Back pocket billions to bottom lines

Small businesses going under, ordinary taxpayers losing working hours, losing their jobs or being funnelled into the ‘gig economy’ but JobKeeper secrecy remains. Michael West reports on shame and the collapse of business leadership in Australia.

1 September 2021 | Michael West, MW Media

Unless they disclose who got it, JobKeeper will remain a giant festering stain on the reputation of big business in Australia. Week in, week out, we are treated to whining by the leaders of Australia’s business lobby. Taxes are too high, wages are too high, government debt is too high; these are the common refrains. 

We see them on the ABC, we see them on Sky “News”. They are all over the press, pontificating to politicians and anybody who will listen how Australians should conduct their affairs.

But where are they now, where are they on the issue of the biggest transfer of wealth in history, a transfer of almost $100 billion in JobKeeper subsidies from ordinary Australians to business, much of it to big business which did not need it to survive?

Slinking about behind the scenes warning the Coalition not to dare disclose who got what and how much, that’s where. Silent on the matter of this transfer of $9,000 per Australian citizen to corporations.

And faithfully, the Coalition is staying true to their big business donors, betraying those who voted for them, ordinary people who picked up the tab. Some $13b went to companies whose income actually rose, to profitable companies. This was money which went directly to their bottom line. Wages are the biggest cost for most companies and the public has underwritten them; some of the corporate welfare recipients splashed it on executive bonuses.

To label it as a disgrace would be an understatement. 

Yes, JobKeeper was effective – though poorly structured – in keeping business going during the pandemic. And yes, now it should be paid back. Now it should be disclosed; who got it and how much they got.

Some of it has been disclosed by companies listed on the ASX. But what of foreign multinationals operating in this country? Where is the disclosure by these entities?

What the Government and the business lobby don’t seem to understand is that this will not go away. It will remain a festering stain on the reputation of big business for as long as memories last. It saps confidence in business itself. 

Surely they must realise that this is an historic moment, a moment when all pretence about capitalism and free markets has been discarded.

Every time a business figure talks about free markets, about the government staying out of business, about their heavy tax burden, about regulation and red tape, their views will be treated with disdain, lambasted as hypocritical. 

There is no cogent argument against transparency. Peak business lobby the Business Council of Australia has not even bothered to justify it. They have just kept their heads low.

The odious AI Group, funded to the tune of $14m by Commonwealth grants, funded also by the international weapons contractors, has had a crack though:

AI chief executive Innes Willox claims straight-faced that it should not be disclosed or paid back because it was not a loan:

“First, and most importantly a key reason JobKeeper worked was because it was a permanent payment.  It was not a loan”. 

This is the mob who fought against domestic violence leave for women, the mob who fights for foreign controlled companies trying to push wages lower.

This is also the mob which itself runs commercial, profitable businesses yet pays zero tax and has the hide to preach about fiscal rectitude.

Surely the business lobby and its fawning advocates in the Coalition realise that they have to bite the bullet here and disclose who got JobKeeper, and how much, and whether they paid it back.

Maybe they don’t pay it back, but it still must be disclosed because, until it is made transparent, it will linger like a giant festering stain on the reputation of the business community, a constant reminder of predatory practice.

And yet the business leadership is cowering. Where is Jennifer Westacott on this issue? The chief executive of the nation’s peak business group, Business Council of Australia needs to show some leadership.

Where are the other chief business leaders, the other directors of the BCA: Alan Joyce from Qantas, Alison Kitchen from KPMG, Susan Lloyd Hurwitz from Mirvac, Tim Reed, Alison Watkins from Coca-Cola, Danny Gilbert from Gilbert & Tobin, Karen Watson from Dow Australia?

Who in corporate Australia is willing to stand up and do the right thing, not just for ordinary Australians but for big business itself?

This is the biggest transfer of wealth in Australia’s history from ordinary working people to the business elite. Independent Senator Rex Patrick has sought to bring an amendment to make JobKeeper transparent. That was shot down.

Now Labor, led on the issue by Andrew Leigh, is demanding transparency. The Greens and the rest of the cross-bench want it. So ardent however is the Coalition’s desire to kowtow to its donors that it is shying away from making any law to which a transparency amendment might be attached.

If the business community wants to be seen as acting with integrity, it’s time to bite the bullet on JobKeeper, time to stop hiding.

This article was first published by MW Media, Michael West established to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. Formerly a journalist and editor at Fairfax newspapers and a columnist at News Corp, West was appointed Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences.