Thursday, 12 August 2021
JobKeeper Payment; Tabling
That the Senate take note of the document.
The Senate has asked the tax commissioner to provide information about companies that received JobKeeper, asking for some very simple information: which companies received JobKeeper, how much they received in total, and whether or not money has been paid back. This information is not company operational information. It's not company tax information. It's information about what the taxpayer gave to a company. That's what the information is about. It's no different to a grant that might be given to a company, and we would expect complete transparency about any grant money that we give to a company. Likewise, for any contract that we have with a company, we would expect transparency, and the information would be published on AusTender.
The commissioner claims that this information is sensitive. I will give the commissioner credit; unlike in past responses, he actually acknowledges that the Senate has the power to require the production of these documents, but he then advances a public interest immunity claim. The basis upon which he does so is on two fronts. He makes a claim that the information is sensitive, and it is not. It cannot be sensitive. He also makes a claim that, if it were released somehow, it would undermine the tax system and we would have people no longer wanting to talk to the tax office. And both of those reasons fail, because we know that in New Zealand this information has been published. In New Zealand, this information has been published for every company and, as a result of that publication and as a result of that transparency, they have seen five per cent of the total amount of their wage subsidy returned to the government—as opposed to here in Australia where we have only had 0.25 per cent of JobKeeper payments returned from companies.
We know that there are companies out there who have taken this money and who had made an assessment that they were going to have a turnover of either 30 or 50 per cent less than what they had in the previous reporting periods for previous years. That appears to be the only requirement. In fact, the government introduced the scheme and—we are in the middle of a pandemic—it was appropriate to get money to people quickly. But that's no excuse for now looking back and saying: 'There are companies that took the JobKeeper payment, then went on to make bigger profits and paid money to their investors and to their executives. We funnelled taxpayers' money from the wallets of Australians into the bank accounts of investors and executives.' That was not what that money was intended for. It was never intended for that. We have to do something about this. We've seen the experience in New Zealand. When they disclosed this information, companies looked very closely at what happened and they have returned a lot more, in terms of percentage values, back to the New Zealand taxpayer. That's what I think we need to have happen here.
We can't have a situation where Gerry Harvey has received $22 million of taxpayers' money through the JobKeeper scheme, has made record profits and is out buying advertisements on the Australian taxpayer's coin. That's just not right, and it disturbs me. Every time the government stand up and try to defend what has happened, they take a very strict legal perspective. I accept the government's legal perspective. I'm not suggesting any of the companies have broken any laws, but they have breached the moral trust of Australians, and it's our job to make sure that we stand up and highlight exactly what has happened and encourage the government to have this money returned, to signal to these companies that it isn't acceptable. Right now, every time this is mentioned in the chamber, Senator Birmingham rises and says: 'It's okay. It was great that these companies got that money.'
I am not verballing the minister at all. He has stood at the table in the Senate and said that this is a good thing, that this money became a stimulus package. That is not what it was intended for. It was never intended for that. The minister tries to rewrite history. We can go back to the Hansard and we can see what he said. We can see what the government said when they introduced JobKeeper, and they definitely didn't say at the time that this money was for stimulating the economy, for executive bonuses or for investors. That's not what was said back when the JobKeeper scheme was presented to this parliament. It's not appropriate to rewrite history and suggest that that is what it was for. This parliament would never have agreed to that.
We were cognisant that there were companies in difficulty and we needed to help them. I have nothing adverse to say about companies who took that help and used it to make sure that they could retain their business and they could retain their employees. I have no gripes about that at all, only about circumstances where companies took the money and made larger profits. At that point, the CEOs and the directors of these companies ought to have been saying: 'What is the right thing for my company to do? Should I keep this taxpayer money, which was given to me for a purpose for which I haven't used it, or should I return it?'
That is the point of the transparency measure proposed through the order for the production of documents—to lay out on the table who got what. Other people can then look at it, and companies may have to answer for their own conduct. I don't think anyone is going to go after companies that really did struggle. We know which companies struggled through the pandemic, and we know which companies thrived. Transparency is like this: you turn on the lights and you see the cockroaches scurry across the floor. That's what it's about. Hopefully, we squash a few of them. It is not okay for the government to simply stand up and say it was okay to take this money. It's not okay for the government to try and hide this information when, in actual fact, it is not company information at all. It is simply the amount of taxpayer money that was provided to a company, and taxpayers have a right to know about that.
Go and have a look at the New Zealand site. You can type in any company name. It doesn't matter whether it's the newsagent down the road, a printing company, a medical company or a travel company—it doesn't matter. You can type in 'Qantas'. You can type in 'Air New Zealand'. You can see how much of their equivalent of JobKeeper was received by those companies. It hasn't blown up the New Zealand tax system, it hasn't harmed the companies, but it has made sure that taxpayers' money has been spent wisely and it has encouraged companies in New Zealand to return the money. I just don't see, for the life of me, how the government thinks it is reasonable to shut the doors on this—to shut the doors on money the taxpayer paid to these companies.
It's taxpayers' money. It's not the money the company earned through its business operations. It's not the amount of profit they made. It's not the amount of tax that was returned to them as a result of a tax submission. It's simply the amount of money that taxpayers provided to these companies for help. It's not unreasonable to disclose that. I don't accept the public interest immunity claim advanced by the tax commissioner. I already have a notice of motion lodged in relation to this. I will be asking the Senate to insist upon the OPD being complied with. Beyond that, let's hope the commissioner follows the process. I don't criticise him at this point in time. He has advanced his public interest immunity claim. I hope the Senate backs the rejection of that. If that occurs, I will use everything possible to make sure that the Senate order is enforced.
Question agreed to.