Treasury concedes JobKeeper paid billions to profit making businesses

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Close to $14 billion of taxpayer funds went to businesses with rising profits in the first six months of the JobKeeper scheme.

An insight report conducted by Treasury, revealed in the first two quarters of 2020 impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, found $27 billion was paid to businesses that had not met the scheme's 30 per cent turnover eligibility threshold.

Of those funds, $13.8 billion went to firms that reported increases in turnover compared to the prior year.

The payments made to profit-making businesses covers 480,000 individual employees.

JobKeeper was brought in as a safeguard during the pandemic to ensure businesses could keep people employed and to curtail a mass job shedding across the economy.

Following revelations that some companies were taking the payments and then turning a profit, Labor and a number of crossbenchers have called for a transparency index, in a bid to mount public pressure on large corporates to payback the subsidy if financial positions were boosted.

ACT Labor MP Andrew Leigh, who has led the opposition's campaign on JobKeeper rorts, claimed the government remains tight lipped about revealing which firms did not forecast a downturn.

"Even now, the Morrison government is fighting to keep secret the names of big firms that got JobKeeper," Dr Leigh said.

"This was a program meant to help battlers, but instead helped line the pockets of offshore billionaires."

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in a statement defended the scheme, claiming it prevented mass economic scarring during the onset of the pandemic.

"Treasury has estimated that the unemployment rate would have peaked at least 5 percentage points higher, and remained above 12 per cent for two years," Mr Josh Frydenberg said.

"It was designed to ensure the strongest possible economic recovery and avoid the scarring impacts on the labour market, which were characteristic of previous recessions."

Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said the report was an admission by the Morrison government that it provided handout to businesses which did not need support.

"A competent Treasurer could have saved those jobs without wasting billions and billions of dollars on businesses that didn't need it," Dr Chalmers said.

Treasury noted 99 per cent of payments had gone to small businesses, and firms that had reported increases in turnover were still negatively impacted by COVID-19 during the shutdown period.

Most of the firms which did not meet the 30 per cent turnover threshold were small businesses, with no more than four workers.

The federal government also claimed a claw back mechanism to recoup funds would have been a disincentive to take up the scheme, which would have hindered the recovery.

An estimated 700,000 jobs were saved because of the wage subsidy scheme.

Mr Frydenberg flagged the swift implementation of the scheme occurred at the onset of the pandemic, where there was "unprecedented uncertainty" about the impact it would have on the economy and the job market.

A number of large public companies have already bowed to public pressure and paid back JobKeeper funds, including Premier Investments, Harvey Norman and Nick Scali.

Around half of the payments made in the first six months were to workers employed in the arts and recreation sector, while 35 per cent was paid out to the hospitality and accommodation industry.

"For many businesses that were eligible for JobKeeper but did not end up experiencing their projected decline in turnover, this was because health restrictions were eased earlier, and these businesses' operations recovered more rapidly than expected," Treasury said in its report.

"Other businesses were able to operate as a result of the support and successfully adapted their business models."

JobKeeper ended in March 2021 following the end of the first two rounds of major lockdowns.

The scheme has been replaced by COVID-19 disaster repayments and business support grants.

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This story Treasury reveals how much Jobkeeper went to firms with rising profits first appeared on The Canberra Times.