Speeches

JobKeeper

March 25, 2021

I speak today on the Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2020-21 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2020-21, bills concerned with the funding of the business of government. When it comes to business, I know that the past 12 months have been very hard for businesses in my electorate of Moreton and also for individuals. The JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme has been the lifeline that kept many businesses afloat, but in just three short days JobKeeper will end. This lifeline will be pulled away, ripped away, from 2,480 businesses in Moreton, businesses that are relying on this lifeline. It will no longer be there for the more than 7,600 workers in Moreton who only kept their jobs because of this taxpayer-provided wage subsidy.

Treasury estimates that up to 150,000 Australians will lose their jobs. It could be worse than that: other economists are actually expecting that figure of job losses to be closer to 250,000 people who'll be joining the jobless queue. That's 250,000 devastated households. While the Prime Minister and Treasurer talk in marketing slogans like Australia's fightback, Australia's comeback, Australia's recovery—focus group tested slogans—my businesses are just trying to stay afloat to keep their employees on the books and to keep supporting these families.

The pandemic isn't over. The Morrison government has only rolled out 10 per cent of the 4 million vaccinations they promised to deliver before the end of the month. Today is 25 March—a significant day for Greek Australians, I think—but only 10 per cent of vaccinations have been rolled out, and the government is ripping away 100 per cent of JobKeeper from the economy. Many businesses don't know how they'll continue to survive once JobKeeper ends in a few days. How many employers will have to be let go because employees just can't afford to pay their wages while the economy is still slowly rebounding, or taking a new shape? There are already two million Australians looking for work. That is already an incredibly long queue. The government is cutting JobKeeper wage subsidy support in just a few days and businesses are going to be left to sink or swim without any ongoing support.

It's too soon for this support to be cut while the government is actually breaking its vaccination rollout promise. Remember when the Prime Minister promised us that we were at the front of the queue? That wasn't the truth. Of course, the Prime Minister's fine—he's had the jab—but there are still 24,800,000 or so Australians who are still waiting to be vaccinated. The Prime Minister is keeping our international borders closed, and I understand the health reasons for doing so, and that he might continue to do so for some time, but there are many sectors that rely on international tourists and international students, and they're going to be struggling for some time yet.

I particularly mention ELICOS, and I will come back to that later, because there are some important developments taking place in the ELICOS sector. There are also international students at universities and, obviously, tourism, particularly in North Queensland. How will these businesses survive and what are the consequences if they don't? ELICOS is a classic example where these people with their incredible skills will, if they're not supported, go to other sectors, and the pipeline that we have for international students going into universities will be cut off. What will happen when these sectors try to spring back to life when the international tourists and the international students are able to return? The businesses need to be supported, but they won't be around. That will be a disaster.

What's even more astonishing about the coalition government cutting JobKeeper support to these businesses too early is that they have wasted so much money by supporting businesses that don't actually need taxpayer support. A report has found that one-fifth of the JobKeeper wage subsidy paid to ASX 300 firms went to entities that reported an increase in their underlying earnings metrics from pre-pandemic levels. That's for one in five. For robodebt, the government was happy to go after people who were doing it tough. We don't have the data on overall JobKeeper payments, but if the same is true for businesses outside ASX 300 firms, then it would follow that, in the second half of 2020, almost $10 billion of JobKeeper—that's taxpayer funds—went to firms whose profits rose.

I remember robodebt. People in the opposition remember robodebt and the harm that occurred. What about Rolex debt? What about Harvey Norman and the like who are taking all this money? We know what JobKeeper was for: it was for Australian taxpayers to help businesses who were suffering financially. It was to keep workers in jobs until our world returned to a new kind of normal. Labor pushed for wage subsidies very early, and I think the member for Gorton was part of that right from the start. We were told that pushing for wage subsidies wasn't appropriate, but Labor knew it was the right thing to do. This support needed to be targeted appropriately, so that those who needed the support got it. We didn't need a sports-rorts-on-steroids type of assistance program.

If the Morrison government had been more competent in their rollout of the JobKeeper wage subsidy, they would not have wasted money that could be used to extend the subsidy for businesses that still need it right now. It could have been used to extend the subsidy for the 1.1 million people currently receiving the subsidy for another six months. So we have 10 per cent of the vaccine rollout, but a 100 per cent cut to the assistance. This would make all the difference to businesses in Moreton and all around the Australia and to the workers who are employed there; it would keep them connected to their workplaces. In six moths, hopefully, we'll be much closer to recommencing international travel and again welcoming tourists and students—hopefully.

Or, rather than the money being misdirected to businesses that did not need it, it could have been originally included for sectors that missed out, like, dare I say, the arts sector or, particularly, the university sector.

It really upsets me and people in Moreton that this Rolex debt will not be paid by these businesses. We've seen companies like Solomon Lew's Premier Investments receive $40 million taxpayer assistance through JobKeeper. They were forced to temporarily shut some of their stores, like Smiggle, Dotti, Portmans and Just Jeans, when the pandemic struck, but when the stores reopened and online sales boomed, Lew's business also boomed. Premier Investments made a bigger profit in 2020 than it made in 2019. Shareholders were paid, in total, $57 million in dividends. Solomon Lew personally received more than $20 million and the CEO received a $2.5 million taxpayer funded bonus. The shares in Premier Investments have dramatically increased to a record high. It's always good to see Australian businesses doing well and making profits. I applaud that. It does mean more jobs. But it begs the question: how carefully designed was the JobKeeper wage subsidy? And, more importantly, should Solomon Lew pay the taxpayer money back? I particularly commend the member for Fenner, Andrew Leigh, on the great work he's doing in this area.

The Morrison government are all for social security recipients having income management, but, for corporate welfare, they're happy to let the boardroom dish out multi-million-dollar taxpayer funded bonuses. They flaunt their taxpayer funded Rolex watches while trumpeting the fact that they go after people with a robodebt farce. There is unfortunately no legal obligation today for Solomon Lew to return the JobKeeper subsidies and there seems to be no inclination by the coalition—no word from the backbench, no word from those in the executive—to get businesses to return the JobKeeper subsidies. There seems to be no inclination that they'll pursue those who made windfall profits from the taxpayers' purse.

I should highlight the companies that do have a social conscience and benefited from JobKeeper but bounced back stronger and have paid back the taxpayer subsidies. I will mention just a few of them. Toyota Australia returned $18 million in JobKeeper payments and said;

... returning JobKeeper payments was the right thing to do as a responsible corporate citizen.

Super Retail Group, which owns Rebel and BCF, announced it would repay $1.7 million in JobKeeper subsidies as its stores have returned a healthy profit. So there was Toyota and Super Retail Group. It sounds like: 'Oh, what a BCF-ing good feeling it is to be a corporate citizen!' It is corporate responsibility being acted out tangibly. Well done, Toyota, Rebel and BCF. JobKeeper should have helped battlers who need the help, not billionaires who don't. This Rolex debt should be repaid. In 2020, the combined wealth of Australia's billionaires jumped by a jaw-dropping 52 per cent. They don't need valuable taxpayer dollars to prop them up, and we shouldn't have to rely on billionaires having a conscience to ensure that taxpayers' money is spent wisely.

The Prime Minister and the Treasurer should have ensured that the funds were better targeted to those who really needed it. They should clean up their own mess. But this coalition government just seem to roll from one mess to another. Whether it's their complete lack of integrity or sheer incompetence, it has become difficult to keep up with the daily scandals. In their 8th year in office, here are just a few in the long trail of scandals that have defined this coalition government. They paid 10 times too much to a Liberal Party donor for a piece of land alongside the new Sydney airport, the Leppington Triangle. A federal judge said a government minister had engaged in criminal conduct by unlawfully depriving an asylum seeker of his liberty. The coalition government oversaw a scheme where Services Australia illegally issued debt collection notices to more than 370,000 Australians, and more than 2,000 people died, some from suicide, despite the government being warned beforehand that it was illegal. The member for New England paid $80 million for water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin, a quarter more than the seller even asked for. An unheard of company with its head office in a shack on Kangaroo Island was awarded a $423 million contract to run refugee camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea under a limited tenure. This was the only company invited to bid. The Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction sought meetings with senior environment officials about an ongoing investigation by the department into grasslands part owned by the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction. We saw the Minister for Home Affairs personally intervene to have two au pairs, who were about to be deported, released from immigration detention after he was contacted by a former colleague. We saw the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction use a fraudulent document—and he's never actually explained how he got that fraudulent document—in an attempt to tarnish the reputation of a local government official, the Sydney Lord Mayor. A minister of the Crown, a minister of the Commonwealth, did this petty deed. I really can't understand that. And who could forget the sports rorts saga, when changes were made to the list of sport grant recipients. Local sporting groups had put time and energy into putting in submissions, but changes were made by the minister, in consultation with the Prime Minister's office, after entering the caretaker period. Sport Australia had no knowledge of six of the grants and no application form in front of them. That's just some of the greatest hits.

In recent months we've seen some awful revelations about allegations of criminal conduct and other disgusting behaviour of coalition staff in this building—a building that should be all about noble intentions rather than the grubby behaviour that we've been hearing about in the last few weeks. Most people come to this parliament to do good things, and those good efforts are being besmirched by those opposite. It has revealed a deeply harmful culture about the treatment of women. What has been response of the Prime Minister and his government? Basically, it's been weasel words and a total avoidance of accountability. It's all about tricky political management and putting out press releases. That is not leadership. It does not even come close. This coalition government has let our nation down, and it is time to throw this lot out.

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