Some months ago I was loud in my derision of people like Gerry Harvey for proudly announcing to the world they made a profit from JobKeeper payments. I, like most reasonable minded Australians, was appalled. Alexi Boyd, chief executive of COSBOA, has released media condemning the proposal and she is as always spot on. I feel the need to write this opinion as I understand those proposing the legislation have quoted my previous comments to help justify what is unjustifiable.
For background, Independent Senator Rex Patrick recently proposed that the Tax Commissioner should publish the amount of JobKeeper received by businesses with annual turnover above $10 million. The proposal was intended to address the fact that some businesses received billions in JobKeeper payments despite their turnover increasing during the pandemic.
I noted at the time that many other publicly-listed big businesses in similar positions returned their JobKeeper payments. Like all businesses, these businesses signed on for JobKeeper believing their business would likely be adversely impacted by the COVID-19 economic downturn. They signed up in good faith and continued to act in good faith by paying the money back when they realised they didn’t need it.
JobKeeper was brilliant but it was always going to be imperfect. The government had to act quickly to save jobs and businesses. There was not time to take months to design a ‘perfect’ scheme, as most businesses would have gone under and their employees lost their jobs, waiting for the payments to arrive. The government made the right choice and business groups and the unions all signed on at the time — because we all knew we faced a once in a lifetime crisis where time was not our friend.
Unlike the scheme in New Zealand, businesses signing up to JobKeeper were not told that a condition of accepting JobKeeper was that their business would be named. Similarly, this was not a traditional grant process where there is a need for transparency of decisions made to give grants to some organisations but not to others who may have applied. Australian businesses were told the information they provided, and payments they received, would be kept private. This was important given that it was the ATO — the keeper of lots of very sensitive financial information — that was administering Job Keeper.
Now, well after the fact, we have a group of Senators proposing that this information be made public. Unlike big publicly listed companies, all of which are required to declare their JobKeeper payments as part of their declarations to shareholders, small business owners keep their affairs private because their business and private financial situations are linked. They are horrified that the Senate might somehow have the capacity to compel the ATO to disclose their personal information.
The Labor Party and Senator Patrick in particular (among others) need to remember that political point scoring comes at the expense of others. There are likely over 20,000 small and family businesses that have annual turnovers of $10 million or more. A business earning $10 million is miniscule compared with a multi-billion dollar turnovers of big listed companies. These small and family businesses did it tough through COVID in 2020 and are again struggling with COVID in 2021. Actions that threaten exposure of their financial situation are unwelcome.
So what’s next? Do we name every Australian who is was a beneficiary of JobKeeper? What about those who have received, and continue to receive, Jobseeker? Or every family receiving disability payments? Or every pensioner, receiving pension payments?
There is also the issue of casual and part-time employees who on JobKeeper received well above their normal pay due to the system’s idiosyncrasies. Some part timers who normally received, say, $150 per week for the hours they worked, were receiving $750 a week. Will they be asked to pay back that money? They shouldn’t be, and employers’ names should not be published.
This proposed move is not just one involving violation of privacy. It risks providing big companies with information that could be used to inform hostile acquisition strategies by exposing the many small and family businesses that are vulnerable as a result of COVID.
Publishing the list without any context also means small and family business owners will be targeted by the ignorant and belligerent bullies in the community, including certain unions. These people won’t read the fine print. They won’t understand what they are reading on the ATO website except for the business name. They will likely target that business by promoting boycotts on social media or worse still, by physically picketing business premises. The business may close as a result. Workers may lose their jobs. The children of the owners may find themselves bullied at school (and I have seen that happen when some regulator decides to name and shame small businesses).
If such a list is published, it will send a very clear message to business people about the next crisis. Namely, that they cannot trust what they are told by governments. Not because the government has lied but because in the future someone will want to change the rules and do things that might put them, their families, their business and their employees at risk. All for pure political gain.
The small and family business community gave blood, sweat and a lot of tears to get JobKeeper for their workers. They had to have cash to pay the workers before they could claim the payment. Some had the cash but many had to get loans from their bank or cash in their superannuation to access JobKeeper for their employees.
Now they find their names could end up on a public list that could be accessed by business haters, their competitors and ignorant trolls on social media.
Gerry Harvey and others failed the good faith test by not just keeping the money but also bragging about it. The proposed action by Senator Patrick and others also fails the good faith test and it should be called out for what it is — a shameless political stunt that has significant ramifications for all small and family businesses in Australia.