Government chases down COVID overpayments, but not from big business

While the federal government has resisted calls to claim back overpayments to big business for COVID support payments, it has been sending debt letters to individuals urging them to pay back money.

According to a report in The Guardian, Centrelink has sent debt notices to 11,000 JobKeeper recipients claiming that they have been overpaid.

Services Australia told a Senate estimates committee on Monday that 11,771 have had a debt raised after a review of their income support payments and level of JobKeeper income.

Read: Government assistance failing older Australians

“As at 30 April 2021, approximately $32.8 million in debt has been raised through completed reviews,” the agency said.

The government, though, has steadfastly refused to take action against businesses that claimed the JobKeeper payment, despite not meeting the forecast revenue requirement.

Under JobKeeper rules, businesses had to demonstrate an actual or projected drop in revenue to qualify, but many did not experience these forecast losses as a result of improving business conditions.

On Monday, the government opposed a move from independent senator Rex Patrick that would require the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) to reveal which major companies had received JobKeeper and how much money they received, similar to a database that exists in New Zealand.

Read: Can Centrelink check your bank records?

“The amendment requires the tax commissioner to publish all of the companies who earn more than $10 million who have received JobKeeper and the amount they have received,” Senator Patrick said. “It’s a transparency amendment.”

Finance minister Simon Birmingham defended the way the government handled the JobKeeper payments to business, explaining that it had saved jobs at a crucial time.

“We don’t think it’s appropriate to create a circumstance where now they are vilified with some sort of pretence that they weren’t eligible when they were eligible,” Mr Birmingham said.

“The actions of government and those businesses saved many thousands, if not millions, of Australian jobs and remains an important part of our economic recovery.”

Greens senator Rachel Siewert said there was an obvious double standard being applied to the way the government was viewing JobKeeper payments made to businesses as opposed to those made to individuals.

“It is farcical that the government is chasing individuals for so called debts for what will be genuine mistakes in a confusing system when they have given millions to billionaires,” Senator Siewert said.

A Morrison government spokesperson told The Guardian that there was no double standard and that some businesses had been ordered to pay back money in some circumstances.

Read: Australia’s most vulnerable die waiting for Centrelink payments

“Services Australia takes every step to remind people of their reporting obligations,” the spokesperson said.

“Under JobKeeper, where businesses misreported against the eligibility criteria, the ATO has the power to recover overpayments. As at July, $284 million in overpayments has been identified and approximately $138 million recovered.”

Centrelink compliance general manager Chris Birrer told Senate estimates that welfare recipients had an obligation to report JobKeeper as ordinary income, which would be checked against tax records and other evidence.

“It could impact whether or not they were eligible for a rate of JobSeeker or other income support payment or what the correct rate would be,” Mr Birrer said.

Corporate governance advisory group Ownership Matters recently looked at the government subsidies received by the 300 largest entities listed on Australia’s stock exchange during calendar year 2020.

If found that the six largest JobKeeper recipients – Qantas ($726 million), Crown Resorts ($254 million), Flight Centre ($195 million), Star Entertainment Group ($152 million), Eagers Automotive ($129 million) and G8 Education ($102 million) – accounted for roughly 63 per cent of all JobKeeper payments going to listed companies.

Do you think there is a double standard for how the government is applying JobKeeper overpayments to businesses and individuals? Should it be trying to make big companies that posted huge profits pay back their JobKeeper subsidies? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Ben