionaires who benefited from JobKeeper. Jan is one of more than 11,000 Centrelink recipients who've gotten letters from the government asking them to repay their social security benefits because of JobKeeper receipt. This is a government that's writing letters to people in lockdown asking them to repay historic childcare subsidies.
Jan is beside herself with happiness, for today Gerry Harvey has announced that he's going to pay back $6 million of JobKeeper. But let's be very clear about why Gerry Harvey is repaying. He's not doing it out of the pure goodness of his heart, wanting to give something back—we know Gerry Harvey's views on charity. He's doing it because of public pressure from people like Jan.
Australians work hard, and they need a government that's going to work as hard as they do. They need a government that will understand that every dollar raised from taxpayers is a dollar raised from the sweat of regular Australians—and that the role of governments is something sacred. Governments, in managing the public finances, operate in a position of trust from the broader community. A good government sits down in the Expenditure Review Committee and sweats out a decision on how to spend $13 million of taxpayer money. But here we're not talking about $13 million; we're talking about $13 billion, a thousand times more. This was like a welfare scheme for lottery winners. This is a government which gave $13 billion not to firms whose earnings were falling a little bit but to firms whose revenues were rising. Former COSBOA head Peter Strong said it was 'pretty close to theft'. Some of those firms even paid executive bonuses, a practice criticised by the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Banking Association and the Australian tax office, but not criticised at all by the Morrison government.
We have AP Eagers, which got $130 million in JobKeeper and made over $200 million in profit last year and, in the first half of this year alone, another $200 million. There's jewellery seller Lovisa, part owned by Monaco based billionaire Brett Blundy, which got $23 million in JobKeeper, despite sparkling profits. There's Monash IVF, which pocketed $10 million in JobKeeper and admits that about half of that went straight to the profit bottom line. They've just given a big bonus to the CEO, almost doubling his annual remuneration to $1 million. Luxury home seller McGrath just saw a 38 per cent increase in revenue and got $4 million in JobKeeper that it's refusing to pay back.
The board of Cochlear have boosted executive remuneration by 64 per cent at a time when wages for ordinary Australians are going backwards in real terms, and yet they're refusing to repay the $23 million of JobKeeper that they banked in 2020. Lifestyle Communities just doubled its profits to $91 million and is refusing to repay the $2 million in JobKeeper that it very clearly didn't need. There's an investment bank, Moelis, that got $3 million in JobKeeper and paid $5 million in executive bonuses. It may just be me, but I don't remember the Treasurer, at the time when the JobKeeper bill was going through parliament, standing at that dispatch box saying this would be great for investment bankers because they'd be able to increase their executive bonuses.
There's Tabcorp, which made a $269 million profit, paid a $1.5 million bonus to the CEO and still won't repay its $12 million in JobKeeper. ARB, which makes accessories for cars, just doubled its profits but won't repay the $10 million in JobKeeper it clearly didn't need. Best&Less got $42 million in JobKeeper, despite its profits rising and paying executive bonuses. The Australian Golf Club got $1.5 million in JobKeeper from the Liberals. They must be thinking to themselves, 'We scored a hole in one with the Morrison government!'
Then there's Accent Group, which got JobKeeper despite a 60 per cent rise in profits and paid a $1.3 million bonus to their CEO. When they were asked to repay earlier this year, they said no; they'd hold onto the JobKeeper, because they might need it for future lockdowns. The lockdowns came, and they stood down their Sydney staff. Premier Investments did much the same. They got more than $100 million in JobKeeper and barely paid any of it back. They said that they would not repay all the JobKeeper, because they were holding onto it for paying staff in future lockdowns. And yet they stood their staff down.
Then there are the private schools. Brisbane Grammar School got $3 million in JobKeeper, gave a pay rise to the headmaster and increased its fee revenue. The King's School got $7 million in JobKeeper, despite the fact it is sitting on massive assets. We've had Wesley College also receive substantial JobKeeper from the government. During the pandemic, the government set up a $25 million fund for public schools. Almost all of that has gone unspent. Meanwhile, just three independent schools—Brisbane Grammar School, the King's School and Wesley College—between them took home $25 million in JobKeeper.
Australia's biggest pastoral landholder, AACo, increased its profit fourfold last year, yet got $7 million in JobKeeper. Peter Warren, the car dealer, saw its earnings go up 20 per cent in June 2020, yet still put $14 million in JobKeeper into the boot and drove away. There's the Australian Club in Sydney. They're an elite club that doesn't allow women members. In fact, they just recently voted two to one against allowing women members. Hi, guys, it's 2021! They doubled their surplus last year, yet got $2 million in JobKeeper from the Morrison government. There's the donga maker, Fleetwood, which saw its profits grow 35 per cent last year, yet got $3 million in JobKeeper. Flower seller Lynch Group saw a 13-fold increase in its profits, got $3 million in JobKeeper.
Time doesn't permit me to go through the many other examples of profitable firms that got JobKeeper. The fact is that the government is fighting for secrecy at a time when Gerry Harvey has given us the best reason why we need transparency. This is like one of those game shows with a money booth where you grab as many dollars as you can in 30 seconds. That's what corporate Australia saw under the Morrison government.
The Liberals will come in here and say two things. First, they'll say, 'You voted for it.' The fact is that in mid-2020 they knew that 15 per cent of the money was going to firms with rising revenue, and they did nothing. Second, they'll say it created 700,000 jobs. But how did you create jobs by giving money to firms with rising revenues? Bob Breunig at the Australian National University estimates each full-time, full-year job costs taxpayers $140,000 to $204,000. That's well above the average wage. Joe Aston and Myriam Robin have belled the cat on this, referring to the 'epic leakage' from the JobKeeper program and describing the Treasurer as 'transactional, tactical, erratic, profligate and ultimately empty' and 'lighter than helium'. This is the Financial Review, the nation's financial paper of record, and this is what they are saying about the Treasurer on their back page. Small business people tell me they are shocked by the way in which the Morrison government managed JobKeeper. We can imagine the billionaire shareholders and millionaire CEOs who benefited from JobKeeper saying, 'You only get one Morrison government in your lifetime, and we just got ours.'
At the next election, voters will hold the government to account on their two big failures: their failure on vaccines, the race which stopped a nation; and their failure on the $13 billion of JobKeeper, the waste that stopped a nation. When it comes to taking responsibility, 'Helium Man' and his boss have floated away. Helium Man can't manage money. They can't manage the nation's vaccine rollout. They do not deserve the sacred public trust that comes with public office.
Here we go again. They are just so negative. JobKeeper was a vital lifeline for millions of Australians, and all those opposite are doing now is trying to tear down what was the economic saviour of our nation's economy during the first COVID pandemic wave. Through the JobKeeper scheme, 3.8 million Australians were kept in employment. One million businesses are still alive and employing people because of the scheme. Ninety per cent of these businesses were microbusinesses with a turnover of less than $2 million, and eight per cent of them were small and medium enterprises, yet those opposite pick the very end of the bell curve to make out that the whole program was hopeless. They are such hypocrites. They were in favour of it. The member for Rankin tries to claim credit for it, but now he's here trying to tear it down—for goodness sake! Hypocrisy, thy name is 'over there'. There were 1.3 million people who returned to work within two months. That's how good the program was.
Unemployment after the program dropped to 4.6 per cent, the lowest in over a decade. I think it's been a very good program.
Mr Pitt interjecting—
The member for Hinkler realises that. He's been in business. He knows what businesses have gone through. It was an economic lifeline for the whole nation—and here Labor are, currying favour. What they're not telling you people out there is that up in the Senate they're trying to get the private tax details of 10,000 people disclosed. That is counter to the whole basis of our taxation system. People self-report their tax measures under the tax administration act. As a former barrister, Deputy Speaker Wallace, you understand that privacy provisions in that act are essential for the working of our whole tax system. We have got a great tax system. Asking for documents is just outrageous, and they're trying to make it retrospective. All the COVID economic support packages had in the explanatory memorandum that it was all confidential. In a double whammy, they're going to just retrospectively try and get it away. It's none of the headline-grabbing stuff that they're after; they just want to get into people's tax details. Like I said, 90 per cent were microbusinesses, eight per cent of them were small and medium enterprises—mum-and-dad family businesses: the local publican, the local—
An opposition member interjecting—
My goodness. As well as JobKeeper, we had other programs. That's why we have had these outstanding economic responses. It was projected that our GDP was going to go down by 20 per cent. It was nowhere near that. It was so much better than OECD countries and other countries around the world, and we have got more people in employment. I just checked; we have got 166,000 more people in employment after the pandemic. These next figures will probably be different—I acknowledge that—because the second wave has put a dent in that amazing recovery, but that's why we have put the COVID disaster payment on the line and the business support payments that we're rolling out through the state governments. Through HomeBuilder we had a housing construction boom until this latest shut down. We've had the JobMaker hiring credit getting people off JobSeeker and back into a job.
We have been boosting apprenticeships by $7,000 per quarter so that people can put on new apprentices. We're using them because of the housing construction boom. Having worked in that industry yourself, Deputy Speaker, you'll appreciate that. It takes a while to get the value out of apprentices. Once they've had a couple of years, they are away and they're launched into a job for the rest of their lives. We have had the biggest rise in apprenticeships in this country, off the back of these pandemic measures. On job training, we've got more TAFE and short courses happening around the country.
We've had other things to benefit big companies, small companies and mum-and-dad businesses. We have continued the temporary full expensing provision so that we have eligible depreciable assets turning up in businesses to make them more efficient. We've had the loss carry-back provisions that have also benefitted businesses, and the list goes on.
The outcome is that we have weathered this economic storm very well. By any rational analysis of any other country in the world, we have done really well. We are not saying it's perfect, but when you consider the destruction of economies in Europe, in Britain, in the US, in South America and in Asia, the same thing has happened. When you have a pandemic, all these things happen, and the speed at which we rolled out this program was exceptional. As I said, the member for Rankin is trying to claim credit for it and now he's trying to tear it down. I just don't follow these people. I don't think anyone on this side is going to support retrospectively changing the law and claiming access to 10,000 taxpayers' private tax details. No-one will be supporting this in the suburbs, in the cities, out in the country. These people have no idea. Mum-and-dad businesses, big employers and small employers report their tax details honestly 99 per cent of the time. All these provisions have been looked at by the Australian National Audit Office, and they haven't found any malfeasance.
Those opposite just don't like the idea that big businesses or small businesses are making a profit. Profit is not a dirty word, and, as we have seen, this is a rolling plan to get our economy back on track. The stimulus from the leftover profit will be needed as we come out of this pandemic. We want to get our economy back, we want to get our freedoms back—our freedom of association, our freedom to run businesses—and we have a plan and we're rolling it out. The member for Hinkler is going to have a boom in his electorate, and there will be a boom in Sydney. We have a big economy waiting to go, and the only team in this building that has a plan to get that happening is on this side of the House. I watched Insiders too. The other side has no plan. They just nitpick about negative things. Really, it is a sad state because they like complaining, but they have no plan, as the member for New England pointed out. When I watched Insiders on Sunday, I thought there's going to be a gotcha moment and we'd see that they'd decided to do X, Y or Z. No, that was absent.
JobKeeper was a great program, so was the support for pensioners. All those tax incentives to keep cash flow going were great plans and they delivered a great outcome for the nation. By all accounts there is no way we will be breaking that privacy position. We won't be breaking the laws that have run the tax system. This is just an opportunistic attempt by opposition and crossbench members in the Senate to curry favour because they're trying to politicise the very nature of our tax system, masqueraded as transparency. No, it's an attempt to use private tax information to cherrypick successful businesses and mum-and-dad businesses that have weathered the storm. Businesses across the nation deserve the right to privacy regarding their tax details. None of us on this side will ever break that principle.
Can I say, that was an extraordinary contribution from the minister. 'We will not break the laws.' The problem is you didn't make the laws. The problem here is, if there were ever an example that this government is no good with money, that this government can't manage money, it is that the person who has won the competition is the Treasurer. And it's been a tight competition. We first had the now Deputy Prime Minister have a go with overpriced water, but that only made it to $80 million. We had the minister for communications on Leppington Triangle, but he managed to waste only $33 million there. On sports rorts, the minister gone, now returned, managed to waste $100 million. On car park rorts they thought they'd go harder with $660 million. But then the Treasurer arrived and said, 'That's not a rort; this is a rort!'—$13 billion in JobKeeper overpayments, and the only way they can defend it is to talk about the JobKeeper payments that weren't overpayments. I want to hear one moment when they defend this on the basis of what the objection is, because we haven't opposed wage subsidies; we called for wage subsidies. But we have opposed a rort. We have opposed a situation where a company puts in the paperwork and says, 'Yes, I reckon I'm going to have a 30 per cent cut in turnover,' then their profits go up and they get to keep the money anyway.
We get told, 'You voted for this legislation,'—not so fast. Let's remember what happened last year: this parliament had shell legislation brought before it where every single regulation was to be contained in rules that would be set down later by the Treasurer. Not one rule—not one eligibility rule, not one compliance rule—was part of the legislation that went through the parliament. What we never realised was that there weren't going to be any compliance rules further down the track either. That's what the Treasurer has allowed to happen.
It's not like they won't go after overpayments elsewhere. At the moment, families in lockdown zones are receiving notes from the government saying, 'You didn't estimate your income right, so you've got to start paying back your childcare subsidies.' They didn't make the right estimate, so they have to make the repayment. That's the standard for every Australian family. That's the standard for families in areas like my own currently going through the worst of the pandemic and the worst of the lockdown. But it's a completely different standard if you happen to be a company that had increased profits during the pandemic and increased turnover during the pandemic.
My favourite line from the minister was when he said, 'Those opposite just want to nitpick about negative things.' It was a piece of pure oratory. Do you realise the size of this nit? Do you realise the size of what we are talking about—$13 billion! It's the size of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. We get told, 'That had to be spent to keep people in work,'—no, no, no. The $13 billion went to the companies with increased revenue. Those people were already going to keep their jobs.
We get told, 'This kept the businesses going,'—no, no. If the business was increasing its profit, it was going to survive the pandemic anyway. What the government did was, after the parliament, in good faith, in the middle of the pandemic, say, 'You set the rules; we will give you that power.' They wrote down rules that said, 'Free money for our mates, and no compliance rules at all.' What did you think would happen? What did you think would happen with a system with no compliance? What sort of government is willing to chase down $1.7 billion of robodebt but say, 'It's too hard to ever ask anything of companies.' This exact question was put by Katharine Murphy to the Treasurer: 'Why not make them repay JobKeeper given you claw back debt from welfare recipients?' The Treasurer said, 'It's a false analogy, because one is in accordance with the law; the other is not.' Robodebt was illegal. This should've been against the law, and it was the Treasurer who made sure the loophole was there.
I love following the Member for Watson. He's got a bit of showmanship about him. In some of the workplaces I've come from he'd probably get the nickname 'show bag', but you can't have everything!
I find it incredible—absolutely incredible—that those opposite are ultimately complaining about the success of the Australian economy. They're complaining about the fact that the Australian economy powered through COVID, provided returns for shareholders and helped to keep some 700,000 Australians employed through JobKeeper. What a terrible outcome—seriously!
Who do you think those results go to when it comes to profits for shareholders? We heard them talking about the billionaire shareholders, but there are also those Australians out there who are mum-and-dad shareholders, pensioners or self-funded retirees, who might hold union superannuation funds. They are the ones receiving these returns. In fact, Industry SuperFunds invest in a lot of these big companies.
Seriously, for those opposite to complain about the success of the Australian economy is just absolutely incredible. We have seen them be each way; we have seen them support and not support, we have seen them half-support; and now we see them being selectively supportive—for some but not others. In the midst of the COVID pandemic, there were difficult decisions to be made, and this government made them. There were incredibly tight time frames for things to be delivered, and we delivered them; that is the reality. I will acknowledge that at the time there was support from the opposition, at an incredibly difficult time for our country. The member for Fenner talked about epic leakage. The only epic leakage they need to worry about is the leakage in their primary vote across to the Greens; that's where the epic leakage is! We have a national plan to get the economy back up, to get lockdowns removed, and to ensure we have vaccinations done and that we continue to deliver for the Australian people.
Ninety per cent of JobKeeper recipients were microbusinesses, with turnover under $2 million. I have never been described as a microbusiness before; I was quite proud to get close to $2 million in turnover in a former life! Clearly, that is an incredible amount of individuals who received support from the Commonwealth in their time of need, and that has meant that some 700,000 jobs were saved and that they stayed connected to their employers. This is the reason for this investment.
Treasury's three-month review found that the program was well targeted, would you believe! The payment went to businesses that experienced an average decline in turnover of 37 per cent in April against the same month a year before, compared with a four per cent decline for other businesses. It went to businesses at which the job separation rate had doubled following the introduction of operating restrictions just before JobKeeper was introduced. To sum that up in a very brief way: they needed it. They needed the support to ensure that they remained in business post pandemic. Now we have the national plan, which we are lining up to ensure that that success continues.
The ATO has also said, when it comes to claims from—it's of that little importance that I've actually forgotten the seat the shadow Treasurer comes from!
Rankin—thank you. On the claims the member for Rankin has made about humiliating revelations about sending JobKeeper money to dead people, the ATO responded a day later to say:
The ATO is not aware of any ultimately successful claim for deceased or other fictitious employees.
The ATO is pretty hard to get on with usually, I've got to say. But, quite simply, they're right. This was an important program which was necessary for the success of the country as we drove through a very difficult period. We know there was a worldwide pandemic. We know it impacted economies around the world. We know that Australia has come through as the shining light as to how to manage this outbreak, keep our people employed and keep our people safe.
If we hadn't done this, all of the things we're doing—including things in my portfolio like the extension of the Exploring for the Future program, with $125 million; and $100 million for the Junior Minerals Exploration Incentive—would have been pointless because these employees and these jobs would not have been there. You can't deliver these programs without support from business. You can't deliver the outcomes they are delivering unless there are employees and businesses that are profitable businesses. It was an important part of what we did during the outbreak, and I am absolutely supportive of the decisions we made around JobKeeper. It helped to keep our country strong, and in my own portfolio it meant that the resources sector delivered record exports of some $310 billion and more than 38,000 extra direct jobs in this country.
[by video link] The wage subsidy, given the catchy name of 'JobKeeper' by our marketing Prime Minister, was of course a very important support measure for many businesses and workers last year; there has never been any doubt about that. But it was also massively expensive, and it's likely to be around $90 billion, making it the largest single one-off scheme the Australian government has ever run. You would think it would be commonly accepted that the public are entitled to expect that that $90 billion of public money is spent appropriately. Surely the public are entitled to expect that the government would have the same high standards of accountability for all recipients of public money, be they citizens, workers or large corporate businesses. Or so you'd think—wouldn't you?
Let's engage in an exercise of compare and contrast to see what the reality really is. Compare: according to an analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Office, from April to June last year, $12.5 billion in JobKeeper payments was paid to entities which didn't meet the shortfalls they themselves forecast to qualify for the scheme. Over the first six months of the scheme, $13 billion was paid to businesses which had increased revenue—not the ones that the ministers on the other side of the chamber have been talking about who needed the money to keep their workers employed, but businesses who increased their revenue.
Contrast: the Prime Minister has described calls for these big-profiting businesses and corporations to pay back their windfall taxpayer-funded profits as 'the politics of envy'. Seriously, 'the politics of envy'! I know he meant that as an insult; he is good at insults. But there is some truth in his statement—the truth that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer seem determined to ignore. The truth is that there are more than 11,000 people across Australia who are full of envy that the Morrison government is content to stand by while corporations pocket massive profits of $13 billion. These 11,000 ordinary people have been issued a debt letter by the Morrison government, which is clawing back a grand total of $32 million of JobKeeper that these citizens were apparently overpaid. Denise, from my community of Frankston, sent me this email: 'Dear Peta, I'm on a payment plan with Centrelink as I owe them $1,000 due to being overpaid from JobKeeper. I'm on a disability support pension and was working in a disability day service. It's not fair at all that businesses don't have to pay back what they owe.' Denise is happy to pay back money she was overpaid, but she thinks it's only fair that everyone who was overpaid should also have to, including big businesses.
Compare and contrast: the government has written to 11,000 people, telling them to pay back money, but it is yet to write a single letter to its mates in big business about the overpayments they received. I recently asked in this parliament why companies weren't being forced to repay a single cent, while age pensioners like Jan from my electorate, who lives in Frankston and received JobKeeper, is being made to pay it back. The Treasurer said: 'Oh well, people knew their obligations. Welfare recipients in particular had an obligation to report JobKeeper as ordinary income.' The people that the Treasurer so casually dismisses as 'welfare recipients' are age pensioners, disability pensioners, single parent pensioners and people whose jobs disappeared with COVID. They are decent, hardworking Australians. They are people like Jess, in my electorate, who did fulfil her obligation to report JobKeeper as ordinary income but is now paying back $2,300 to the government. Let me tell you about Jess in her own words: 'I'm a single mother in Frankston with a background in acting. Acting work has been scarce, so I've been working part time, casually, as a drama teacher. The last 18 months have been hard, like it has been for most people. We're in lockdown again. My company's policy that I work for is to cancel online classes and refund payments if lockdown goes for three weeks or more. I don't get JobKeeper, because it doesn't exist. I've got three children at home. We're barely scraping by. Bills are going unpaid and stress is going through the roof. To make matters worse, I've received notice of three debts from JobKeeper overpayments last year, even though I declared my JobKeeper income every fortnight and was told I was allowed to claim a part-payment of JobSeeker.' Jess did everything right and this government is making her pay it back. Why don't businesses have to pay their $13 billion of profits back? (Time expired)
I'm not sure everybody in the chamber here today will recall the day JobKeeper was passed through this parliament. I actually do. I was one of the few who was here, in a not dissimilar context to the one we are presented with now. Many of us came up from different parts of the country or across from different parts of the country. If I were to describe the mood, it was tense, not just in this chamber but of course across the nation, because we were staring into the abyss—the unknown. We saw people being locked up in their homes in places like China. We saw people being in lockdown, in a way that we had not experienced at that point, in places like Milan. And what hovered across the nation was a sense of fear about the unknown and where we were to go next.
I remember the emergency support packages that were introduced into this chamber. Frankly, many of them raised deep philosophical questions for me, and I make no apology for that. Some people have made a virtue of deferring ideology at the point of crisis and, certainly, there was a need to reassure the Australian people at that challenging and difficult time. I remember the debate in this chamber and the mode that appeared at that time. I remember that the measures came in and the Labor Party of course were contorted about them. I had my own ideological conversations about what was necessary, but I want to make absolutely clear that I supported the legislation as the appropriate and right thing to do because of the moment we were in.
But I remember the contortions that the Labor Party had at the time over that legislation and whether they could support it. I'm going to bring people into a history lesson: it had nothing to do with JobKeeper. I remember it very clearly, in fact, because they argue that they put the idea of a wage subsidy up before the government did. Their contortion was over another section of the legislation—one which I will make crystal clear I agreed with. It was the introduction of the early release of superannuation. Actively in crisis, they couldn't decide whether they were prepared to allow Australians and their families, in a moment of crisis, to access their own money.
I just heard it there from one of the members opposite. They said that this was basically going to be the end of the superannuation system and retirement savings—because we dared, in a moment of crisis, to allow people to access their own superannuation to do things like pay off their mortgage, put food on the table and support their children and loved ones. They thought it was morally wrong. We all know deep down—
An opposition member interjecting—
Go back and check the speech! I remember when those speeches were given at the time. Such was their obsession with stopping Australians being able to access their own money that some of us went back and read their speeches, and tabulated how many times speeches actively attacked the early release of superannuation. And guess how many members on the Labor Party benches opposed the early access of superannuation in that legislation? I'll give you a guess, Deputy Speaker Wallace: in a choice between zero and 100 per cent I can tell you that it doesn't sit anywhere near the zero per cent. It doesn't sit anywhere near the 50 per cent. It doesn't even get towards the part where most people would say it was a 'consensus position' of over three-quarters. It was 100 per cent, because when it came to the legislation introduced in this place, the choice they made and what they spoke out against—what they wanted to see corrected in that legislation—wasn't the measures related to JobKeeper. It was, 'How do we suffocate Australians from their own finances and their own money?' What they wanted to do was to protect the interests of their mates in the superannuation sector.
And now we know why. Under the 'your future' legislation that was introduced and passed through this parliament, which they also opposed, a pathway was provided to make sure that Australians' money wasn't wasted on things like giant donations to the Australian Council of Trade Unions. They know it, I know it and that's their objective. (Time expired)
[by video link] JobKeeper is a good policy that was implemented badly. The positive impact of a national wage subsidy was never in doubt on this side of the House. It's why we proposed it and why, in the national interest, we continued to urge the government to implement it, despite the Prime Minister dismissing it as a very dangerous idea. But we never backed JobKeeper being abused. It became clear pretty early on that businesses were pocketing public money that they did not need.
Gaining access to the public purse was pretty easy. Businesses just had to predict a downturn in revenue as a result of the pandemic. Fair enough—the money had to get out the door pretty quickly and nobody wanted it bogged down in red tape. But the government never thought to include a clause to pay back the money if the predictions of a downturn never eventuated. The result is that $13 billion of public money has been paid to businesses whose profits went up. Their profits increased over the year, and there's no mechanism that compels those businesses to repay that money. Businesses who never predicted a downturn got nothing. So there are businesses out there that did the right thing—they never put in a prediction that their revenue would go down—but there is no JobKeeper money for them. In a competitive environment, they are at a disadvantage. Make no mistake, this is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, and most expensive policy blunders in this nation's history, and Treasurer Frydenberg has his fingers all over it.
Labor supported and continues to support JobKeeper. A cursory glance of the record shows we have always said that it was cut far too early, and the tragic events across New South Wales and Victoria demonstrate that we were right. JobKeeper should never have been cut when it was. It ended too early.
The Treasurer had the power to close the loophole. He always had that power. He could have simply inserted a requirement that money be repaid if predictions of poor revenue never eventuated. He chose not to act. He made a deliberate choice to transfer $13 billion from the public purse to corporate Australia. The Treasurer has fought every attempt to shed light on this financial fiasco, and I would like to pay tribute to my colleague the member for Fenner, who has led the charge on this issue—relentlessly exposing at every opportunity the magnitude of the Treasurer's failure.
Thirteen billion dollars: that's 413 million Pfizer vaccines. That could build 688 primary schools or 29,000 homes during a housing crisis, or it could fund 32½ thousand quarantine facility places. That is the cost of this failure, because every dollar spent on one thing is a dollar that can't be spent on something else. When you give $13 billion to profitable businesses, that's $13 billion that's not available for other things and that then becomes a question of priorities.
What is only too clear is that this government have the wrong priorities. The Liberals have absolutely junked the traditional Australian values of fairness and good governance in order to pursue a radical, American-style agenda, an agenda that gives public money—rare, precious, sacred public money—to millionaires and billionaires whilst squeezing the poor for every cent. Pensioners on Centrelink have to repay every cent of overpayment whilst CEOs can keep the millions they never needed. And the Treasurer's excuse? Overclaiming Centrelink is illegal, but businesses overclaiming JobKeeper isn't illegal. But it's only legal because the Treasurer failed to fix the law. Businesses should pay it back—they must pay it back—but they don't have to, because the Treasurer failed to do his job.
It shouldn't matter whether it's Centrelink or JobKeeper, the principles should be the same for every Australian. Whether you're a pensioner, the president of a board or the president of a company, the same rules should apply. We have means-tested income support in this country. Companies that didn't need the money should pay it back. The Treasurer has failed his job by failing to make sure they do pay it back. I call upon the leaders of businesses in Australia to do the right thing by the country and pay the money back.
To those listening out there today: what you're hearing is further evidence of an each-way opposition. We've got an each-way Leader of the Opposition, but this is evidence of an each-way opposition. In 2020 they supported JobKeeper. They march in here in 2021 and they don't support JobKeeper. If the opposition were at the racetrack, they would approach the bookie, look at the board and say, 'I'll have 10 bucks on JobKeeper and I'll have 10 bucks on no JobKeeper.' The bookie would take their money, quite frankly, and it is a quintessentially ridiculous thing to do, but that's what we have.
The other thing that people out there listening to this broadcast can take from this is that, if you were one of the one million small and medium enterprises—businesses—in Australia who took the benefit of JobKeeper and it assisted you with surviving the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, they're not for you. If you are one of the 3.8 million employees who got the benefit of JobKeeper—who, quite frankly, kept their job, kept their connection with their employer because of JobKeeper—they're not for you. What you always have to do with this opposition is look at what they do. Don't listen to what they say.
I was thinking about this, and my mind turned to that Aussie folk rock band Weddings Parties Anything. I was thinking it reminded me of that tune 'Monday's Experts'. Nobody likes a Monday expert. But let me give you some lyrics from that tune. It was off their King Tide album of 1993:
Always know what's best
Always tell you what you should've done
Always know what's cooking
How the game was lost and how it could've been won
Well I see them up the shops; I see them down the street …
And when I go up the Pub it's nearly everyone I meet
They're saying I should've done this or I should've done that
But by the time they're finished talking well my beer's are getting flat
Ladies and gentlemen, the beer is flat. Those opposite don't get it. Everyone is an expert in this town on Mondays. Everyone on that side of the chamber is an expert on Mondays. The lyrics go on:
Talking in the tea room
In the worshop and the office talking all around the place
Hey they've always got the good oil
Pity you can't put a bet on at the finish of the race
That's the point here. We were facing, as a nation, unprecedented economic conditions. Treasury was estimating unemployment to reach 15 per cent and, if we had not moved quickly, those opposite, operating their well-known modus operandi of taking a bet each way, would have rushed into this place and said, 'The government isn't acting fast enough.' In fact, they were making that call at the time. The then Deputy Prime Minister knows this well; I expect he was sitting down rationally with the Prime Minister and the leadership team and working on this project. But those opposite were like: 'Don't worry about it. We'll have one position today and then, almost as if we can own the 'Monday's Experts' example, we'll have another position later on.' But that's not leadership. You don't get to make decisions 12 months later. You have to make decisions at the time.
And so it caused me to think further: 'What's this about? Why is the member for Fenner so focused on this?' We know what that answer is. The answer is this is an opportunity to unlock those private details of those 10,000 or so businesses who, let's be clear, complied with the law and accessed this payment, keeping employees connected to their business. So my message to everyone listening, aside from the fact that you have effectively got an opposition in Canberra that does one thing today and then makes another decision tomorrow, is that, if they are prepared to seek to access your private, confidential information from a position of opposition today, what would they do if they were ever given the great privilege of governing this country?
I think the member for Barker, rather than letting that beer go cold, has been knocking back a few, because he's rewriting a history that this place saw, and that history was Labor pushing with the unions for a JobKeeper-style program, a wage subsidy that would keep the connection between the workers and their employers. We were not behind but way ahead of the government in its thinking. What we got when the government finally went, 'Oh my goodness, there are queues at Centrelink; we'd better do something'—because what they'd done, as usual, was not enough—was that they rushed legislation into this place. I think it says something about us that we trusted this government. We should have known better. I know. I apologise. I am very happy to say: 'We made a mistake in thinking that those opposite would do the right thing. We made a mistake in trusting that they would do what they said that they would do. We acted in good faith.' I have had people say to me: 'How could you have supported something that allowed companies that did not need JobKeeper to take $13 billion of taxpayer funds and never have to repay it? How could you have let that happen?' But of course we trusted them to do the right thing. What a mistake that has been for the taxpayers—that any trust was placed in this government to do anything that might be a good, sensible spend of taxpayer funds.
All the regulations and the rules were to be made once the legislation went through. We didn't want to delay legislation that would get money in the pockets of small businesses and employers who were looking at putting workers off. We didn't want to delay that a moment. Those opposite came up with a piece of legislation with no compliance rules and said, 'It's okay; we're going to look after it.' Well, we've certainly learnt our lesson and we will not be trusting this government. No-one should trust this government with sensible spending of taxpayer dollars. There have been so many rorts.
I still am staggered. I ran a business for 25 years and I grew up in my dad's shop, so I've been around business all my life—my dad was an accountant originally. Fancy someone not taking a moment in the rush to get this money out the door—and getting the money out the door was a good thing to do—and saying: 'Hang on; what if they turn out not to need it? What happens then?' That would have taken just a moment's thought, and we wouldn't be talking about $13 billion. That is the same amount we spend on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. That is $13 billion that could right now be supporting the businesses in my community who not only missed out last time but are missing out this time.
What is also staggering about a government that talks a lot about how it likes small business is that it does very little to demonstrate that it cares one iota about small business. What they've done in this latest lockdown sums it up for me, because they've said: 'What happens to small business is not our responsibility. It's the states'. It's hands off from us. Small businesses are on their own.' That's what they've done. That's why small businesses in New South Wales have been stuck with a mishmash of assistance, where there are multiple gaps for them to fall through.
It builds on the failures of the JobKeeper scheme last year, because sometimes it's the same people who are missing out. Those people look at the $13 billion and they see how obscene it is that companies that did not need this money are not required to give it back and, not only that, they're not even properly asked by the government to give it back. There is not even a statement of, 'Hey, mate, do the right thing.' Gerry Harvey has today been shamed into returning money. It shouldn't come to that. This should be something where the government says: 'We made a mistake. We didn't put the rules in place for good governance that should have been there.' I don't think this was an intentional rort. There are plenty of those on the other side, where they are intentionally ripping off people. I think this was just—it's not parliamentary to say it the way I'd like to say it—an error or a stuff-up, and that's what we're facing the consequences of: incompetence.
I find it amazing standing here and listening to the other side. Listening to them, sometimes they support JobKeeper and then they're against it, then they support it and then they're against it. I am confused about what they stand for. As we know, JobKeeper has been the largest economic lifeline in Australia's history. In its first phase, it supported over one million businesses and over 3.8 million jobs. Without JobKeeper and other measures to support our economy, Treasury estimates the unemployment rate would have been five percentage points higher. According to the Reserve Bank, the Morrison government's actions to support the economy have saved 700,000 jobs. And yet Labor is obsessed with attacking JobKeeper—but sometimes they support it! It's really confusing.
Earlier this month, the member for Ballarat even called the program a waste. Only the Labor Party could contend that a program that saved 700,000 Australian jobs was a waste. Meanwhile, the shadow Treasurer has been spreading lies that JobKeeper funds were sent to dead people. This has been continuously refuted, with the ATO saying that—
Well, let's continue with this. The ATO says that they were not aware of any ultimately successful claim for deceased or other fictitious employees. But that's just like Labor, isn't it? They are not going to be happy with it, but never mind. They never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Don't let the truth that JobKeeper has received nearly universal praise get in the way of your political attacks.
Don't take my word for it. What about the words of the Governor of the Reserve Bank? He said that JobKeeper had done a 'remarkable job' at 'keeping people in jobs'. Now, what about business across the country? The Business Council of Australia commended the government for JobKeeper, saying that the program would 'make sure Australia is ready to rebuild quickly once this challenge passes.' Meanwhile, major Australian employer Cotton On Group said JobKeeper kept the company going through 2020. Let's not forget the Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus, who called JobKeeper a 'historic win for working people' and actually asked for its reintroduction earlier this year. That's right, even the unions are full of praise for JobKeeper.
Ninety per cent of JobKeeper recipients were microbusinesses with a turnover of under $2 million and eight per cent of recipients were small- or medium-sized enterprises, and Labor is now going after them. Instead of trying to help small businesses during a national crisis, Labor are trying to force the ATO to release their private and confidential information. These aren't big businesses that Labor is targeting. Big businesses already have to make disclosures as part of their obligations to the ASX. These are small businesses and ordinary, hardworking Australians who are bearing the brunt of Labor's political attacks. So I call on Labor to stop its political attacks and call off its war on Australian small businesses.