Unions and economists are urging the government to expand its JobKeeper wage subsidy, as early indicators suggest fewer people will receive the payment than originally expected.
Treasury deputy secretary Jenny Wilkinson told the Special Committee on COVID-19 on Thursday that the federal government has so far paid out $5.2 billion in $750 handouts to households, $7.5 billion of cashflow support to small businesses, and a further $2.4 billion in JobKeeper wage subsidies.
This amounts to just $15 billion out of the more than $200 billion pledged by the federal government almost six weeks after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced its last stimulus package.
Ms Wilkinson told the special Senate committee, which is responsible for interrogating the integrity of government’s coronavirus spending, that 5 million Australians were set to receive the wage subsidy as of May 6, and 768,000 businesses had enrolled in the scheme.
When the government announced the scheme on March 30, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said 6 million Australians were expected to receive the $1500 fortnightly subsidy, at a cost of $130 billion to the federal budget.
Ms Wilkinson said uptake of the scheme was “broadly in line with what [Treasury] expected” and more enrolments were likely as the deadline for the scheme had been extended to May 31.
But unions have said the government is unlikely to spend the full $130 billion set aside for the scheme and should therefore expand it.
Under current eligibility rules, roughly one million short-term casuals and two million temporary-visa workers do not qualify for the JobKeeper payments.
Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has no excuse not to expand the scheme given it was set to run under budget.
He could fix it with a stroke of a pen. It doesn’t require a change in legislation. All of it can be addressed by the rules, which he can amend,” Ms O’Neil said.
“It was necessary to amend these rules even before we found out [the government] had under-spent, so there’s no moral justification, there’s no safety justification, and now there’s no financial justification for them not fixing it.”
During the Senate committee inquiry, Labor’s Murray Watt said it was “a perverse decision” to exclude short-term casuals from the scheme given the worst affected sectors – arts and hospitality – hired a disproportionately high number of short-term casuals.
He said more household support had come from Australians raiding their superannuation savings ($9.4 billion) than from government.
Economists call for more government spending
Economist Angela Jackson later told The New Daily the decision to exclude migrant workers and short-term workers from JobKeeper was political and had no basis in economics.
She said the government should expand the scheme and could afford to do so.
“There’s also JobSeeker … returning to the old rate will put a lot of people back into extreme poverty, and the government should be looking at that,” Ms Jackson added.
“Whether it maintains the current level is one question, but certainly [there needs to be] a substantial increase on what it was previously.”
Meanwhile, independent economist Stephen Koukoulas said the government must do more to reduce the economic impact of COVID-19.
He said it looked increasingly likely that the government would underspend on key fiscal policies.
“This is partly because they were too slow to be available and many businesses folded before they could qualify for the payment. This is a design fault that has compounded the extent of the downturn,” Mr Koukoulas wrote in an op-ed for Yahoo Finance.
“There was also a tangle of red tape that businesses and the unemployed have had to deal with to qualify for the payments which deterred many from applying.”
He added: “In other words, the stimulus or rescue measures have not been as effective as they were made out to be or should have been.”