Here’s a riddle: What does a Centrelink recipient have in common with Gerry Harvey?

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Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Many have attempted a solution for Lewis Carroll’s famously unanswered riddle from Alice in Wonderland, rarely with success, and never with anything even approaching decent humour.

Because they can both produce a few notes, though they are very flat?

I know, hilarious. So here’s another one for you — just as perplexing, just as unfunny.

What does a Centrelink recipient have in common with Gerry Harvey?

Hard one, isn’t it?

It’s not the houses they own; it can’t possibly be the cars they drive, nor the number of zeros on their income tax statements.

True, they both hit the headlines regularly and they sometimes seem to be, perplexingly, both the cause and the symptom of vastly different economic realities. They’re responsible for a hell of a lot in this country, these two.

So, with one of them now declaiming that the pandemic is one of the best things that’s ever happened to them financially, and the other trying to carefully divide an extra $50 a fortnight into 14 equal parts — what can this raven and this writing desk ever say to one another?

Well, let me solve the conundrum for you. What they both now seem to have in common — although, truthfully, I’m not sure this is official government policy — is that any overpayment to them by the Commonwealth, and therefore by the taxpayers of Australia, will now no longer need to be returned.

And I think that’s absolutely amazing!

A queue of people stretches down York Street in South Melbourne, starting at the entrance to a Centrelink building.
Australian economists have pointed out for years that every single cent extra you pay to a Centrelink recipient gets pumped into the economy.(ABC News: Ron Ekkel)

Irony meter alert

It turns out that most of the companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange didn’t need the government’s JobKeeper payment, so healthy has their rebound been, and most of them have decided they’re keeping the money.

A study from the governance advisory firm, Ownership Matters, has revealed that more than $1 billion in JobKeeper was paid to companies that then reported increased profits and shareholder payments: $3.6 billion was paid in dividends, $20 million in executive bonuses.

And that’s taxpayer money, folks!

When asked this week whether he would require these now very profitable businesses to return the money, the Prime Minister said, “that was up to them”.

It’s “up to them”? Is that now an official Commonwealth overpayment policy?

Now, I know your irony meters are finely enough tuned that you won’t need me to point out little matters like robodebt and demands for welfare repayments of mere hundreds of dollars that have sometimes been so heavy-handed and so onerous they have led to dreadful mental and physical health outcomes for welfare recipients. You get it.

But can we just pause for a moment and consider how government largesse, and a very smart piece of pandemic economic policy, by the way, has now turned into what the ABC’s business reporter Alan Kohler calls a system 290 times worse than former minister Bridget McKenzie’s sports rorts?

So, I have to assume the same policy applies to our welfare recipient, too.

Is there a line on the Centrelink form demanding the return of an overpayment where we can decline the request and write, “The PM says it’s up to me”?

How could it be otherwise? As Australian economists have pointed out for years, every single cent extra you pay to a Centrelink recipient gets pumped into the economy: that money is never saved, never goes into tax-deductible shares or accrues interest in some portfolio somewhere. It’s stimulus of the best and most basic kind — pay and spend, possibly even in a Gerry Harvey-owned store.

Mr Harvey, and his national network of highly successful retail stores, recorded a 116 pre cent increase in profits for the last year. But he’s keeping his $22 million in JobKeeper.

A new benchmark?

The Prime Minister seems to think that’s OK: he’d always rather have profitable companies, he says.

So, there’s our new benchmark, and there is the answer to our riddle. Raven, writing desk; rich man, poor man; same-same.

It’s logic that the Victorian mathematician Lewis Carroll would surely appreciate: either that, or it’s an absurdity to rival the madness of the March Hare.

This weekend, just a couple of weeks away from the trapdoor that is the end of JobKeeper opening under the feet of companies around the country, you can hear from one small business owner who fears for her company’s survival. Has the government got the timing right?

And more women share more stories of how unsafe they feel in the world they were born into. As we keep saying — and we are going to keep saying — just listen.

Have a safe and happy weekend, and please find some time for the remarkable listeners of ABC Radio Melbourne as they step into the spotlight for the very first time and tell a story of their own live to a studio audience in our inaugural Homespun event — and that’s no small thing! (You’ll find a supernatural yarn from me right at the end.)

We all have a story, and I’m thrilled to see that the mercurial bard of Californian gothic, Lana Del Rey, has just released another album of her own stories: here’s the title track and it’s hypnotic, and it’s gorgeous and it’s strange, just like the best tales are.

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Go well.

Virginia Trioli is presenter on Mornings on ABC Radio Melbourne and the former co-host of ABC News Breakfast.

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