Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is today beating back widespread criticism that the JobKeeper program was a monumental rort of taxpayer money.
He argues – correctly in the view of the Reserve Bank – that JobKeeper saved hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout the pandemic.
But these conclusions are not mutually exclusive – JobKeeper is both the largest rort in Australian history and the most successful job saver.
A timeline of the scheme shows it was plagued by scandals from the start.
JobKeeper is born
March 30, 2020
After weeks of pressure to unveil a wage subsidy program in response to national lockdowns, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces a $130 billion scheme called JobKeeper.
Payments of $1500 a fortnight will be available to workers at firms that, depending on the size of the company, see their turnover fall by at least 30 or 50 per cent during COVID-19.
Mr Morrison says businesses will “hibernate” through the storm.
Seeds of the rorts
April 8, 2020
JobKeeper legislation passes Parliament with bipartisan support.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is granted extraordinary decision-making power to decide who is eligible without Parliamentary oversight.
But most importantly, we learn about two key features of the program that will result in tens of billions of dollars in wasted taxpayer cash.
1. Businesses won’t have to prove their turnover has fallen and will instead be able to access the scheme if they predict their turnover will fall in the future.
2. Once businesses are accepted, their eligibility will not be retested. This means they can continue accessing payments for the duration of the scheme no matter how their sales or profits improve over the next six months.
A week in, confusion reigns
April 15, 2020
Within a week of the legislation passing, widespread confusion emerges over the scheme’s rules and eligibility criteria.
About 800,000 businesses express interest in signing up, sparking a scramble at the tax office to ready its systems for a deluge of applicants.
Eligibility information is changed and amid growing concern about JobKeeper rorts, Mr Morrison urges people to “dob in” businesses that were breaking the rules.
Mad rush to sign up
April 20, 2020
The ATO officially opens JobKeeper applications.
The system is immediately plagued with issues, with complaints about a confusing process and reports of mistakes on important ATO forms.
Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of businesses manage to sign up.
The two faces of the ATO
May 1-9, 2020
JobKeeper payments begin to be paid in arrears from April.
Within a week, more than 700,000 businesses are enrolled and 4.7 million workers are receiving fortnightly payments.
The ATO says it will show mercy to businesses that made mistakes on their applications but will respond “forcefully” to JobKeeper fraud.
JobKeeper mired in delays
May 11, 2020
The ATO sparks another bout of criticism after revealing delays in processing the first round of JobKeeper payments.
May 15, 2020
Treasury data (which would later turn out to be wrong) claims six million workers are being paid under JobKeeper.
Reports emerge of businesses manipulating their cashflow to access JobKeeper when they otherwise would have been ineligible.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison admits “there’ll be some things to sort out” once Treasury reviews the JobKeeper program.
The ATO alerts business owners that scammers are trying to steal JobKeeper.
The biggest accounting bungle in Australian history
May 21, 2020
We learn all the data on JobKeeper being reported is wrong.
The ATO and Treasury admit to a $60 billion bungle that saw them over count the amount of workers being paid because of mistakes made on companies’ application forms.
This reduces the scheme’s $130 billion price tag to just $70 billion.
Annual leave stoush
Two workers at Village Roadshow become an example of a broader fight over the industrial relations side of JobKeeper.
Employers had been asking staff to draw on their annual leave entitlements while stood down and receiving wage subsidies.
This must be done with the reasonable agreement of staff.
But disputes over what constitutes reasonable soon lead to dozens of Fair Work Commission disputes.
Village staff lose their bid to claim it was unreasonable for their employer to request they draw down on annual leave entitlements.
Other employers such as Qantas and retailer H&M also ask staff to draw down on their leave entitlements, sparking union outrage.
Childcare centres kicked off JobKeeper
June 7, 2020
Mr Morrison unveils plans to kick childcare centres off JobKeeper.
The industry is a “special case”, he says, announcing a special support scheme for businesses.
But childcare centre owners fear the change will leave them worse off.
He also says JobKeeper won’t be extended beyond September.
(Spoiler: It was extended).
Data drip begins
June 11, 2020
Treasury releases data on the JobKeeper scheme.
It reveals 844,000 businesses are receiving payments, totalling more than $12.9 billion to more than three million workers.
The Grattan Institute publishes a critique of JobKeeper, recommending a series of changes.
Priests on JobKeeper
June 17, 2020
The ABC publishes one of the first stories exposing how many companies that didn’t need financial support received JobKeeper.
It finds that Catholic priests are among those receiving wage subsidies.
Dodgy application blitz
June 24, 2020
The ATO launches a blitz to claw back hundreds of millions of dollars in JobKeeper payments that went to companies that shouldn’t have received it.
It becomes evident that the ATO could not closely scrutinise applications in April and was commencing a mass audit to identify wrongdoing.
The ATO says it received thousands of complaints about JobKeeper fraud within 41 days of applications opening.
July 7, 2020
Earlier confusion comes home to roost as it emerges education firm Navitas paid too little JobKeeper to its staff after mixed messages from the ATO.
The company agrees to back pay workers in an agreement with unions.
Elite school payout
July 10, 2020
Journalists start to catch wind of even more JobKeeper rorts.
The Herald Sun reports elite private schools are receiving JobKeeper.
We eventually learn that this trend was widespread.
JobKeeper 2.0 is born
July 21, 2020
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg unveils a new version of JobKeeper.
He extends payments until March 2021 under a two-tier model that will provide less support to fewer businesses than the original program.
JobKeeper 2.0 coincides with a Treasury review finding $20.3 billion was paid in JobKeeper to 920,000 organisations to June 23, 2020.
About 3.5 million workers received wage subsidies, Treasury says.
At the same time, New Zealand’s public wage subsidy register reveals that big Australian employers like Harvey Norman are receiving money under the scheme.
Rules are relaxed
August 4–7, 2020
Mr Frydenberg also decides to change the eligibility test to allow firms to gain access to JobKeeper 2.0 by showing a decline in turnover in one quarter rather than two – the change costs about $15 billion.
August 11–15, 2020
Corporate earnings season swings into gear and JobKeeper becomes a topic of national conversation.
The term DividendKeeper is coined to explain a trend of publicly-listed companies reporting higher profits and paying dividends after receiving JobKeeper payments.
Smiggle owner Premier Investments becomes a key example, after it reported an 11 per cent increase in profits after taking JobKeeper.
The Age also reports that high-fee colleges are taking JobKeeper.
Naming and shaming begins
September 1, 2020
Outrage over JobKeeper rorts builds as Labor MP Andrew Leigh tells Parliament about a string of large businesses paying bonuses after receiving JobKeeper payments.
One commentator calls the program “JobRorter”.
September 14, 2020
Unions urge the government to crack down on JobKeeper rorts as yet more reports emerge of large companies profiting from it.
New JobKeeper rules are released soon afterwards: Businesses are no longer allowed to project turnover declines and must show an “actual” fall in their turnover beyond September 27.
Businesses will also have their eligibility for the program re-tested, and their turnover will be more regularly assessed under the new scheme.
This is a huge change that sees thousands of large companies kicked off the program after September.
JobKeeper bill hits $55 billion
September 18, 2020
Treasury reveals JobKeeper payments hit $55 billion on September 14.
About 3.6 million workers are receiving payments in the weeks before JobKeeper 1.0 ends and JobKeeper 2.0 begins.
Qantas caught in ‘disgraceful abuse’
September 24, 2020
Qantas loses a court case over the way it is paying JobKeeper to staff.
The arrangement the airline had been following paid workers less than they should have received, according to Justice Geoffrey Flick.
The Transport Workers Union calls it a “disgraceful abuse of the JobKeeper system”.
JobKeeper 2.0 kicks in
September 27, 2020
The largest shift in the life of the JobKeeper scheme occurs as the first phase of the scheme ends.
Several million workers lose access to the payments as hundreds of thousands of businesses are rendered ineligible under the new turnover test.
ATO reveals $120 million clawback
October 28, 2020
The ATO reveals it is clawing back $120 million in JobKeeper payments.
It emerges that 8000 businesses were notified in July that they were ineligible for JobKeeper, despite being accepted and receiving payments.
October 30, 2020
A data matching exercise between the ATO and Services Australia finds about 135,000 workers are victims of JobKeeper discrepancies.
Those on income support were wrongly listed as eligible for JobKeeper.
Scheme saved 700,000 jobs: RBA
November 23, 2020
Mr Frydenberg rejoices after the Reserve Bank finds JobKeeper saved about 700,000 people from losing their jobs at the height of COVID-19.
Millions kicked off JobKeeper
November 29, 2020
Treasury data reveals more than two million workers went off JobKeeper after September 27.
Recipients fell from more than 3.6 million to 1.5 million in two months.
Only a handful of large businesses are now receiving payments after the new eligibility test ruled thousands of profitable companies ineligible.
December 9-20, 2020
The ATO commences 19 criminal investigations into JobKeeper fraud.
The tax watchdog commends the ATO for its JobKeeper administration.
JobKeeper returns surge
January 12, 2021
The second corporate earnings season since JobKeeper was unveiled sparks a flood of large companies returning their wage subsidies.
Toyota and Iluka Resources are among the first companies to repay it.
The Treasurer’s secrets
January 18–19, 2021
The New Daily reports Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is resisting efforts to publish turnover data on companies that received JobKeeper.
Public pressure is building on the government to require companies to repay JobKeeper if they booked higher profits or sales.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison rules out forced repayments but said he welcomes companies repaying the money voluntarily.
Days later, Mr Frydenberg echoes that sentiment – a line that the government has held ever since.
Treasurer rules out JobKeeper 3.0
January 31, 2021
Amid sustained criticism about JobKeeper rorts, Mr Frydenberg rules out extending the program despite fears that businesses still need help.
The government has soured on keeping the wage subsidy going as the number of companies reported to have rorted the scheme grows.
The ‘politics of envy’
February 1, 2021
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Labor’s calls for profitable corporations to repay JobKeeper is “the politics of envy” in a speech to the National Press Club.
Mr Morrison later dropped the term from his talking points.
Audit office starts review
February 8, 2021
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) announces it is reviewing the JobKeeper program after Dr Leigh wrote requested a probe.
ATO reveals $340 million overpaid
February 13, 2021
The ATO reveals more than $340 million in JobKeeper was overpaid in an appearance before a parliamentary committee.
It says about $53 million will not be clawed back because businesses tried to do the right thing, sparking a rebuke from Labor senators.
TND reveals JobKeeper offenders
March 3, 2021
The New Daily reveals more than $1 billion in JobKeeper was paid to more than 60 publicly listed companies that recorded profits, or paid investor dividends and executive bonuses.
It is the first large-scale analysis examining JobKeeper payments.
It culminates in the below graphic, which was last updated on March 31.
Ownership matters review
March 17, 2021
Weeks later, shareholder advisory firm Ownership Matters publishes its own analysis, broadly concurring with TND’s earlier reporting.
March 26, 2021
The New Daily publishes analysis of companies that repaid JobKeeper.
Program officially ends
March 31, 2021
The largest government spending program in Australian history comes to an end.
The last count suggested about 1.1 million workers were still receiving payments.
Treasury predicts about 150,000 people will lose their jobs.
Harvey Norman in full retreat
Premier Investments, which became a poster child of JobKeeper waste, bows to public pressure and returns part of its JobKeeper windfall.
Harvey Norman refuses to repay any of its $20.5 million bill and is forced to delete its Twitter account after unions stage protests outside its stores.
Billions wasted: PBO
Labor MP Andrew Leigh hands Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) data to the ABC, which reports billions of dollars were paid to companies that either saw no fall in turnover, or saw a rise in sales.
The revelations reignite calls for a compulsory repayment scheme.
Mr Frydenberg continues to resist mounting pressure to crack down on big employers that took the payments.
Services Australia chases debts
August 10, 2021
The Guardian reports that Services Australia is chasing $32 million in JobKeeper debts from income support recipients.
The government argues these people were overpaid JobKeeper and therefore broke the rules.
The story sparks accusations of a double standard, given billionaires who took JobKeeper are not required to repay money to taxpayers.
August 13, 2021
The ATO gets into a fight with the Senate by resisting an order to publish a list of large companies that received JobKeeper.
ATO commissioner Chris Jordan argues it would undermine confidence in the tax system – a public interest immunity claim.
This draws a rebuke from independent senator Rex Patrick, who said he would deny the claim on the grounds that it was meritless.
Treasurer backs ATO silence
August 27, 2021
Mr Frydenberg backs the ATO in its fight with the Senate, delaying the Senate order by issuing his own public interest immunity claim.
Senator Patrick pledges to deny Mr Frydenberg’s claim as well.
JobKeeper waste tops $13 billion: PBO
August 31, 2021
Labor MP Andrew Leigh drops more PBO data, which show that $13 billion worth of JobKeeper payments went to companies that increased their sales between April and September last year.
Millions handed to surging firms: PBO (again)
September 2, 2021
Dr Leigh and the ABC publish yet more PBO data, revealing that hundreds of millions of dollars in JobKeeper payments went to companies that tripled their revenue.
The government votes down a proposal to publish how much JobKeeper large companies received and instead passes a proposal to republish data on public companies, which is already available.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg tells the ABC the government did not require companies to pay back money they did not need because it was worried they would not sign up for JobKeeper if they did.
This repeats earlier Treasury testimony.
This timeline is not exhaustive – some events have been edited out for length and clarity.