Scott Morrison admits his government made an embarrassing blunder in JobKeeper costs, but Australians should be happy about it.
The clerical error saw the amount needed for the scheme slashed from $130 billion to $70 billion on Friday – a $60 billion saving.
The Prime Minister said Australians should welcome a smaller debt, given coronavirus stimulus spending has blown out to more than $300 billion.
‘There were many unknowns and Treasury did the best they could to estimate what the cost would be,’ he said on Sunday.
JobKeeper was brought in to prevent Centrelink lines like this getting any longer. Now with more money available there are arguments about whether it should be expanded
‘Sure the estimate was overstated and the process with the taxation office to keep us updated on that had a flaw in it, we acknowledge that, I acknowledge that.’
The Federal Government estimated 6.5 million Australians would be receiving the $750-a-week payments based on forms filled out by eligible businesses.
But 1,000 companies incorrectly reported the number of their employees by accident, meaning the figure was more like 3.5 million.
The government is now divided over whether to use the cash to expand the program to help more workers, or simply not spend it.
Mr Morrison appeared to favour the latter option as he talked up the savings to taxpayers in lower government debt.
‘This is not free money… This is not money that is sitting in the bank somewhere, this $60 billion,’ he said.
‘This is money that would have otherwise had to be borrowed against the taxes that future generations would pay,’ he said.
‘So the result of this is that the program will cost not what it was estimated to cost.
‘That means for the taxpayer, their debt levels will be lower, their interest bill will be lower and the government will be able to ensure it will continue to provide the many other essential services without the burden of that greater debt.’
Cafes and restaurants are now allowed to open, but customer limits mean many haven’t brought most of their staff back. Five Docks Dining in Sydney resorted to using cardboard cutouts to make the cafe feel less empty
Mr Morrison described Labor’s demand for Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to front a Senate inquiry to explain the embarrassing reporting error a ‘stunt’.
Chair of the Senate committee into the COVID-19 response, Labor’s Katy Gallagher, has called on the treasurer to front the inquiry to explain the $60 billion bungle.
‘I think if he chooses not to appear, he needs to explain why,’ she told reporters in Canberra on Sunday.
But a spokesman for the government said that is not how the committee was set up.
Enrolled: 910,055 businesses
Claims processed: 759,654
Total payments approved: $8.7 billion
Employees paid: 2.9 million
As of 20 May
‘As the Labor Party know, the process for the COVID Committee is that House of Representatives ministers, if required, would appear through their representative ministers in the Senate and be supported by relevant departmental officials like takes place during Senate estimates hearings,’ he said.
In this case it would be Finance Minister and senator Mathias Cormann.
But Mr Morrison went further: ‘To now try and change the rules exposes that as just a bit of a political stunt.’
Government Services Minister Angus Taylor similarly said the ‘reporting error’ was ‘very good news’.
‘It means that businesses are in better shape than we might have anticipated when those original forecasts were put in place,’ he said on Sky News.
‘It does mean that we’re in a better position as we work our way towards recovery.’
Liberal backbencher Julian Leeser also said the six-month JobKeeper program is due to be reviewed at the end of June and any changes to the program will be part of that discussion.
‘I think it’s important to remember here that this is all borrowed money,’ he told the ABC.
‘So instead of paying back $130 billion of borrowed money, we’re paying back $70 billion of borrowed money.
‘That’s still a very large amount of money that taxpayers of the current generation and future generations will need to pay back.’
Workers in universities and state-owned businesses are not eligible under the scheme’s rules, and neither are most casual staff.
Labor is already moving to build support in the Senate to cut these exceptions out of the spending bill.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is demanding the government reveal how much it would cost to include these workers in JobKeeper.
‘If they can’t manage a program like JobKeeper to the tune of a mistake of $60 billion… then there has got to be a great question mark over how they’ll manage the economic recovery,’ he said.
Unemployment hit 6.1 per cent last month as thousands of businesses were forced to close in coronavirus shutdowns. Many more companies shed staff in the general economic downturn prompted by the pandemic
But it is not just federal Labor that wants the over-estimated $60 billion to be used to broaden the JobKeeper scheme, with Liberal Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein saying it provides an opportunity to extend the program for a longer period.
‘I’m certain that most states and territories will be of a similar view,’ he said.
Opposition frontbencher Penny Wong says it’s a ‘$60 billion black hole in the economic credibility’ of the government.
‘We can’t trust anything Scott Morrison or Josh Frydenberg say about the economy or the budget, and perhaps worse has been the failure to front up and take responsibility,’ Senator Wong told the ABC.
She said the chair of the Senate committee into the COVID-19 response Labor’s Katy Gallagher will be calling on Mr Frydenberg to give evidence to the committee.
‘What I would say to Josh, this is your opportunity to front up and explain the $60 billion blunder to the parliament and to the Australian people,’ she said.
Mr Taylor said a review into the program would go ahead in June and all of those issues would be looked at.
‘The Labor party are out campaigning saying we should spend more money. They have never seen a dollar they don’t want to spend,’ he said.