The view from Billinudgel

Don’t bank on it
The banking royal commission is unlikely to lead to lasting reform

The banks are bastards. Every Australian knows this and has known it from birth – it is fixed in our DNA. Deep in our psyche is the indelible picture of Mr Moneybags, the bloated cigar-smoking capitalist, shovelling in the loot and grinding the faces of the poor.

But it was still a shock to hear the first few days of testimony of the banking royal commission as it exposed the greed, perfidy, fraud and sheer depravity in which our money masters have indulged at our expense. And that, of course, is why they and their political clients worked so hard to prevent the royal commission taking place at all.

Utterly unnecessary, Malcolm Turnbull assured us. There were perfectly adequate regulations and safeguards already implemented by a diligent and caring government.

We had ASIC, APRA – a whole series of ineffective acronyms constantly on the case. And, as a clincher, the bank executives would have to come before a parliamentary committee at regular intervals to apologise for their unconscionable conduct and promise to do better in future.

As it turned out they had no difficulty in concealing, obfuscating and at times downright lying about their manifest offences against their customers, which, by and large, we accepted as par for the course: after all, the banks are bastards. We can look forward to the rest of the year as the implacable commissioner, Kenneth Hayne, exposes at least some of their more egregious sins.

This will, of course, be a good thing, even if it proves an ongoing embarrassment for Turnbull and the rest of the apologists in his government. That it will provide any lasting reform, however, must be doubted. Because there is a myth, assiduously promoted by the bankers themselves, that they are truly repentant and are willing become good corporate citizens.

It has been suggested that the problem is one of culture, that there is a conflict between the commercial interests of the banks and the national interest of the Australian community. But there is no conflict because, as far as the banks are concerned, the national interest is irrelevant, if indeed it exists at all.

Margaret Thatcher once declared that there was no such thing as society, only individuals. Perhaps this should be a sign plastered on the walls of the banks’ head offices, along with the one that says: the buck stops here – right here in my wallet.

The banks are interested only in profits, huge profits, record profits. And if, unusually, the expected record profit does not result, the bankers will sack staff, cut services and gouge fees until it succeeds. It is the mantra of Gordon Gecko: greed is good, and nothing else really matters.

So the likelihood is that the fat cats will continue to cry their crocodile tears all the way back to their banks, eager to trouser their executive bonuses. And the rest of us will have to make do with the judicial theatre of the royal commission. Not a lot of extra bread, but at least a circus, although Turnbull would have denied us even that.

As the protest song goes:

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are made of silver
That the workers sweated for.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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