Labor treasury and charities spokesperson Andrew Leigh spoke to ABC Canberra this week about the government’s JobKeeper program.
This is the full transcript of the interview.
ADAM SHIRLEY, HOST: The Member for Fenner, Dr Andrew Leigh, has been the chief agitator on the government’s JobKeeper program. Dr Leigh, good morning to you.
ANDREW LEIGH, LABOR SPOKESPERSON FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good morning, Adam. Great to be with you, and happy spring. Isn’t it wonderful that Canberra’s turned on the warmth for us?
SHIRLEY: Warming up a little bit, which I think will be positive news for a lot of people in lockdown currently. Are you satisfied with what Mr Harvey has done?
LEIGH: I’d certainly be pleased if he paid back on behalf of the franchisees as well, but the fact is he has paid back the component from head office. He’s done so thanks to considerable public pressure. The only reason Gerry Harvey’s paying back is because Australians know how much he received, and we know that because ASIC, the corporate watchdog, required all listed firms to disclose to the share market their JobKeeper receipts.
But 97% of JobKeeper has gone to firms that aren’t listed on stock market and we don’t know about that information. We’re having a fight with the government at the moment in the Senate where we want more transparency. We want the JobKeeper receipt by all firms with a turnover above $10 million to be disclosed on a public register, just like they do in New Zealand, Britain, and the United States.
The government’s banging on with all kinds of arguments around protecting taxpayer secrecy, and yet Gerry Harvey, the great ad man, has given us the best advertisement for transparency in JobKeeper. He’s only going back because of public pressure, and he’s only got the public pressure because of transparency.
SHIRLEY: I want to ask you about a couple of components of this. He says he’s just not going to talk about it because of all the hate out there, and he’s refusing to talk about JobKeeper and those payments when directly asked. Is that fair enough, in your view?
LEIGH: Gerry Harvey will manage his own PR campaign. he’s got plenty of ad men around him. I think the fact is that he’s just one of many in corporate Australia that have received JobKeeper despite rising earnings.
SHIRLEY: Do you reckon you should answer directly to it, though, is my key question.
LEIGH: I think it’s always useful if people follow through their interviews to the end and don’t hang up on interviewers, as Gerry Harvey did with your colleague Raf Epstein on ABC Melbourne.
I think the broader question here is how we’ve got a federal government that has allowed $13 billion to be given to firms with rising revenue. At a time in which Australians are tightening their belts and the budget forecasts real wages to fall over the coming years, you’ve got taxpayer subsidies going out the door to cashed-up independent schools, to men’s only clubs, to hedge funds, investment banks, retailers, and then being just recycled into dividends for billionaire shareholders and millionaire CEOs.
SHIRLEY: You mentioned before the $6 million that has been returned by Mr Harvey that went to head office, which leaves $16 million, which, as far as we understand has been distributed through franchisees. Why that delineation, and should any of that $16 million come back to Australian taxpayers?
LEIGH: Australian taxpayers would certainly be grateful if Gerry Harvey paid back on behalf of those franchisees. We’d still be talking, Adam, about something in the order of just about a quarter of one per cent of JobKeeper that would then have been repaid. You contrast that with across the ditch: in New Zealand, where they’ve got that full transparency scheme, around five per cent of their JobKeeper equivalent has been repaid. The difference between that quarter of a per cent here and five per cent in New Zealand is public transparency.
That’s why the Morrison government’s campaign for secrecy is so absurd. It’s only through proper transparency that we will actually get to the bottom of what’s gone on, and how on earth the government allowed the JobKeeper scheme to deliver $1000 for every Australian adult to firms with rising revenues. You don’t save jobs by giving money to firms whose revenues are going up. Those firms are always going to keep their staff on. It’s waste, pure and simple, and it’s the biggest waste in the history of the Commonwealth.
SHIRLEY: Dr Andrew Leigh is our guest. He’s the Federal Member for Fenner and has been one of the chief criticizers of the JobKeeper program, the amount of money that isn’t made transparent to you as a taxpayer that is given to a variety of firms, big and small. I’d like to know your response to the news that Harvey Norman will return $6 million of its $22 million in total that it has received in the JobKeeper program to date: 1300 681 666. Kim says ‘Yes, give it all back. I also know a multimillionaire that took JobKeeper while his waste business continued to make money.’ Kim’s not happy about that. Gary says ‘I won’t be shopping there. Others shouldn’t either.’ 1300 681 666 is the phone number to call. The SMS is 0467 922 666.
As part of this, and you’ve raised this, Dr Leigh, the Opposition is pushing for a transparency register for businesses that have a turnover of $10 million and above, I think, per annum. Why that level of turnover, and how might that push some businesses to revealing their private data, which maybe they shouldn’t?
LEIGH: It’s the Australian Tax Office cut off for small business. They say that a small business is an entity with turnover below $10 million. We’ve adopted that in taking the approach that we need greater transparency, but for someone who’s a sole trader, for example, it’s not unreasonable to leave them out.
We have a fair bit of tax transparency around already for firms with a turnover above $100 million. Their taxable income and the tax they pay is reported annually, so this is a normal thing for total tax. It’s normal in other countries where they rolled out a JobKeeper scheme. For Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg to be confecting an argument around taxpayer confidentiality when they have presided over the biggest waste of Commonwealth money in Australian history is just absurd.
Australians want answers as to how the government allowed $13 billion, enough to deliver fibre-to-the-home National Broadband Network to every urban premises in Australia, to go to firms with rising earnings. That money didn’t save a single job. Every time they’re asked about it they say ‘Well, you know, there’s jobs that were saved with JobKeeper.’ That’s true. In a $90 billion program they wasted $13 billion of it. Every time they’re asked about it, they pivot to the $77 billion that actually saved jobs, but they don’t talk about the profligate waste. For a bunch of people who keep on saying that they have a greater ability to manage the public finances, I think we’ve got the answer on that one.
SHIRLEY: Do you know whether you’ve got support from the crossbench or the Greens, for instance, on that bill that you’re pushing that you hope will reveal those profit margins of any company that has a $10 million turnover or greater?
LEIGH: I certainly hope so. The Senate’s voted for tax transparency on JobKeeper a number of times, reflecting the broad view in the Australian public that this is an absolute scandal. You remember, Adam, we had a conversation about this about a month ago. There was an attempt to attach such an amendment to an urgent measure that provided support for people in lockdown. We didn’t believe that we should hold up support for people in lockdown to get transparency over JobKeeper, but on this occasion we’re talking about an amendment which relates to multinational taxation and offshore banking units, a measure which has been about a decade coming and we believe it’s appropriate to move it as an amendment to that bill.
SHIRLEY: One other related question on taxation, and, I suppose, the taxation system for lower-income and higher-income people. This texter says ‘Speaking of transparency, why did Dr Leigh and Labor back the government tax reforms after vehemently arguing against them for years, and in particular, that stage three which provides that flat tax rate?’ For many months, you and your party argued against it, but you ended up voting for those reforms.
LEIGH: Reasonable people can disagree on that. It was a challenging decision for all of us. I think ultimately, Adam, our view was that we wanted to provide people certainty as they went into the next election over what would happen on their tax affairs-
SHIRLEY: -Including high-income earners who do better out of those phase free tax systems and those reforms then they would have?
LEIGH: These are changes which are legislated already, so we would have been in the position of going to an election pledging to raise taxes against a prime minister who’s shown himself extraordinarily capable of pretending that a tax rise for some is a tax rise for all. We didn’t want to be distracting from an election which should be about the way the Morrison government has mismanaged the vaccine rollout, mismanaged JobKeeper, and mismanaged the economy.
At a time when we’ve got Australians’ real wages falling, we don’t want to be distracted by confected outrage from Scott Morrison. We want the focus of the election to be exactly where it should be: jobs, health and education.
SHIRLEY: Just so listeners can be clear, do you fully endorse those stage three tax reforms that do improve the lot of high-income earners?
LEIGH: Adam, we wouldn’t have crafted those tax changes the way in which they’ve been done-
SHIRLEY: -But you’re voting for them.
LEIGH: Well, they passed the parliament a while back-
SHIRLEY: -With your support. You’ve endorsed them in recent times, Dr Leigh. I think that’s the point a texter is making, and that’s the query I have so listeners can be clear on this.
LEIGH: The question you’re really asking is should Labor go to the next election pledging to raise taxes-
SHIRLEY: -That’s not actually the question I’m asking. I’m asking whether you as a party fully endorse the phase three tax reforms that the Liberal-National government crafted and that you’ve ended up voting for in the parliament.
LEIGH: As I said, we wouldn’t have crafted those measures the way in which they were. Your points about regressivity are absolutely right. But the decision we’ve made is that at the next election we won’t be going to the Australian people saying that we’re going to raise taxes. That’s in part a decision about where we want the focus of the debate next election to be.
Australia is way behind the rest of the world in our vaccine rollout: 27% vaccinated compared to 66% in Canada, a majority in Europe in the United States. The mismanagement of the pandemic needs to be the core focus of the next election, not confected scare campaigns from Scott Morrison.
SHIRLEY: Dr Leigh, as always, appreciate your time. Thank you for it.
LEIGH: Likewise. Thanks, Adam.
This transcript was originally published by Andrew Leigh and is reproduced here with permission.