Monday, 22 February 2021
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Today the Leader of the Government in the Senate was asked a very simple question: when JobKeeper ends at the end of March, how many people will lose their jobs? It was a straightforward question—direct, simple—but, of course, there were no direct or simple answers to that question. In fact, what we received today was a proposition from the government that simply said they had to make choices, priorities had to be set, because there was a limit on the amount of money that the government had available. They said there was no bottomless pit of taxpayers' money available, that it was borrowed money and—as Senator Hughes, I think, rightfully pointed out—not all people in this country have been treated equally, because not all people in this country have been able to deal with the economic crisis in equal measure.
I found that an interesting proposition, given that the JobKeeper program had promised so much but delivered so little, particularly when we consider the number of companies that have accepted public money and, I would suggest, in so doing have a moral obligation to use that money properly. When it comes to the question of priorities, there would be a great deal more money available if the government had provided much sharper attention to the issue of where that money was actually being spent, including on companies such as Premier Investments, the firm controlled by one of Australia's richest men, which shut down many of its stores as the pandemic took hold. They included outlets such as Just Jeans, Dotti, Portmans and Smiggle. The company received $40 million in JobKeeper. They earned bigger profits in 2020 than they did in 2019. Their shareholders received some $57 million in dividends, and some $20 million went to Mr Lew. CEO Mark McInnes received $2.5 million. The revival of the company's fortunes is of course a good thing it will be argued. But did Premier Investments repay any of the JobKeeper money? The answer is no.
The Business Council says that companies receiving JobKeeper funds should not pay executive bonuses. Some firms acted ethically. Toyota and Super Retail Group, for example, repaid $18 million and $1.7 million respectively. They had no legal obligation to do so. There was no request from the government to do so, no concern about the moral obligation they had to do so, no sense of political or moral priority. Yet the government talks about not having enough money to deal with those people in this country who have been suffering, and continue to suffer, as a result of the pandemic and as a result of the continuing economic crisis. There's no way that this government is the slightest bit interested in Premier Investments! JobKeeper assistance was provided by the millions and was paid in dividends to those shareholders who increased their profits.
Of course, we have the situation of Mr James Packer's Crown casino. Today I read an article in the press—and the minister talked about press articles today—where the universities were contrasted, by Ross Garnaut, with the operations of our casinos. Mr Ross Garnaut points out: 'Few would doubt their'—universities'—'superiority over casinos in terms of their national contribution.' He said Crown employed 15,000 people and universities employed 130,000 people directly and hundreds of thousands more indirectly. Who of course got the money? Crown. Was assistance open to the universities of this country? No, not unless they were private universities. Four private universities—Notre Dame, Bond, Torrens and the University of Divinity—got money, but not the public universities of this country.
What does this tell us about the government's priorities? It tells us an enormous amount when a government that talks about not having enough money to help people who are suffering, people who have been facing an acute economic crisis and continue to do so—particularly when the government withdraws support from those Australians at the end of March—has the resources to do so but is choosing to spend that money on its mates, on those political priorities aimed at helping those that don't— (Time expired)