Bill Shorten
The case for a banking royal commission

Of the hundreds of stories I’ve heard this week and each week since Labor called for a royal commission into the banking system, there are a few that really stick in my mind.

One is John’s, although that is not his real name.

A few years ago, John asked his bank for a loan to buy an investment property that was yet to be constructed. The bank doctored his application to falsely increase his income and the value of his assets. They even went so far as to count the rent on John’s as-yet-unbuilt investment property.

John’s loan should never have been approved. The fact that it was approved set in place life-changing consequences. To this day, John struggles to make even his interest payments. Every day is a battle because of the unethical actions of John’s bank.

The fact something like this can happen to one person is appalling. The fact this is far from a one-off, and that John’s story isn’t the worst of it, is a national scandal. Tens of thousands of Australians have been ripped off by our banks and financial institutions.

Every Australian uses a bank. We all rely on the integrity of our banking system. Australian families trust banks with their home loans, small businesses count on them for capital, and older Australians depend on banks for securing their retirement savings.

Trust and confidence in our banking system is vital to the health and strength of our economy. Which makes the unscrupulous behaviour by Australian banks, financial planners and insurers – from ripping off retirees to rewriting business loans – all the more galling.

Australians and their loved ones have had insurance claims denied. Others have lost their entire savings because of bad advice about dodgy and high-risk investments. Farmers and small business owners have had the rug pulled out from under them when their loans were restructured with little warning.

We’re not talking about isolated incidents here. There is a systemic, cultural problem in the banks of putting profits before people. And it must be tackled.

Since 2009, at least 111 bankers, planners and advisers have been quietly sacked or reported to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) for misconduct – more than one a month. Little is known about what led to these sackings or what any internal investigations, if conducted, may have unearthed.

It’s hard to put a figure on the cost of banking scandals. When Storm Financial folded, for instance, Australians lost nearly $3 billion. And that was in one collapse alone.

The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has been tying himself in knots to avoid acknowledging that only a royal commission can put a stop to all this. As I told the parliament on Wednesday, you can take Turnbull out of the investment bank, but you can’t take the investment banker out of Turnbull. It’s no wonder he went to the election with his central plan including a $7.4 billion tax handout to the banks. The government had to be forced to debate a motion, passed in the senate, backing a royal commission.

Turnbull’s determination to protect the banks at the expense of Australian consumers is a telling insight into where Turnbull’s priorities and principles lie.

When yet another banking scandal came to light earlier this year, Turnbull’s first response was to attend the 199th birthday party of one of the big four. Between finishing his main course and cutting the cake, he thought a lecture and a stern look would be enough to make them do better.

Problem solved, right?

Two days later I promised Labor would deliver a royal commission into the financial services sector. My proposal, and offer to work with the government to make it happen, was instantly rejected by Turnbull, who argued the current powers of ASIC – the banking regulator – were sufficient to deal with the problems in the sector.

But funding cuts mean ASIC and other regulators lack the resources to apply the proper scrutiny. A royal commission looks at whether the laws are adequate; ASIC only looks at whether laws are being followed.

It took just 10 days for Turnbull’s claims about ASIC to be felled, as he once again fronted a press conference, this time to propose stronger powers for ASIC. These were new laws he said would be sufficient to deal with the problems in the banking and financial services sector.

He maintained this line throughout the election campaign and steadfastly stood between the banks and the royal commission.

Four weeks ago, having barely hung onto government, Turnbull was once again on his feet at a press conference to announce his intention to invite the chief executives of the big four banks to lunch in Canberra once a year to front a Liberal-dominated committee.

Once again, Australians were told that this would be enough to stop the scandals and the ripoffs.

But far from persuading the Australian public, Turnbull’s latest proposal didn’t even pass muster with the Liberal backbench, who proposed a new banking tribunal two weeks ago, which will seemingly replicate the existing Financial Ombudsman Service. One such unconvinced backbencher was quoted as saying this tribunal would be “good for the banks”.

Expect to see Turnbull fronting yet another press conference soon, assuring Australians that this new tribunal, dreamt up as yet another way to avoid the royal commission, is sufficient.

Turnbull’s piecemeal and unwilling announcements are doing nothing to restore the trust and integrity necessary for a healthy banking sector. They are doing quite the opposite.

Every proposal put forward by the prime minister and his treasurer is designed on one hand to placate members of his deeply divided government while at the same time keeping the banks onside.

It’s an exercise in political management that completely ignores the wishes and interests of Australian consumers.

A royal commission need not be a point of political conflict. Several members of the government have publicly backed Labor’s call – from rural MPs who’ve seen farmers get a raw deal to suburban representatives who’ve heard the voices of small businesses and families.

Turnbull’s proposals are akin to closing the gate on individual cases after the horse has bolted. They will do nothing to address the systemic, structural issues that are the cause of so much pain and heartache for the victims of the banks.

Gentle pruning won’t do the job: we need to pull these cultural problems out by the root. Turnbull and Scott Morrison need to stop protecting the banks.

The solution is not complicated. I have proposed to the prime minister that a royal commission would examine:

  • How widespread instances of illegal and unethical behaviour are within Australia’s financial services industry;
  • How Australia’s financial services institutions treat their duty of care to their customers;
  • How the culture, ethical standards and business structures of Australian financial services institutions affect the behaviour of these institutions;
  • Whether Australia’s regulators are really equipped to identify and prevent illegal and unethical behaviour;
  • Comparable international experience with similar financial services industry misconduct and best practice responses to those incidents; and
  • Other events as may come to light in the course of investigating the above.

Labor has not made the decision to call a royal commission lightly. In fact, we resisted this serious step for more than a year. The industry was given an abundance of chances to fix these problems. The banks promised they’d improve, but things have only got worse. The scandals are piling up. Our financial institutions have shown they are either unwilling or unable to clean up their own act.

When hardworking Australians are being ripped off time and time again, something needs to change.

Anything less than a royal commission is a cover-up. Half-baked measures from the government designed to gloss over these scandals simply will not cut it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2016 as "Taking it to the banks".

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Bill Shorten is the leader of the opposition.

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