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Australia's billionaires became 50% richer during pandemic

The Guardian logo The Guardian 29/12/2020 Daniel Hurst
Australian dollar banknotes © Getty Australian dollar banknotes

The combined wealth of Australian billionaires has risen by more than 50% over the past year, new figures show, prompting concerns that the pandemic-triggered recession has “turbocharged” the gap between rich and poor.

The combined net worth of Australia’s billionaires dropped in March – when Covid-19 restrictions ramped up – before rebounding strongly and increasing throughout the course of the year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The combined worth of Australian billionaires was assessed to be 52.4% higher this week than at the same time last December.

By comparison, billionaires in the US and UK recorded an increase of about 25% over the same period, the Bloomberg index shows.

The Labor frontbencher Andrew Leigh said the figures “remind us of the importance of tackling inequality, which is significantly higher in Australia than it was a generation ago”.

“Those increases are remarkable,” the shadow assistant minister for Treasury and charities told Guardian Australia.

“Any of your readers would be punching the air if they had enjoyed a 20% increase in their wealth, and they would be double fist-pumping the air if they had a 50% increase, and yet that’s the story for the typical Australian billionaire.”

By contrast, Leigh said, regular families were already doing it tough before Covid hit. He cited “anaemic” wage growth, home ownership being at its lowest level in six decades and household debt skyrocketing.

Video: Retail sector expecting 5 per cent sales increase this Christmas period (Sky News Australia)


“The fact is for those who are struggling this has been a terrible year and 2021 will be a rough year indeed,” he said.

“Recessions often worsen inequality but this one seems to have turbocharged the gap. High-paid workers can more easily work from home than low-paid workers.

“While affluent Australians can ride the sharemarket rollercoaster, more than 1 million people with insufficient assets have pulled money out of superannuation.”

Bloomberg News says it tracks billionaires’ personal wealth based on market and economic movements and its own reporting. The index uses valuations that are converted to US dollars.

Leigh said while the jobkeeper wage subsidy probably had only a minor impact on the Bloomberg figures, he reaffirmed his concerns that the scheme intended to help battlers had “ended up lining the pockets of billionaires”.

He said several Australian billionaires, including Solomon Lew, owned firms that had paid out significant dividends after receiving jobkeeper support from taxpayers. Critics have dubbed the design issue as “dividendkeeper”.

It has previously been reported that Lew would pocket $24.25m in dividends after his retail empire, Premier Investments, received almost $70m in wage subsidies during the coronavirus crisis.

But Lew said in September that Premier’s dividend payment did not have anything to do with jobkeeper subsidies and was based “purely on trading”.

Meanwhile, people receiving unemployment benefits are due to experience a cut to their income from 1 January, when the government proceeds with a reduction to the coronavirus supplement that was introduced to top up the jobseeker payment.

The fortnightly coronavirus supplement will be reduced from its current rate of $250 to $150 for the next three months.

The government argues that the elevated support was always intended to be temporary.

The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said the Coalition had passed major pieces of legislation over the past year “to cushion the blow of the Covid-19 pandemic, keeping Australians in jobs, businesses in business and sparking a faster-than-anticipated economic recovery”.

In a statement issued on Monday, Frydenberg said jobkeeper had been “an economic lifeline to millions of Australians”. He cited Reserve Bank analysis released in November indicating that it had saved at least 700,000 jobs.


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