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Auditor general to investigate jobkeeper after it was used to pay dividends and bonuses | Business

The auditor general is to investigate the operation of the Morrison government’s $100bn jobkeeper subsidy scheme after concerns money that was supposed to be used to keep workers employed during the Covid-19 crisis has been diverted to pay dividends or executive bonuses.

An audit of the scheme will examine issues including whether the Australian Taxation Office has put in place “effective measures to protect the integrity of jobkeeper payments”, the Australian National Audit Office said.

The move follows a request in December from the opposition frontbencher Andrew Leigh, who said it was vital that the scheme, which was the single biggest in Australian history, received proper scrutiny.

“The Morrison government has been extremely secretive about jobkeeper,” he said on Tuesday night.

“They’ve refused to tell the public how much jobkeeper was paid to firms that increased their profits in 2020, and refused to say how much went to firms that paid executive bonuses.”

Companies that initially claimed jobkeeper but did not need the payment to survive have come under increasing pressure to hand the money back.

So far, companies that have returned the subsidy include the Super Retail Group, Toyota and pizza chain Domino’s.

Leigh has poured pressure on other companies to follow suit, including the Premier Investments group controlled by the retail billionaire Solomon Lew, which received almost $70m in jobkeeper after an initial fall in trade that was later eclipsed by a 30{41490b4d0cf0dbc5ec3f65e11fff509c7d6ed2a53a838ebf7adf43f0908f07f3} surge in profit.

Premier is among companies that received jobkeeper and then paid dividends to shareholders – in its case, about $57m, of which $24.25m flowed to Lew.

Lew denied the dividend had any relationship to the amount of jobkeeper received.

The use of jobkeeper by companies that went on to pay out hefty dividends has been under public scrutiny since August.

Research by corporate governance advisory group Ownership Matters, compiled before Premier declared its result for the year, shows that 17 companies in the top 300 listed on the Australian stock exchange received government subsidies and paid out dividends totalling more than $250m.

Companies that had benefited from jobkeeper and then paid large dividends also included retailer Harvey Norman, furniture chains Adairs and Nick Scali, and dental group 1300 Smiles.

In parliament, Leigh has also accused companies including IDP Education, which employs Australia’s highest-paid chief executive, casino operator Star Group and retailer Accent Group, of using jobkeeper to pay executive bonuses.

Separately, the ATO in December said it had launched 19 criminal investigations into potential rorting of the jobkeeper scheme.

It had also stopped or clawed back hundreds of millions of dollars in payments, the ATO said.

The ANAO said its audit would investigate whether the ATO had “effectively administered the rules for the jobkeeper scheme”, where it had “ implemented effective measures to protect the integrity of jobkeeper payments” and whether it had “effectively monitored and reported on the operational performance of the scheme”.

It said it planned to table its report in October.

The ANAO has launched the investigation even though it is suffering from a funding shortfall that has forced it to cut the number of performance audit it plans to conduct.

“The auditor general has had his budget cut by more than one-fifth in real terms since the Coalition came to office in 2013,” Leigh said.

“But even a lean watchdog should be more than a match for the Coalition’s record of waste and mismanagement.”

The jobkeeper scheme is due to expire at the end of March.