Senator Rex Patrick has launched a blistering attack on the Morrison government for deciding not to pursue companies that have retained JobKeeper payments despite booking massive profits.
During a Senate Estimates hearing on Wednesday afternoon, Senator Patrick said his constituents in South Australia found it “offensive” that profitable companies had paid dividends to shareholders after receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer handouts.
He said the Morrison government had behaved amorally by taking taxpayers’ money and “just giving it away to your mates, to the people who donate to you”.
“You’re taking taxpayers’ money and you’re giving it to a select group of people. And I cannot find any reasonable proposition that you’re [using to justify] it,” Senator Patrick said, when questioning Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.
Senator Birmingham rejected Senator Patrick’s characterisation and went on to cite research from the Reserve Bank that estimated JobKeeper had saved 700,000 jobs.
Senator Birmingham said the Morrison government would not retroactively change the eligibility criteria for a scheme that had provided crucial financial support to businesses affected by government-mandated lockdowns.
He told the hearing there was no suggestion the firms in question had broken the rules of the scheme, and that even if some of them had gone on to pay higher dividends to shareholders, some of this money would flow through to workers via higher superannuation returns.
“I fully expect that those businesses [that have done better than anticipated] ought to be looking at how they expand their operations to create more jobs for Australians, and how they ought to be expanding their support for their employees, in terms of wages and support for those individuals,” Senator Birmingham said.
“And they ought to be providing dividends to Australians, through lower prices in their goods or services that are provided, [and] in making decisions, as some have, to repay funds to government.”
Senator Patrick said he accepted the program had done a lot of good, but described the millions of dollars paid to profitable companies as “offensive”.
“I understand where there is benefit. I’m talking about the money that has effectively been siphoned through JobKeeper, which I accept has done a lot of good, but has been siphoned through and basically paid to shareholders, in effect, a special grant,” Senator Patrick said.
“I have constituents who are offended by that, and will be offended by your position that you’re not going to look into those particular circumstances.”
As revealed by The New Daily at the beginning of March, more than $1 billion was paid under JobKeeper to public companies that either booked a profit, handed out dividends, or paid executive bonuses during the pandemic last year.
A separate report published by shareholder activist firm Ownership Matters last week found that more than 30 companies recorded higher profits in the last six months of 2020 after taking JobKeeper.
JobKeeper payments were equal to 20 per cent of underlying earnings on average, according to the report, which analysed companies on the ASX 300.
Additional reporting by Matthew Elmas