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ATO lets ineligible businesses off the hook for $180m in JobKeeper payments


The Australian Tax Office has decided against chasing more than $180 million in misguided JobKeeper payments that landed in the pockets of ineligible businesses that were deemed to have made “honest mistakes”.

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Speaking to a Senate inquiry on Friday, Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan said the Tax Office has so far conducted audits of 1,600 businesses that received the $90 billion federal wage subsidy, of which 95 per cent met eligibility requirements. 

But “clearly, there were some that [did] not, and we’ve already recovered 194 million,” Mr Jordan said.

“We’re pursuing another $89 million; there’s $6 million in dispute, and we’ve decided not to pursue $180 million, because it went to small businesses who made a genuine attempt, maybe a mistake, but had paid it on to their employees,” he said.

“That was a fundamental requirement.”

The ATO’s decision to let scores of businesses off the hook prompted crossbench senator, Rex Patrick, to question the move, which he said emerges in stark contrast to the government’s approach to 11,000 welfare recipients, who in August received debt letters for overpaid JobKeeper.

Friday’s revelations mark the latest in a series of JobKeeper clashes between the ATO and the Senate, which have in recent weeks escalated so far as to see the Tax Commissioner threatened with contempt of the Senate for refusing to publish a list of every large company that received payments, how much, and whether they have moved to pay any of it back. 

Mr Jordan claimed public interest immunity against a Senate order in mid-August that would have required the ATO to publish a list of businesses with a turnover of more than $10 million that were recipients of the JobKeeper wage subsidy, along with how much these businesses received and how much they had moved to repay.

He argued that revealing such details would undermine public confidence in the ATO’s ability to keep tax information confidential. 

After Mr Jordan refused to disclose the list ordered by the Senate, federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg moved to intervene two weeks later, again citing public interest immunity.

Mr Frydenberg said businesses and taxpayers provide the government with private tax details on the basis that the government won’t publicise it. He said businesses would expect his government to take the necessary steps to keep it confidential. 

“Crucially, the confidential information that is the subject of this order has been collected by the Australian government under strict tax secrecy laws which restrict both the use and sharing of that confidential information,” Mr Frydenberg said. 

“Upholding these laws is therefore vital to the continued confidence of Australians in government and the assurances it provides about the protection of their confidential information.” 

Mr Patrick’s move to commence contempt proceedings comes off the back of a groundswell of calls for more transparency around the recipients of substantial government support, and mimics a similar system in New Zealand, where company details are made publicly available.

In New Zealand, where the government spent $12.35 billion on its JobKeeper equivalent, as much as $673 million – or 5.45 per cent – has been voluntarily repaid. Comparatively, in Australia, where only $225 million of the $89.3 billion shelled out for JobKeeper has been repaid, the rate is far lower at just 0.25 of a percentage point. 

“The New Zealand government publishes the names of employers who received a wage subsidy payment and how much they were paid,” Senator Patrick said on Thursday.

It’s a months-long effort that has been led by Senator Patrick, and Labor MP Andrew Leigh, who have on multiple occasions called for the publication of the list of JobKeeper recipients with turnovers of more than $10 million.  

The House of Representatives last month batted away key transparency amendments to the Treasury Laws Amendment (COVID-19 Economic Response No. 2) Bill 2021, which would have forced businesses to reveal key details related to the amount of JobKeeper payments they had received, and whether they had moved to repay it.

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John Buckley

John Buckley


John Buckley is a journalist at Accountants Daily. 

Before joining the team in 2021, John worked at The Sydney Morning Herald. His reporting has featured in a range of outlets including The Washington Post, The Age, and The Saturday Paper.

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