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Scott Morrison says his government is “still considering” potential changes to the jobseeker payment, with Treasury providing advice on a “range of options” ahead of the slated end to the coronavirus supplement next month.
As debate also swirls about the jobkeeper program, with confirmation on Thursday that about 10 profitable businesses were now considering repaying about $50m, the prime minister confirmed the government was giving active consideration to changes to unemployment benefits.
Asked on Thursday if he’d commit to a permanent increase to jobseeker when the supplement ends, Morrison said: “These are matters we’re still considering. When we’re in a position to make a statement on those, then we will.”
The secretary of the Treasury, Steven Kennedy, also told the Senate’s Covid-19 committee his department was advising the government on “a range of options” for the jobseeker benefit.
“We’re certainly involved in their considerations around advice on ongoing increases but the government, as I said, it will make its decision on the end of the Covid supplement and any subsequent changes,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said Treasury was not looking at the potential macroeconomic effect of a change but the “fiscal impact”.
He had a view on what should happen to the rate, which he’d expressed to the government, but declined to share it publicly.
The discussions were about “the adequacy of the payment and how it intersects with incentives to work”, Kennedy said.
About 1.3 million people are on unemployment benefits – jobseeker or youth allowance (other) – while about 2 million in total receive the coronavirus supplement.
The $150 top-up to jobseeker, student and parenting payments is set to expire at the end of March, which would leave the benefit at $565 a fortnight, or $40 a day. This has prompted renewed calls from Labor, the Greens, welfare groups, and even RBA governor Philip Lowe, for a permanent increase to the benefit.
The opposition has declined to nominate a specific increase, but Labor backbencher Nick Champion told Guardian Australia the current $150 boost should be the “bare minimum”. Guardian Australia revealed on Wednesday how the end of the supplement would cost some of the poorest electorates millions of dollars each fortnight.
When asked about the outlook for jobseeker after March, the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said last month “every dollar we’ve spent through this crisis is a borrowed dollar” and that the government had not baked in “structural spending for the longer term”.
Kennedy also acknowledged there would be some job losses caused by the end of the $80bn jobkeeper wage subsidy program next month, but he said this likely would not lead to an overall increase in unemployment.
He said Treasury’s Myefo forecast of 7.5% unemployment was now “unlikely”. The seasonally adjusted rate is currently 6.6%.
Despite what some have called an “economic cliff” approaching at the end of March, Kennedy noted the RBA’s forecasts suggested unemployment was set to fall in coming months, which seemed more “likely” to him.
Meanwhile, the ATO second commissioner, Jeremy Hirschhorn, revealed about 10 profitable companies were “in discussions” with the tax office about voluntarily returning jobkeeper funds.
The potential repayments are worth about $50m, but only $10m has so far been returned.
Hirschorn told the Covid-19 committee a much larger number of businesses had simply stopped claiming the wage subsidy when their fortunes had turned around but while they were technically eligible for the scheme.
Morrison has previously batted away concerns that profitable businesses had pocketed jobkeeper payments as the “politics of envy”.
But Labor senator Katy Gallagher told the committee on Thursday it was understandable the public was unhappy about executives receiving bonuses while taxpayers were providing their companies with a wage subsidy.
“Maybe the legal responsibility doesn’t rest with returning it but more a moral responsibility now we’re through the crisis,” she said.
Hirschorn said the tax office had also clawed back $135m in jobkeeper overpayments through its compliance activities, while it was pursuing a further $150m from businesses.
There was also $50m, which had been waived because employers had made an “honest mistake” and the money had been passed on to workers.
A further two businesses are facing court for false or misleading statements, and 43 businesses have faced financial penalties on top of being required to pay back overpayments.
The tax office also stopped about $180m in invalid jobkeeper claims before they were issued.
Hirschhorn said for an $80bn program the level of compliance was “extraordinarily high”.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Scott Morrison ‘still considering’ changes to jobseeker when Covid supplement ends | Australian politics