Thursday, 2 September 2021
Treasury Laws Amendment (2021 Measures No. 2) Bill 2021; In Committee
I rise to contribute briefly to this debate. I did make a contribution last night about these amendments to the Treasury Laws Amendment (2021 Measures No. 2) Bill 2021, but I want to put Labor's position very firmly on the record, particularly given the unreasonable partisan and inaccurate characterisation of Labor's position by Senator McKim just now. Of course, Labor has led the public campaign around JobKeeper and transparency, and I commend the work of my colleague Andrew Leigh in the other place, who has assiduously documented the organisations that have received JobKeeper and whose profitability and turnover in fact increased rather than decreased during the pandemic. In the early months of JobKeeper, 15 per cent of the money went to firms that had rising earnings. These firms then received about $13 billion across the whole program. It is an eye-watering number, and it's why Labor led that debate about JobKeeper misuse, pointing to firms such as Accent Group, AP Eagers and Best & Less as well as the men's-only Australian Club and the Kings School, all of whom got JobKeeper despite increasing their earnings. Now, some companies have repaid, with repayments totalling $225 million. That's a big number, isn't it? But it's not nearly as big as $13 billion—$13 billion of waste that this government has been happy to just overlook and ignore.
In New Zealand they're committed to transparency around these issues. They've had an online register listing all recipients of their wage subsidy scheme, and around five per cent has been repaid. That is almost certainly a result of having greater transparency. That is what transparency produces and it's why in this dimension and others, including around tax policy, we argue consistently for much greater transparency. Proposing a transparency register for the JobKeeper program is responsible from a policy and a governance stance.
Transparency is not something that has ever been a priority for this government, which slips and slides away from accountability whenever it is provided an opportunity to do so. On this occasion, they are trying to hide historical amounts of waste and gross mismanagement of public money. That's the real problem. The government do not want Australians to see how badly they have steered the JobKeeper ship. Look at a firm like Best&Less, who told investors that this was a one-off sugar hit from JobKeeper that was never to be repeated. That's the sort of example you don't need. That's the sort of failure in policy design that you'd think a government might be interested in. But, instead of confronting the problems, instead of confronting the waste, instead of confronting their own mistakes and owning up to them with the community, the government's approach, as always, is to try and hide it.
Look at a car sector firm like AP Eagers—$130 million in JobKeeper despite an increase in their profits. We want to see government providing transparency because with greater accountability comes better public behaviour. Public firms have made the lion's share of JobKeeper repayments. Yes—$225 million was paid back by 25 companies, and almost all of that was by public firms because of the scrutiny that came as a result of listed entities being required to disclose JobKeeper. From the unlisted firms, we're only getting dribs and drabs. And that is the problem, isn't it? It's the problem with the amendments that are before us, because they only deal with the companies that are already required to disclose the amount of JobKeeper that they have already received.
Senator McKim has sought to mischaracterise Labor's position on this. When this matter was last debated in this place, we supported an amendment for JobKeeper transparency. That's consistent with the public approach and it's consistent with the campaign run by Andrew Leigh, my colleague, but this government, so scared of transparency, were willing to play chicken with the resources that are so desperately needed to support the economy right now for Australian businesses and families. They threatened to hold up that bill—threatened the Australian public by saying that, if the Senate insisted on the amendment, then they would be willing, in an act of vindictive cowardice, to delay rolling out money altogether for the community. That's not a risk that Labor are willing to take, because we know that this is an immensely difficult time for businesses all around the country affected by the lockdowns that are a direct consequence of this government's failure in managing the pandemic. It was a difficult choice but a responsible choice made by Labor to prioritise support for the economy, but we said that, at the first opportunity, we would seek to introduce the amendment again, and this Senate should continue to introduce amendments to drive transparency. People paying attention to this debate will not be fooled by silly partisan contributions, like the one made by Senator McKim, which seek to make some electoral point for the Greens at the expense of Labor, neglecting the fact that it is, in fact, the Labor Party that has driven this campaign in the public domain.
Later today, I imagine we will hear from Senator Patrick, who is moving a far more comprehensive amendment that goes to the transparency of JobKeeper, and we support that approach. In fact, the amendment to be moved by Senator Patrick is the same as the amendment submitted by me. As I outlined last night, we have gone through a sorry saga where One Nation said initially that they support this approach. Then they said: 'Oh, it's moved by Labor. We don't support it because Labor hurt our feelings recently'—a novel confession that their approach in this chamber is driven by childish emotions rather than an assessment of the policy proposition, but there you go.
Now we find ourselves with One Nation and an entirely different proposition again—one which will assist businesses around the country to conceal their receipts from JobKeeper, and it puts the lie to the assertion from One Nation that they're on the side of the battlers. How can it possibly be on the side of the battlers when it supports and props up this government in concealing waste and mismanagement? It doesn't sound like something that battlers would be interested in to me. It doesn't sound like something the people of Queensland would be interested in to me. I think One Nation should explain why it is that it's supporting such a limited, ineffective, redundant approach to transparency when a much more comprehensive option is on the table.