For all appearances it’s the royal commission you have when you are not having a royal commission. The chiefs of our big banks have been called to Canberra this week to be grilled by the House Economics Committee.
It won’t be much fun for the bosses of Australia’s four largest financial institutions but on the other hand they won’t be hit with forensic cross examination from a well-briefed senior barrister as the counsel assisting.
Ian Narev from the Commonwealth Bank fronts on Tuesday. The ANZ’s Shayne Elliott is scheduled for Wednesday morning and it will be super Thursday when Andrew Thorborn from the NAB has a morning slot and Westpac’s Brian Hartzer is the lucky last that afternoon.
It is no accident the House Committee, rather than a joint or senate committee, is doing the interrogating. The government has the numbers in the House and calls the shots. Not all of them mind you, but the terms of reference and the timing. There are 10 members all up. The Coalition has six, Labor three and the Greens one.
The timing of the hearings has some financial commentators like Crikey’s Glenn Dyer wondering: were they arranged to protect rather than hold to account? The ANZ, Westpac and the NAB are prohibited talking about operational and associated issues until their profits are released either at the end of the month or next month.
The financial regulator ASIC and the ASX would not be impressed with the premature release of market sensitive information.
Each CEO will face the music for three hours, the committee members take it in turns and by definition this limits the non-government members’ opportunity. Bill Shorten is not impressed.
He said: “Everyone knows that Malcolm Turnbull will move heaven and Earth to protect the banks from a royal commission…” He calls it the Prime Minister’s “absolute obsession” to stop a Commission of inquiry.
Mr Turnbull is aware of the criticism. How could he not be? Whistleblowers and victims have been filling our TV screens for years as scandal after scandal bursts into prominence. Each episode winning assurances from one bank or another or from their mouthpiece, the Australian Bankers’ Association, that they are onto it.
The template reprises: unconscionable behaviour, public exposure and controversy, assurance of reform. It sure adds weight to charges of a rotten culture at work.
The Prime Minister is hoping his assurance is convincing: “This will be the first of what I expect to be many years of economics committee hearing from the banks. It won’t be a one-off hearing. It is very important to have a change to the culture of accountability.”
Shorten still pushing for a royal commission
Mr Shorten for one isn’t buying it: “No soft touch, whitewash in a parliamentary committee is going to stop a royal commission. I’ve met the victims of the poor standards of the banks and financial services industry. They will not be denied justice and we will never, never, never give up pushing for a banking royal commission.”
There can be little doubt Mr Shorten’s campaign is resonating. The very fact the government had to respond in some way after trying to ignore it or ridicule it, is proof enough.
It is a leftover of the election campaign that has continued to bite. And goes some of the way to explain Newspoll’s finding that the Coalition has lost support in all states except Victoria since the tight election win. Even there it is trailing.
What is politically lethal is the perception that the top end of town is being shielded at the expense of the voters at the small end.
That’s an appearance no political leader can bank on.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno