Extended lockdowns mean people are looking for someone to blame. Enter the JobKeeper debate

rich list

Harvey Norman chairman Gerry Harvey. Source: Supplied.

We’ve known for months that millions in JobKeeper payments have funnelled into companies that have made a fortune during the pandemic. But the story has never quite seeped into the mainstream — until now.

60 Minutes has called it the “biggest cash grab in Australian history” and stories of luxury brands pocketing handouts while increasing their revenue are now landing on page 1.

It’s not just JobKeeper. Inequality is seeping into headlines everywhere, whether it’s travel exemptions for the prime minister or vaccines being prioritised for certain states.

We’ve always known the pandemic has been better for some than others. But temperatures have risen, particularly over the issue of JobKeeper and inequality. 

Now the Greens have moved to make hay out of the situation, proposing a tycoon tax that is clearly designed to capitalise on the anger and frustration over those who have come out on top during the pandemic. 

What’s changed?

The extended lockdowns are no doubt playing a part in how people are responding to the issue of inequality and unfairness. People are worn out and looking for someone to blame. And in the past month there have been plenty of reasons to blame the rich.

“There is a shift in the tone of the public debate,” Grattan Institute chief Danielle Wood said.

“Partly this is born of a general frustration of circumstances people find themselves in. But it’s also becoming clearer that the impact of the last 18 months of COVID is going to increase inequality. People at the bottom will likely lose jobs, while people at the top have done very well.”

The benefits enjoyed by the rich have been on display. Headlines about sharemarket gains, mining booms and house price rises sit in stark contrast to stories about those struggling to make ends meet. 

“We are coming out with greater inequality than we started with, and I can absolutely understand why that would be manifesting in more frustration,” Wood said. 

Billionaires are an easy target. Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group has been one of the biggest winners, landing a $4 billion dividend last month. Even the AFR acknowledged it was “wealth generation to make the eyes water”. Spread over a year it amounts to about $2.3 million a day — an unimaginable amount of money when people are reaching out to food banks and clinging to precarious jobs during a second year of lockdowns that no one saw coming. 

Then there was retail billionaire Gerry Harvey, who hung up the phone to ABC journalist Raf Epstein when asked about why he was repaying only part of his JobKeeper payment in a year where he made $1.1 billion in pre-tax earnings.

Tax the rich 

One of the most interesting consequences of the debate is that it has driven policy options that had previously seemed untenable. 

It has been in this climate that the Greens made their move, an attention-grabbing idea that seems less radical in the current context of super profits, and taps into a rising anger over wealth disparity. While it’s unlikely to ever come to fruition, it has pushed the issue further into the public domain.

When it comes to JobKeeper, much more is at stake. The government is under increasing pressure to release the names of companies that received the payment. It’s clear the issue is going nowhere.

Labor has very little room to move when it comes to taking on the big end of town. With fears of a close election contest it has backed away from taking on billionaires, capitulating on tax cuts for the rich. It’s also all too familiar with how a tax on the wealthy — miners in particular — can lose an election.

But with anger now bubbling away, it may be forced to take a stand.

This article was first published by Crikey

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