Committee members got tougher and chief executives more evasive during the final day of parliamentary hearings on banks, resulting in renewed vigour in the push for a royal commission into the sector.
NAB boss Andrew Thorburn endured a three-hour grilling before lunch on Thursday, followed by his Westpac counterpart Brian Hartzer in the afternoon.
While both CEOs admitted to failings in their respective banks’ procedures and treatment of customers (just as the executives of CBA and ANZ did earlier in the week), there was little offered by way of solution.
In fact, both men at times argued semantics with members of the House of Representatives economics committee.
Mr Thorburn denied any systemic problem inside NAB even after more than 40 financial planners were dismissed under a cloud of forgery and file tampering.
Mr Hartzer denied he ran a credit card business.
Under questioning from committee chairman, Liberal MP David Coleman, Mr Thorburn said 43 planners had left the bank after some had been reported to the corporate Australian Securities and Investments Commission.
“That’s not one or two rogue individuals, that’s a significant number. How did you allow that to happen in the first place?” Mr Coleman asked.
“How many senior executives have been terminated as a result of this?”
Mr Thorburn responded there hadn’t been any.
Of NAB’s 1700 planners, he said, the vast majority were doing the right thing.
“There were no systemic issues,” Mr Thorburn said.
The committee chairman then asked the banker if he thought that was appropriate, pointing out that one in 40 of NAB’s planners had been terminated under a cloud.
“I wouldn’t say that was a black swan event you have,” Mr Coleman said.
Mr Thorburn objected.
“This has gone to our board a number of times and we concluded and believe it was not systemic,” he said.
“If it was systemic I think that would be a different matter.”
To which Mr Coleman replied: “You might understand why the committee and broader public might take exception to that.”
And so it went.
After lunch it was Mr Hartzer’s turn to defend his institution.
Like his fellow bankers, the Westpac boss owned up to failures that were already known, but admitted he had lost the trust of some of his customers.
Although he phrased it in bureaucratic terminology.
“In recent years, it’s clear that a trust gap has opened up and we as an industry, and as individual banks, need to work harder to close that gap,” he said.
It was when the committee turned to profits from credit cards, however, where Mr Hartzer got even more clever with his words.
“We don’t have a credit card business,” he said.
“We’re organised around customer segments. We have a consumer bank, we have a business bank and an institutional bank.”
The Westpac boss also revealed that the idea of a banking tribunal was raised earlier this year in a meeting between bank bosses and the government – Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison.
He said while he didn’t have a strong view on the proposal, he was open to looking into.
His NAB counterpart was more eager, similar to CBA and ANZ, and appeared keen to explore the concept of a tribunal.
Which all led the opposition to repeat its description of the committee hearings this week as a whitewash, designed to avoid a full-blown royal commission and instead establish a weaker tribunal.
Labor leader Bill Shorten said the banks were in cahoots with the government and only a royal commission would satisfy the banking public.
“Malcolm Turnbull and the big four banks want at the end of this week to go back to business as usual,” Mr Shorten said.
“If all of these bank CEOs keep saying we’re sorry, we stuffed up, we’ve got it wrong, we’ve caused problems to thousands of our customers, haven’t they just made the final argument in favour of a banking royal commission?”