Treasurer Josh Frydenberg delivered a searing indictment of his own prime minister when he released the findings of the banking royal commission on Monday. One that undermines Scott Morrison’s credibility and devalues his political currency.
As he faced the media alone in Parliament’s blue room – Morrison was nowhere to be seen – the treasurer said the commission’s final report was a “scathing assessment of conduct driven by greed and behaviour that was in breach of existing law and fell well below community expectations”.
This conclusion merely confirmed what was being screamed from the rooftops by the banks’ victims for years and by the courageous whistleblower Jeff Morris.
Cries that had been taken up by the Nationals, the Greens and in 2016 Bill Shorten and the Labor Party.
When asked if the government should apologise for fiercely resisting the calls for a royal commission for so long, Mr Frydenberg went back 10 years to blame Bill Shorten for not calling for a commission in the wake of the Storm Financial collapse.
The treasurer obstinately missed the point that four years ago, Mr Shorten – unlike then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his treasurer Mr Morrison – finally accepted that the banks and financial institutions had betrayed his and the nation’s trust.
What was Mr Morrison thinking when he slammed Mr Shorten’s call as ‘just a populist whinge’ and a ‘cynical exploitation of people’s pain’?
His repeated attacks on Labor’s call were a misreading of the national mood and a fatal political miscalculation.
But the words that still really haunt the prime minster are his assurances that he had two “tough cops on the beat”. He said that the Australian Securities And Investments Commission and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority were the equivalent of a “standing royal commission”.
Their failure to act was obvious to any who wanted to see.
The royal commission found the regulators were unable or unwilling to use their powers.
Disturbingly Commissioner Kenneth Hayne has referred 19 cases of misconduct in 24 institutions to ASIC to investigate and potentially prosecute. No individuals were identified despite public evidence of prima facie criminal activity.
Mr Frydenberg now says the regulators are both under new management and have got the message. He says he has spoken to the head of ASIC and the deputy chair and “they are focusing on ensuring that people engaged in misconduct are held to account”.
This is an interesting insight into the culture of federal agencies, even statutory regulators. They take their cues from the government of the day.
Another example is the findings of the South Australian Royal Commission into the parlous condition of the Murray-Darling river system.
Neither example reflects well on the incumbent government.
Unimpressed by the royal commission, its narrow terms of reference and its restricted timetable and resources was Jeff Morris, the man who destroyed his career to blow the whistle on the Commonwealth Bank.
Morris told the ABC TV’s The Business the trouble with the commission was “we didn’t see any of the culprits in the witness box”.
There was no cross examination like at the royal commission into institutional child sex abuse that led to prosecutions.
Morris says when then-treasurer Morrison finally and reluctantly announced the royal commission, he was “petulant”.
He certainly was. Mr Morrison said: “It’s regrettable but necessary. It’s regrettable that the politics, principally the politics of the opposition, has led to this.”
No wonder the prime minister was a no-show in Canberra, but he will have to face the music eventually.