The federal government claims the $90 billion JobKeeper wage subsidy would have been less successful if profitable recipients were forced to pay it back, amid a major parliamentary push to reveal which firms thrived while receiving unprecedented taxpayer support.
The first version of the JobKeeper wage subsidy, designed to support workers forced off the job through the COVID-19 pandemic, channelled taxpayer funding to vulnerable businesses which predicted between a 30% to 50% decline in turnover.
The Reserve Bank of Australia says JobKeeper maintained 700,000 employee relationships through 2020, and stopped job losses from doubling over the first half of the year.
But the legislation included no mechanism allowing the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) to seek repayments from businesses which performed much better than expected.
Parliamentary Budget Office figures have since revealed that 20,000 businesses which received JobKeeper in the first months of the program actually saw their revenues triple. All told, some $13 billion in JobKeeper payments went to companies which saw their revenues increase through 2020.
Only a small fraction of profitable JobKeeper recipients have volunteered to pay back that funding.
And as the Federal Government holds off on chasing profitable firms, more than 11,000 individuals have received Centrelink debt notices alleging JobKeeper overpayment.
Speaking on ABC’s “News Breakfast” Monday morning, Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar defended the scheme’s implementation, including its lack of ‘clawback’ provisions.
With immediate fiscal stimulus the program’s primary objective, such provisions would have scared off eligible employers and put jobs at risk, Sukkar said.
“We all remember staring down the economic abyss 18 months ago when COVID-19 hit,” he said.
“At that time, companies were making decisions on anticipated turnover… that was informing their decisions on whether to stand Australian workers down or to sack people,” he added.
That claim is questionable: Firms whose turnover fell in line with expectations would have been able to pay staff through JobKeeper, as intended.
Meanwhile, many businesses which outperformed the eligibility thresholds would have been able to pay their staff as per usual — while reimbursing the unnecessary taxpayer subsidies they accrued.
Sukkar’s bold “News Breakfast” claim marks the latest strident defence from the federal government, which is facing unprecedented pressure over the landmark scheme.
Appearing on “60 Minutes” on Sunday night, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said the federal government tightened JobKeeper eligibility criteria in response to Treasury data which showed increasing turnovers for many early recipients.
When pushed by reporter Liam Bartlett on why the federal government did not go further by forcing profitable recipients to actually return taxpayer funds, Birmingham said he did not need “smart-arse questions”.
“Of course, I realise these are taxpayer dollars, and with taxpayer dollars it is important that we always look after them,” he said.
“What we were looking out for was taxpayers, people who have paid taxes through their working lives, and making sure they would get support through the JobKeeper program.”
Although JobKeeper officially ended in March, opposition figures like Labor MP Andrew Leigh and crossbench Senator Rex Patrick have called for lists of profitable JobKeeper recipients with turnovers greater than $10 million to be made public.
As it stands, public companies must disclose their JobKeeper accrual in their financial reports.
Yet many recipients were private employers, making it difficult to ascertain which profitable enterprises pocketed taxpayer money and how much of it they took on board.
New Zealand, Britain and the United States, which executed similar payroll supports, have published names of recipient companies.
Leigh’s push for new legislation compelling the ATO to reveal those companies failed in the Senate.
But Patrick has successfully moved a motion which seeks to compel ATO commissioner Chris Jordan to reveal that data.
Jordan has thus far refused to do so, claiming public interest immunity to protect the information submitted to the ATO on a confidential basis.
The ABC reports Patrick has asked the Senate to launch contempt proceedings against Jordan for not obliging a parliamentary order.
Potential penalties for such contempt, if proven, include fines and jail time.
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has also stepped in with the government’s own public interest immunity claim.
A spokesperson for the ATO commissioner told the ABC that claim, if successful, would have the “practical effect of relieving him of his obligations to provide documents” pertaining to profitable JobKeeper recipients.
With the fight for JobKeeper clarity reaching new levels of intensity, Patrick has condemned Canberra’s latest defence.
The senator has pulled out of negotiations with the Coalition on broadly unrelated environmental law over the JobKeeper stoush, saying on Sunday he was “done with ’em”.
And on Monday, Patrick said Sukkar was “pretty disingenuous on [“News Breakfast”] suggesting that the looting of workers’ wallets to pay profitable big business was of benefit to the workers”.
“No amount of spin will remedy this offensive [Liberal Party] endorsed #JobKeeper rort,” he added.
“If only the Liberals were as fierce with firms that got JobKeeper overpayments as they are with journalists who ask hard questions about the scandal,” Leigh said of Birmingham’s “60 Minutes” comments.