Thursday, 2 September 2021
Treasury Laws Amendment (2021 Measures No. 2) Bill 2021; In Committee
[by video link] These amendments confirm that One Nation are nothing more than lapdogs to the government. Three weeks ago this Senate had the government on the ropes with its JobKeeper rorts. We had a government bill to give the Treasurer a new round of powers to make COVID support payments and the Senate supported amendments moved by Senator Patrick requiring that a public register of who got JobKeeper be established. The Senate had clearly said to the government, 'If you want the parliament to give you more powers to give out more money then we want a little bit of transparency in return.'
We collectively sent an amended bill to the House. The government then rejected those amendments and we had a stand-off, so collectively we had to answer the question: do we insist or do we fold? The Australian Greens were up for insisting and at that time the entirety of the crossbench were up for insisting, but then, unfortunately, the Labor Party went to water like a dog on a hot day. The bill came back to the Senate and the Australian Labor Party folded, as they so often do.
Now here we are again with a new round of amendments to a different government bill, and it is One Nation who have folded this time. Worse than that, they are actually providing cover for the government. Their amendments would require the reporting of details of JobKeeper payments by only public listed companies. This is next to useless because we already have that information because publicly listed companies report that information. For the benefit of Senator Roberts, that's what being a publicly listed company actually involves.
Ownership Matters have done some work on this overnight. By their account, while ASX 300 companies certainly got a lot of JobKeeper—around $2.5 billion—that accounts for less than five per cent of the total of around $90 billion in JobKeeper payments. With One Nation's amendments, we won't even know about the other 95 per cent. Any JobKeeper payments made to private companies, for example, or any other entities not listed in Australia will remain secret. Payments made to private schools will remain secret. Payments made to companies owned by foreign governments—including the CCP, which One Nation claim to be so worried about—will remain secret. Payments made to companies domiciled in tax havens will remain secret. We will find out next to nothing that we didn't already know.
What One Nation's amendments actually do is provide a significant amount of cover and a massive escape hatch for the government. Just as public pressure on the JobKeeper rorts starts mounting to unsustainable levels, in steps One Nation to help out their mates in the Liberal Party. We've got more reports from the ABC this morning showing that at least $6 billion in JobKeeper payments went to companies that increased their turnover in both the June and the September quarters of last year. But, thanks to One Nation's stitch-up with the government, we won't ever find out who the majority of those companies are. We won't know who has profited so massively at the expense of the Australian public. We won't know which mates of this government lined their pockets in one of the biggest financial rorts this country has ever seen, as Australia's biggest support package became Australia's most rorted support package. And we won't know because Labor failed to insist on amendments when we had the government on the ropes last week and because One Nation have stepped up and shown they are patsies to the government in helping the government out of this massively increasing public pressure that is coming to bear on the JobKeeper rorts.
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.
[by video link] I have spoken on this, but I want to just make a quick comment about partisan statements being made around the chamber. I do acknowledge the work that Andrew Leigh has been doing on this, and I do believe the Labor Party are concerned about this. I think they made a tactical blunder when they backed down on the insistence, but I don't doubt their commitment related to this issue.
I am also very surprised that One Nation are not supporting it. They have brought transparency measures to the chamber before which I and others have supported. This seems very much at odds with some of their past conduct. This JobKeeper rorting—and that's what it has been—means companies have taken advantage of the goodwill and the lack of prudential safeguards from the Treasurer to basically loot money from the taxpayer. There's a saying that the thing that people who operate in dark places fear the most is light. That's what we're trying to do in relation to this—shine a little bit of light on exactly what is going on here.
I won't go into private conversations, but Senator Hanson did indicate she was going to support this. She did call me later to say that she was proposing an amendment, so she was upfront with me. I didn't see the amendment until just prior to this bill being debated. I think it is a dud amendment. It basically requires disclosure where disclosure is already required in relation to publicly listed companies.
I would like to, through you, Chair—and I know that Senator Roberts has indulged me in the past in relation to this—ask a couple of questions of Senator Roberts about his amendment. The first one goes to the fact that this amendment doesn't include foreign owned subsidiaries. I point to an article in the AFR by Michael Roddan on 3 August that talks about Consolidated Minerals booking $1.8 million in JobKeeper, with no loss in profit. It's a company that's well known for transfer pricing back to its Chinese owned parents through a tax haven. I just wonder why it is that One Nation has decided to exclude foreign subsidiaries—that is, companies that are operating in Australia with an ABN but are a subsidiary of a foreign company and are not listed on the Australian stock market—from this disclosure requirement. I would be grateful if Senator Roberts could answer that question.
[by video link] I would be delighted to answer that question and any others that Senator Patrick has. I'll put that in context. Do we want showmanship or substance in the Senate? Parliament, for many people in our country, has lost relevance. People laugh at Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals in particular because there's just a failure to have accountability. What we want to do is look at something substantive and significant, not just shame people indiscriminately. One Nation, like its leader, Pauline Hanson, has strength of character. We can admit when we make an error. We also value strong debate within our own party room. A staffer raised an issue with Senator Patrick's amendment which led to a lot of debate within our party room. What we realised is that Senator Patrick's amendment is not a transparency measure at all. It is a dud and it will do damage, potentially. I would like to explain why, and then I'll get to Senator Patrick's question.
Senator Patrick seeks to require the Commissioner of Taxation to publish JobKeeper payment information for entities with a turnover greater than $10 million. Note the restriction there: $10 million. So Senator Patrick is admitting there is some need for some restrictions. The proposal is said to be a transparency measure in that it is intended to allow taxpayers to see what has happened to the $90 billion spent on the JobKeeper program in the hope that the information will lead to some form of government or recipient accountability.
One Nation wants the government to be held accountable for money wasted through the poor design of the JobKeeper program—something that the parliament signed off on. We don't bury the government for that; we take partial responsibility for it, as every senator should.
Senator Patrick's amendment wants JobKeeper recipients who enriched themselves at the expense of taxpayers to be held accountable and for the money to be returned. Unfortunately, Senator Patrick's proposal will not lead to accountability, which is the purpose of any transparency measure. The proposal is poorly conceived, although well intended. Senator Patrick's proposal is founded on the power of shame, but that power is ineffective against the shameless. The individuals who pocketed JobKeeper payments that were intended to help Australian workers through the toughest of times are shameless, and this amendment will not shame them into returning the money. It will give us very little understanding about their circumstances or what they've done.
Senator Patrick's proposal shines no light on the amount of money wasted by the poor design of the JobKeeper program, because the proposal provides no way in which JobKeeper payments can be matched to an entity's other financial information. Without seeing the total picture of profit and loss, no-one can form a view about waste and enrichment at an individual business level or at a global level. Senator Patrick's proposal shows a failure to start with an end in mind—a necessary requirement for something useful to be achieved in good policy.
It's been suggested that Senator Patrick's proposal would hold the big tax avoiders accountable—that is, privately owned entities, and companies which are entirely owned by foreign companies. It won't and it can't. In the face of the total failure of Senator Patrick's proposal to hold anyone accountable, One Nation was left with no choice but to put forward an alternative proposal, and that's what we've done in Senator Hanson's amendment.
Senator Hanson's proposal is the first step in delivering real accountability to taxpayers, not showmanship. She wasn't born politically in Senator Xenophon's circus; she was born in the real world of Australian small businesses and Australian workers and families. Senator Hanson's proposal will shine a light on Australia's largest employers and largest recipients of JobKeeper payments. The reputational damage to listed companies who paid their executives bonuses from JobKeeper cannot be underestimated. That will occur with Senator Hanson's amendment.
Senator Hanson's proposed amendment on sheet 1442, will see ASIC publish on its website a consolidated report on JobKeeper payments by listed entity. This information will be useful because the matching financial information will be available in a standardised form, and that is one key to accountability.
Senator Hanson's real transparency measure will lead to a level of accountability through reputational damage to listed companies and by quantifying part of the money wasted by the poor design of the JobKeeper program. It will not tarnish those that have done the right thing. It will not lump everyone into the same basket. It will separate those, obviously, who have rorted it and deserve shame, from those who've done the right thing by their employees.
Senator Patrick's amendment is not an alternative transparency measure because it can achieve nothing. It is open to the Senate to work on other transparency measures which will lead to accountability in respect of the JobKeeper program. I gave an invitation to Senator Patrick and the Labor Party last night when I spoke about joining us to get real accountability through a proper, thorough audit. Neither mentioned it in their responses; not one word about it.
One Nation welcomes the opportunity to retrospectively fix the design of the JobKeeper program. If One Nation's amendment is not supported, we will know that Senator Patrick, the other crossbench senators, Labor and the Greens were only ever interested in virtue signalling rather than accountability. Peter Strong, the former head of COSBOA, said that Senator Patrick's amendment will be very difficult for small and medium enterprises to comply with. Senator Patrick's amendment purports to do one thing and doesn't achieve that. It's an ill-conceived dud.
What I will do now is to continue to address some of the points that Senator McAllister and Senator Patrick raised last night. Firstly, Senator Patrick's amendment would ultimately lead to every Australian business being forced to disclose their profit and loss statements, which could potentially lead to the nation's banks calling in loans to businesses they deem a risk following the impact of COVID. That's a serious threat, because the Labor Party and the Liberal and National parties have given the banks extraordinary power in this country.
Secondly, businesses needed to meet the test only once, and that was very simple. Mum-and-dad businesses had to see a 30 per cent decline in their turnover in any given month in which the JobKeeper payment began. Any business with a turnover of over $1 billion had to show a decline in their business of 50 per cent. It was quite clear. The ATO, the Australian Taxation Office, ultimately determined the legitimacy of all JobKeeper applications.
Thirdly, if Senator Patrick and Labor are worried about whether or not Gina Rinehart received JobKeeper, we can assure you she didn't, as one of our staff phoned her and asked the question this morning. The mining and farming sectors of this nation help pay for the spoils of JobKeeper, and they will continue to pay for the spoils of JobKeeper long into the future.
I'll make some miscellaneous comments. Our position is because this is an issue of context and fairness. It is not about simply naming and shaming. That shames the guiltless—the innocent. This is about context and fairness. One of our staffers pointed it out to us, and Senator Hanson and I had the guts to discuss this and debate it and then come to a different conclusion from our initial conclusion. We don't mind saying we made a mistake. We don't mind saying we're sorry. We don't mind saying we're wrong. We don't mind saying: 'We don't know. Can you help us?' But now, after we've done more work, we know our position is correct on this. We want to protect workers and honest employers, and we want to have an effective transparency measure, not a dud. What's on trial is not Aussie workers. It's not the employees. We've got to remember that. We're happy to be hard on foreign firms—and Aussie firms—but it's important to uphold Aussie values in doing so, and that means fairness and integrity. We do what is best in accordance with Australia's national interest, in accordance with Australian values. That's extremely important.
I'd just like to finish up by saying that, after the drought broke recently in places, a small business, a tractor dealer employing very few people, could sell enough equipment to cross that $10 million threshold. We need to understand that small business in context. We are tired of the Labor Party spending decades protecting foreign companies. The petroleum resource rent tax comes to mind, as do many other initiatives. Senator Patrick's amendment is an ill-conceived dud that we woke up to at the last minute. We ask the senators interested in genuinely and fairly holding recipients accountable to vote for our amendment.
[by video link] When Senator Patrick put this whole thing up, we said, yes, it sounded good—to hold companies who got payments under the JobKeeper program accountable. After further investigation into it and given information that we received, of course it's not going to achieve what it was intended to.
Senator Roberts has covered a lot of the issues here. It's interesting that here we have two senators on One Nation's side of the parliament doing the work that most of the Labor senators should have been on top of. Labor put up the same amendment, which is going to achieve absolutely nothing if the end result you want is accountability. It's not going to achieve that. Yet we can actually find out the information and put up an amendment that is going to have more results than this politicking—getting out there and saying to people, 'Look what we're doing. Aren't we great? We're going to call for accountability,' which will achieve absolutely nothing. If those in Labor are really serious about accountability, then why haven't they put up an amendment that says companies should pay back the money? Why? Because they're too gutless. That's exactly right—they're too gutless. And they also know that, if you did that, companies would shut down and close their doors, and people would lose their jobs.
Now, we've dug deep into this. Senator Patrick—he's up for re-election, and this is important—is saying, 'I'm out there beating the drum, and I want accountability,' which will prove absolutely nothing. It all sounds good on the surface. That's what we get on the floor of the parliament all the time—what sounds good. But in parliament I've found, for the last five years, that we're bandaiding legislation that has been poorly drafted and doesn't do what it's supposed to do.
Our proposed amendment on sheet 1442 will see ASIC publish on its website a consolidated report on JobKeeper payments by a listed entity. This information will be useful because matching financial information will be available in a standardised form. My amendment is a transparency measure that will lead to a level of accountability through reputational damage to listed companies and by quantifying part of the money wasted by the poor design of the JobKeeper program. Senator Patrick's amendment is not an alternative transparency measure, because it can achieve nothing. You see, publicly listed companies have to show their profit and loss. Privately listed companies don't. What are we comparing it to? Absolutely nothing. Senator Patrick, I've got to tell you: you should've been in the show; you're the greatest showman on earth, because what you're trying to sell us is a lemon. The Labor Party have gone along with you. And you know what? The Labor Party really don't want to see this get up with our votes. And that's why you're trying to shame One Nation into supporting your amendment, which is useless, because the Labor Party know that it will get knocked back in the lower house. You've got no chance of getting it up. But at least, with our amendment, there is a chance that it will get up and will lead to accountability. So Labor are just smoke and mirrors, again, as usual. They don't even know what they're talking about. They're going on this little trip with you, propping you up and having a go at One Nation. Remember, everyone: it's coming into election time. And there is going to be no end result.
I remember when I tried to get my dairy bill up and it needed one vote. That one vote was Rex Patrick's. He didn't support it. He said to me: 'I go back and I talk to the people in my electorate. I actually find out what their feelings are and how they feel about things.' Well, Senator Patrick, have you read the Advertiser newspaper today in your state? Are you aware that small businesses are totally against you? You have not spoken to them. You have not consulted with them. They are against you on this. And you say you talk to people? That's not the case; that's not what I'm hearing. So this is just you grandstanding to say, 'Look at me and what I'm achieving.' You're achieving nothing! And, like I said, if the Labor Party go along with this, then you're too bloody gutless, because you should've put up an amendment on how you're going to get the money back. No-one's done that.
As to this shaming of businesses: you're going to tie up everyone in this—people who have done the right thing. You might have those ratbags out there, but this is going to tie up small mum-and-dad businesses that have done the right thing and it could have unintended consequences on them. Who knows—the banks might come after them, or radical groups might come after them and name and shame them. You know, there are people in our society who, no matter how much heat you put on them to shame them, will not change their stinking attitude.
So what we do is: we start with legislation that is going to expose those people and make a start which will work. Your amendment will not work.
I have tried to work with the government, to see sense in this, to actually get accountability. That's why Senator Roberts and I have worked hard together on this to come up with a solution. Like I said, we are constantly trying to work with the government, or the opposition, or the crossbenchers, to come up with something that is right for the people of this country. We're sick of this. Labor has a go at me, saying, 'We're not supporting this amendment, because it's been rushed.' How many times have we heard that with my amendments? 'We're not supporting it, because it's rushed.' Labor are so bloody-minded that they don't want to support something that may be good for the people of Australia, because they don't want to see that One Nation is doing their job. That's why they don't support us on most of our amendments, amendments that are good for this country.
If good legislation is put up by whichever side of politics, we will support it. But I am opposing your amendment because it achieves nothing. And I'm not going to put those small businesses into a situation where they may be attacked unnecessarily and unwarrantedly. I say to Labor again: unless you've got a real fair dinkum argument on this you should be supporting my amendment, because I'll tell you now that Senator Patrick's hasn't got a chance of getting up and you damn well know it. You know it'll be thrown out because you haven't got the numbers in the lower house. It'll be thrown out anyway.
Let's have some common sense here and support this amendment, which is going to bring some accountability to this country. That's what you really want, isn't it? You want accountability, not just to be out there grandstanding, saying, 'Look what I'm doing; I'm trying to get accountability'? It will achieve nothing because there's no transparency. A lot of these private and listed companies don't put up their profit and loss statements, so what are you comparing it to? Nothing. Sorry, Rex; you tried, but your amendment is a lemon.
[by video link] I'll go through a few points raised by Senator Hanson. I'll also point out that Senator Roberts didn't answer my question, but I'll give him an opportunity again to perhaps do that. On the dairy bill, I asked the local dairy industry and they didn't want to support it, and that's the basis upon which I opposed it. In relation to the Advertiser this morning, go and have a look at the poll associated with the article that you referred to. Over 70 per cent of the people who responded to that said they don't think that the money that we're asking to be disclosed here is private information. It's public information. So I am certainly against it.
You say that my amendment could have unintended consequences, when we know that if it's not passed there will be—and have already been—unintended consequences. This is the biggest public expenditure scandal in the history of the Commonwealth and One Nation are basically standing there saying, 'We're going to help cover it up.' To suggest that my amendment doesn't do anything is to ignore the experience in New Zealand, where they've done exactly what my amendment does. They've managed to get a five per cent return on their wage subsidy program. We've got 0.25 per cent. There is empirical data that shows—and I know how much Senator Roberts likes to look at empirical data—that in actual fact transparency does work.
Going back to the question of mine that wasn't answered, which surprises me, this amendment does not cause disclosure of any foreign owned subsidiaries in Australia. That's money that may have been taken, probably using things like transfer pricing. I'm sure that there are oil and gas companies that may have subsidiaries that have collected JobKeeper—we won't know, because you're not going to support my amendment—taking taxpayers' money when it wasn't needed and using it to fill the pockets of foreign investors, funnelling our taxpayers' money from the pockets of Australians into the pockets of foreign investors.
I wonder why it is that you haven't chosen to include private schools. Private schools received JobKeeper—there are four in Ipswich that received JobKeeper. They didn't have a loss in turnover. That is money that has gone to private schools that won't go to the public schools, where the battlers are. Last night in the boardrooms around Australia there would have been champagne flowing, toasting to Senator Roberts and Senator Hanson. They're all about Bollinger, not battlers, and that's the truth of the situation. Why is it that you're letting private universities not disclose? Why is it that you are letting subsidiaries of universities not disclose? What about clubs? Perhaps some of the good golf clubs that Senator Roberts goes to—that people like me probably can't afford to go to—don't want the fact that they might have taken JobKeeper disclosed to the public.
What about unlisted public companies? They're just as capable of looting the taxpayer as anyone else. What about the private companies, those large, grandfathered companies that don't even have to provide a financial report to ASIC? They get away scot-free in relation to this. It's bizarre because One Nation have supported my grandfathering amendment, which is about disclosure by large private companies, and yet they won't support this, which is—again—trying to deal with the biggest public expenditure scandal in the history of this country. And it's not going away. There are stories that are going to break over the weekend as to some of the entities that have received this money and profited. And every time one of those stories breaks, everyone is going to be thinking about how it is that Senator Hanson and Senator Roberts did not support a good transparency measure.
I find it really confusing that the suggestion is made that my amendment is a dud, because on four separate occasions One Nation have supported it. For the last month, One Nation have supported it. When it comes to the crunch, however, they falter. They join the side of the looters. That is really disappointing. I wonder whether or not Senator Roberts can explain to the chamber exactly why they decided to exclude those particular companies. There are 10,000 companies, as the tax commissioner has indicated, whose JobKeeper payments would be disclosed under my amendment. There are 2,090 companies listed on the Australian stock market. There are 8,000 companies we don't get to know about that are the kinds of companies, entities and organisations that I have described. Political parties could receive JobKeeper. They could have received it and still maintained their income through donations and all the other methods that they use to receive money—and that won't be disclosed under this particular amendment proposed by Senator Roberts. Can he can explain that? It just doesn't seem to make any sense. I ask that Senator Roberts give an explanation.
[by video link] First of all I need to correct a mistake by Senator Patrick. I play no golf. I don't go to golf clubs. I used to play rugby union and rugby league. I think golf is a nice way to wreck a walk, and that's about it. Secondly, I have already answered Senator Patrick's question about the context twice. I addressed it last night and again just now. What we really want to do—and I invite Senator Patrick to discuss this with us after this debate—is to achieve a real audit. Senator Hanson and I want something meaningful and strong that actually gets the money back to the people's government.
It seems we're perhaps likely to go to a vote on this shortly. I want to indicate that Labor will be supporting Senator Hanson's motion. For all the reasons I explained earlier, I do think it is an inadequate response. I think that it is unlikely to be effective. I think that it does little more than is already required of these companies, and it leaves many, many companies without any scrutiny whatsoever. Notwithstanding that, it would be churlish to vote against it, and we on the Labor side generally try and make our decision based on the policy position, not on the grounds of hurt feelings. So we will be voting for the amendment proposed by Senator Hanson and Senator Roberts.
[by video link] Just to avoid an unnecessary division, I will also be voting for the amendment, not because it does very much but because it does do some consolidation. It leaves a gaping hole in this public scandal. Finally, I point out to Senator Roberts: Senator McKim has a private member's bill that seeks to recover this money, and I guess you're going to support it based on what you've said.
[by video link] I thank Senator Patrick for reminding Senator Roberts of the bill that the Australian Greens currently have before a Senate inquiry. Just really quickly, before we wrap up debate on this amendment, I wonder if either the minister or Senator Roberts could confirm that this amendment will not catch private companies, private schools and foreign owned companies, and therefore that companies that are owned by foreign governments like, for example, the CCP will not be caught by the provisions of this amendment. I wonder if Senator Roberts would be able to respond to that, please.
[by video link] It will not, but it will also not capture innocent companies that are privately owned—small and medium enterprises. Australians value fairness and integrity. We need to make sure that any system that is put forward is fair to the employers, because the employers have a significant responsibility to the employees. This scheme was designed, although poorly—and all the senators approved it—to protect workers, and that's where the money ends up: with Australian workers. We will invite you to discuss with us a proper audit for returning money that has been incorrectly paid to companies, and we would love to work with you, Senator McKim, on that, provided it is legitimate, proper and fair.
[by video link] by leave—I move amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 1411 together:
(1) Clause 2, page 2 (table item 1), omit the table item, substitute:
(2) Page 12 (after line 14), at the end of the Bill, add:
Schedule 3 — Publication of information about COVID-19 payment recipients
Taxation Administration Act 1953
1 Subsection 2(1)
annual turnover of an entity for a financial year is the total of the following that is earned in the year in the course of the entity's business:
(a) the proceeds of sales of goods and/or services;
(b) commission income;
(c) repair and service income;
(d) rent, leasing and hiring income;
(e) government bounties and subsidies;
(f) interest, royalties and dividends;
(g) other operating income.
If the entity is a non-profit body (within the meaning of section 23-15 of the A New Tax System (Goods and Services Tax) Act 1999), treat the operations or activities carried out by the body as the business of the body.
Coronavirus economic response payment has the same meaning as in the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Act 2020.
jobkeeper payment means a payment under the jobkeeper scheme.
jobkeeper scheme means the scheme for the Coronavirus economic response payment known as the jobkeeper payment provided for in rules made for the purposes of subsection 7(1) of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Act 2020 in relation to the period 1 March 2020 to 28 March 2021.
2 At the end of Part IA
3J Commissioner must publish information about entities that received jobkeeper payments
(1) The Commissioner must publish the following information about each entity covered by subsection (2) that has received a jobkeeper payment:
(a) the name of the entity;
(b) the number of individuals for whom the entity received a jobkeeper payment;
(c) the total amount of jobkeeper payments received by the entity;
(d) whether the entity has voluntarily paid to the Commonwealth an amount equal to all or part of the amount referred to in paragraph (c), and if so, the amount of the payment.
(2) An entity is covered by this subsection if the annual turnover of the entity for a financial year in which the entity received a jobkeeper payment is more than $10 million.
(3) The information must be published as soon as practicable after the commencement of this section on a publicly available website maintained by the Commissioner.
3K Commissioner must publish information about entities that received certain Coronavirus economic response payments
(1) The Commissioner must publish the following information about each entity covered by subsection (2) that has received a Coronavirus economic response payment provided for in rules made for the purposes of subsection 7(1B) of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Act 2020:
(a) the name of the entity;
(b) the total amount of such payments received by the entity;
(c) whether the entity has voluntarily paid to the Commonwealth an amount equal to all or part of the amount referred to in paragraph (b), and if so, the amount of the payment.
(2) An entity is covered by this subsection if the annual turnover of the entity for a financial year in which the entity received such a payment is more than $10 million.
(3) The information must be published as soon as practicable after the commencement of this section on a publicly available website maintained by the Commissioner.
(4) Information published under this section must be kept up to date.
These amendments are designed to provide a level of transparency around those companies that receive JobKeeper. We must understand that JobKeeper was passed by this parliament on 8 April 2020, not as a scheme with any particular form but as a head of power that allowed the Treasurer to introduce or declare rules around the program that is now known as JobKeeper. The parliament had very little to do with the construction of the JobKeeper scheme, and that was because it was an emergency. Everyone understood it was an emergency. We wanted to get through the pandemic and keep employers and employees connected, so it was the will of this parliament that the program be implemented. But the details came down to the Treasurer, and he basically created an honesty system where you didn't have to show anything as actuals. Rather, you were able simply to project and indicate to the Taxation Office that you thought your revenue would drop by either 30 or 50 per cent, depending on the nature of the company.
The idea behind that was quite okay. Particularly in those circumstances, there would have been a lot of cash-flow issues for companies, and what was put in place was good. Unfortunately, there was no clawback regime put in place to deal either with dishonesty or with people who got through the bump and actually did a lot better than perhaps they might have done in the previous year. And that's where the problem lies; there's been a huge prudential failure in relation to the JobKeeper program. It is a massive scar that will sit with Treasurer Frydenberg for years to come. This is going to bring about the biggest public expenditure scandal in the history of this country. Thank you very much, Treasurer Frydenberg!
What we need to do in these circumstances is to address the situation where we find that money has been funnelled from the wallets of taxpayers to the wallets of investors, and to executives by way of executive bonuses. One of the ways to do that is simply to shine a light. Light is a great disinfectant. This amendment mirrors the scheme that the New Zealand government voluntarily put in place because they, clearly, believe in the benefit of transparency. Everyone can access the New Zealand website. People just have to Google 'wage subsidy disclosure New Zealand', and they will be taken to a site where they can look up any company—any company at all—that received a wage subsidy payment. It's public money. It's not private information. When a business goes to a bank and gets money, that is private business. When a business gets money from the public, that's public business. New Zealand have recognised that. We've seen a situation in New Zealand where they paid out far less in wage subsidies—I think it's in the order of $13 billion—and have received $600 million-plus back. We've paid out $90 billion and have only got $200 million back. They've got a five per cent return; we've got a 0.25 per cent return.
This amendment seeks to shine a light. It won't name and shame companies. For companies that needed JobKeeper, no-one begrudges them the fact that they got that money. What the amendment will do, however, is allow employees to identify whether their company received JobKeeper. They'll understand how well the company was doing. It will simply lay out the basis for, potentially, more companies to stick their hands up and say: 'You know what? We're going to do the right thing. We're going to return the money that we didn't actually need, the money that came from the public purse.' That money could be used for social housing, health, aged care and a whole range of things that we need and for which we struggle to get money—it could be education, university degrees—whatever it is. This is public money that has come from our debt register. It is money that will be paid for not by me or anyone else in this chamber but, rather, by our children and our grandchildren. And that is such a shame. I urge the Senate to support my amendment.
Just before I call Senator McAllister, I want to clarify that, if the amendment proposed by Senator Patrick is passed, then the opposition's amendment will be negated by that. I want to make sure that people are very clear about that. Senator McAllister.
I rise to speak about the Treasury Laws Amendment (2021 Measures No. 2) Bill 2021. I have spoken a number of times in the committee stage, so I don't intend to labour or repeat some of the ideas that I've already presented. But Labor is totally committed to making sure we are transparent about this and many other questions in terms of the corporate largesse that is so casually doled out by the government—$13 billion in this instance.
I was clear about the deficiencies of the amendment that has just been passed in this chamber. Listed companies received only three per cent of the entire JobKeeper program. There's no harm in what the government cooked up with One Nation, but it adds nothing to the transparency that Australian taxpayers are calling for and it doesn't address the staggering waste that Mr Frydenberg has overseen. That amendment will deal with 120 companies in total, and they received $2½ billion. Meanwhile, we know there are over 150,000 firms who were beneficiaries of that $13 billion in JobKeeper. They had rising takings, and we will know nothing about them. In contrast, the amendment that is before us now does deal with this issue. It would require much broader transparency. It's an amendment that was moved, at least for this bill, by me in the first instance. An identical amendment was moved by Senator Patrick to accommodate the previously described hurt feelings that One Nation have about various other matters unrelated to this question.
Just as Harvey Norman's repayment of $6 million this week shows the importance of public scrutiny, the positive effects that ASIC has already generated by requiring some measure of transparency show us exactly why we need a much clearer picture of the big firms that profited from JobKeeper. The reason we brought this amendment forward, the reason we brought a similar amendment forward, the reason we support Senator Patrick's amendment now and the reason we voted for a similar amendment in a previous debate is that we know the government is desperately trying to cover up $13 billion of waste—$13 billion of waste. We'd like to know where it went and so would most Australians. The question is: why does the government persist in trying to cover it up?
I would like to put on the record the Greens' support for Senator Patrick's amendment. Of course, we have tried through a number of ways over the last few months to bring this information to light to ensure that there is accountability for the use of taxpayers' money and public money. We're disappointed it won't pass today because One Nation will not be voting for it, but, for the record, we still think it's an important amendment.
[by video link] I just want to correct something that both Senator McKim and I concurred on. We were wrong: companies operating in Australia that are owned by foreign governments were never able to claim JobKeeper. That was something we all discussed in the Senate. I just want to draw that to people's attention.
The CHAIR: The question is that amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 1411, as moved by Senator Patrick, be agreed to.
Now can be the moment, Senator McAllister. This amendment is in relation to a much-needed avenue of support for our arts and entertainment industry, which we know has been smashed throughout the COVID-19 period and the pandemic. Lockdowns, border closures and health restrictions have meant that live performances and other types of live events, in particular, just don't have certainty going forward.
The insurance industry has, of course, done what the insurance industry always does: it has put up higher premiums, which effectively squeeze anyone in the real world out of being able to access them. This amendment simply requests of the government that they establish an insurance guarantee for live performance and live events going forward. Even once we get to the phase of opening up, once we have an appropriate number of people vaccinated in this country—including young people, I might add—companies, small businesses and those in the entertainment and live performance sector simply can't plan without access to insurance. There is a market failure. What this amendment requires is for the government to establish a mechanism to underwrite and guarantee insurance. It's not going to cost the government any money. Companies and businesses will pay into it, as they would an insurance company. It's simply to fill the gap, because there has been a market failure.
If the role of government isn't to step in at times like this, what is the role of government? It is simply unworkable for this industry to continue limping on without proper support from the government of the day. This doesn't solve all the problems, but it would go some way to giving the industry a helping hand. I hope the government considers this proposal in good faith and, if they don't take this one up, does something that will help—that will deliver insurance going forward for this sector so that we can get the show back on the road. I move Greens amendment (1) on sheet 1402:
(1) Page 12 (after line 14), at the end of the Bill, add:
Schedule 3 — Live Performance Federal Insurance Guarantee Fund
1 Live Performance Federal Insurance Guarantee Fund
(1) There is to be a Live Performance Federal Insurance Guarantee Fund.
(2) The Treasurer must, by legislative instrument, make rules to provide for and in relation to the establishment, governance and operation of the Fund, the purpose of which is to provide for a fund to underwrite an insurance scheme for the live performance sector to fill a market failure in the insurance industry as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic.
(3) Money for the Fund is to be from funds appropriated by the Parliament for the purposes of this Act.
(4) The Treasurer must make rules for the purposes of subsection (2) within 30 days after the commencement of this Act.
The government will not be supporting Senator Hanson's amendment. I should remind the chamber that this bill is, in fact, about the administration and oversight of organisations with deductible gift recipient status, and it's about removing preferential tax treatment for offshore banking units. It's not about COVID support measures for any industry.
Labor does support this amendment. It would be far preferable, of course, if the measures contained in this amendment were, instead, contained in a bill brought forward by the government. That would be better, wouldn't it? We would much prefer that the government actually dealt with this challenge. At the moment, we have an uncosted amendment that's been brought forward by a Greens party senator. We are in this position though because the government is dragging its feet.
The opposition has joined with the live entertainment industry to call for an insurance fund for live entertainment and events. We've been calling for it for months, and I think anyone who enjoys live entertainment, anyone who enjoys festivals, understands why—because there is a heartbreaking list of events where enormous amounts of time, money, energy and commitment from festival organisers and artists have all come to nothing. The pandemic brings significant uncertainties, but the lack of support for the industry is crippling it. The people I know that work in the festival sector are beside themselves. The artists are beside themselves, because they can see a lifetime's investment in building their businesses, in building their audiences, in building their reputations, in building their financial resources draining away, with almost zero interest from the government.
The government, I should say, announced a very similar measure for the screen sector more than a year ago. That's worked very well since, and the screen industry is doing well. But the federal government says no to the live entertainment and events sector when it asks for exactly the same thing, and it's impossible to know why. Certainly there's been no explanation provided here in the chamber on the substantive policy issue. The minister for arts tries to say that this should be a responsibility for the states. It's a pretty common refrain, isn't it? Passing the buck to someone else, making it someone else's responsibility. Well, I happen to think that having a thriving live entertainment sector, a thriving arts sector, a thriving live performance sector is in our national interest. It's part of our national identity. It's a core part of our economy. It's a key element of soft power. There are so many reasons why supporting this sector should be considered an absolute priority for this government. But they have washed their hands of the live entertainment sector from the very beginning of the pandemic. It is time for the government to sit up and listen, to pay this industry some respect. It's time for the government to introduce its own bill for a live entertainment and events insurance fund.
In supporting this amendment, I do have some caveats to put on the table. We strongly support the principle behind this amendment. We've argued for it publicly. We are concerned that it's not costed. It gives us some comfort that the amendment as proposed leaves it up to the government to decide the level of appropriation. This kind of fiscal uncertainty is not Labor's preference, but we are only at this point because of this government's failures. I ask the minister to consider asking her colleagues why it is that they will not lift a finger for the live entertainment sector. The live entertainment sector is desperate. It's crying out for help and support, and so far it's crickets from your side of the chamber.
The CHAIR: The question is that amendment (1) on sheet 1402, as moved by Senator Hanson-Young, be agreed to.