Liberal backbenchers want JobKeeper overpayments returned to public coffers

Liberal backbenchers want JobKeeper overpayments returned to public coffers

Frustrated Liberal backbenchers want millions of dollars of JobKeeper payments returned by companies that posted big profits after pocketing the taxpayer-funded handout at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The $88 billion wage subsidy scheme, the centrepiece of the federal government’s pandemic support, has faced increasing scrutiny after company reports showed some recipients paid significant executive bonuses or lifted dividends.

The federal government introduced JobKeeper at the height of the virus as queues outside Centrelinks surged during lockdowns.Credit:Janie Barrett

Queensland Liberal senator Gerard Rennick is among those who want the Australian Taxation Office to request companies whose revenue increased to repay their JobKeeper support.

“We can’t go around asking people to repay robodebt [a discredited Centrelink debt recovery program] … and then turn around and turn a blind eye to the bigger corporates,” he said.

Companies needed to forecast a decline in revenue to qualify for JobKeeper, which provided an initial $1500 a fortnight for each eligible employee. But there was no requirement to repay the money should their predictions prove incorrect.

The Parliamentary Budget Office estimated in July that about $13 billion went to firms that did not meet the criteria in the scheme’s first three months, however, the ATO has said the vast majority of recipients were eligible.

Analysis in March by corporate governance advisory firm Ownership Matters found one-fifth of JobKeeper payments made to major listed companies in the second half of 2020 went to firms who grew their profits during the pandemic. Some major firms, including Harvey Norman, Nine Entertainment (owner of this masthead), Domino’s and Cochlear, have paid back millions of dollars to the government but many others have resisted.

Labor and crossbench senator Rex Patrick are pushing for transparency around JobKeeper recipients, including private companies, which obtained the majority of the funds, and foreign-owned enterprises.

Senator Rennick said the lack of a clawback provision was a major oversight and Treasury and ATO staff should have known this was required.

“Someone should be sacked there for what was, in my view, a shocking bungle,” he said.

Liberal MP John Alexander has also called for companies to return the money if they received it unnecessarily.

“Common sense should prevail and damn sure they should pay it back,” Mr Alexander said.

“How dare anyone profit at this time when we’re really in a war and [take advantage of] things that are put in place to assist those who have real hardship,” he said. “That’s a long way from what I would call traditional Australian values and fair play.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has previously said including a clawback provision could have delayed the payments and some companies might have chosen not to accept the funds despite the nation staring into the “economic abyss”. JobKeeper is widely accepted by economists as a critical measure in keeping the nation afloat when COVID-19 hit Australia last year.

Earlier this month, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said profitable companies who took the JobKeeper subsidy should “do a bit of soul-searching”.

Liberal MP Jason Falinski said companies who had repaid JobKeeper should be congratulated but described Senator Patrick’s attempt to force the ATO to reveal each business with a turnover above $10 million that received the wage subsidy as “dangerous”.

“It is trampling over the rights of individuals for the sake of 30 pieces of silver. I’m not that cheap,” Mr Falinski said.

Liberal senator Andrew Bragg said requesting repayments in hindsight was not necessarily a good idea.

“99 per cent of the businesses which had an uptick in turnover [during COVID-19] were small businesses. Taxing small businesses retrospectively is the last thing we should do,” he said.

He said many of the companies that legally received the money were now affected again by lockdowns and requiring them to repay JobKeeper now would be the “craziest thing”.

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