Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and National leader Judith Collins have clashed over the abuse of the Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme by large companies that took it without merit.
The confrontation came as the two leaders faced off in the second Leaders' Debate of the election, hosted by Newshub's Patrick Gower tonight.
Asked a “moral question” by Gower if it “was fair” that big companies took millions of dollars in taxpayer cash before they laid off workers, after which they posted huge profits, both leaders agreed it was morally wrong.
Naming and shaming Briscoes and Sky City, Gower asked if their actions were reasonable.
In response, Ardern said she thinks "it's wrong".
“No [it's not fair], and I expressed my view at the time that The Warehouse was one of those groups who was taking a similar position,” Ardern said.
“The wage subsidy helped retain 1.7 million people in work, and it may be within the rules to do what these companies are doing, but it does not mean it’s in the spirit of fairness."
Collins went a step further, saying the rules around the wage subsidy were too vague.
“If people don’t need the money, they shouldn’t have taken it but then again, the rules should have been more carefully put in place. But they should pay it back,” Collins said.
Both leaders agreed money taken in those situations should be paid back.
“We may have to change a law,” Collins said.
Ardern disagreed, saying the Government had followed a “high trust model”.
“You are able to search the names of every company that drew down that money,” Ardern said.
Gower pushed her if she would change the law to make companies pay the money back.
“No I would not,” Ardern said.
“It’s naïve, it’s naïve to do that,” Collins cut in.
“We are also pursing those who may have acted outside the law, but that’s why I said it was a moral issue. Some of these companies followed the rules, they just did not follow the spirit of fairness,” Ardern argued.
Collins disagreed, saying the “rules unfortunately were wrong.”
“The fact is the Government was naïve in its dealing with this,” she said.
“What was wrong about the rules?” Ardern questioned, saying in turn it “was the first time she had heard” National didn’t support the wage subsidy.
“We didn’t say that did we?” Collins finished.