The largest single pastoral landowner in Australia, beef producer Australian Agricultural Company, received $6.7m in jobkeeper subsidies even as its operating profit grew by almost four times during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Data compiled by Guardian Australia shows that AACo, which is chaired by the former National Farmers’ Federation president Donald McGauchie and has Kevin Rudd’s daughter, Jessica Rudd, on its board, owns 6.43m hectares of pastoral lease land – a little under 1% of Australia’s entire land mass.
AACo’s biggest shareholder is the Bahamas-based AA Trust, which owns 48% of the company and is controlled by Joe Lewis, a British billionaire who owns the football team Tottenham Hotspur.
The Sydney property developer Roy Medich and the Singapore-based retail magnate Brett Blundy are also small shareholders.
During the six months to the end of September, it received $6.7m in jobkeeper payments, helping drive it to an operating profit of $23.5m, a dramatic improvement on the operating profit of $6.3m it declared in the same period in 2019.
Higher beef prices were another major factor in the increase, which brought the company close to breaking even over all. It is weighed down by interest costs and the cost of maintaining a shuttered slaughterhouse at Livingstone, south of Darwin.
The company declared a loss of just $1.7m, compared with a loss of $14.1m for the same period in 2019.
Companies were eligible for the jobkeeper payment – initially of $1,500 a worker each fortnight – if their turnover fell by 30%, or 50% for very large companies.
An AACo spokesperson declined to answer Guardian Australia’s questions about how the company qualified for jobkeeper given that the operating profit actually increased, on the basis that the company is in a blackout period, restricting its ability to make public comment before the release of its annual result on 20 May.
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But in an interview with the ABC in November, its chief executive, Hugh Killen, said AACo’s eligibility had been determined based on a “reference month” of last April.
“At that point in the cycle it was extremely tumultuous and there was unprecedented uncertainty,” he said.
“At that point all 16 of our food service markets were effectively closed down overnight and so from a turnover perspective it was a huge impact on AACo. So it absolutely was appropriate.”
Jobkeeper “kept our people in our roles”, he said, given the company the ability to organise itself to face the challenges of the pandemic period.
Read more of our Modern Outback series here