When the recommendations of the banking royal commission are released just after 4pm on Monday, we will see whether the Morrison government has the political smarts to outwit the Labor Opposition.
If the Prime Minister and his strategists can navigate the political minefield created by the inquiry, which is almost entirely of their own making, they will have robbed Labor of a potent weapon that would have been deployed during the upcoming election campaign.
Aside from itemising the parts of the banking and financial services sector that are rotten to the core, the Hayne inquiry’s final report will make a series of recommendations on how to repair the industry and restore its integrity.
Only a political novice or politician with an electoral death wish would hesitate over accepting all the recommendations.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has already committed to do so, if only in principle. He’s not done so lightly, given he may have to deliver on that commitment in less than six months.
Scott Morrison really has no choice other than to pledge that his returned government would do the same. Given that Commissioner Hayne has already flagged in his interim report that greed was the root cause of the sector’s misdemeanours and shocking behaviour, this is not the time for political differentiation.
If Mr Morrison gives even an inkling that his government is not prepared to put the interests of everyday citizens above those of the banks, Labor will bludgeon him with the ‘betrayal’ every day until polling day.
Mr Shorten foreshadowed this during an interview with ABC TV on Sunday morning following comments by the PM that warned against having a knee-jerk reaction that could result in banks making it harder for people and businesses to borrow money.
Claiming that the government “already sound[s] like they’re backpedalling on holding the banks to account”, Mr Shorten argued Mr Morrison was actually saying, “The only way to have an effective banking sector was to have an unethical banking sector”. Which, of course, he’s not, but it’s a good line that will play very well with the thousands of Australian voters who have been treated badly by the banks or know someone who has.
In scraping off the barnacles before the campaign-proper gets under way – such as removing the remaining few children from offshore detention – the PM needs to cleave as closely as he can to Labor on the banks.
This is easy enough to do, but it won’t be enjoyable. It will require a major mea culpa on the Prime Minister’s part, involving an admission he (and the government) got it wrong when he opposed the creation of a banking royal commission (26 times, according to Labor).
Mr Morrison could even go as far as inviting Labor to join the Coalition in a special bipartisan taskforce to begin work on a plan to implement the Hayne recommendations before the election.
Such a move would completely take the momentum away from Labor on this issue. If the Opposition declined such an invitation, hoping to find another banking angle on which to attack the government, it would risk being seen as churlish and opportunistic.
Then again, Labor might not care, given it appears increasingly confident of having the May election in the bag.
Yes, there could be ramifications of such a capitulation by the PM, that could ripple out into the economy, possibly including new restrictions on lending and drops in bank share prices that flowed through to our superannuation balances.
But voters actually don’t mind so much about taking on a small burden when there is an obvious national benefit. Just look at how patiently we wait to be scanned and swiped every time we travel through an airport.
It’s a fair bet we’d also be prepared to pay a little to have an honest, transparent and accountable banking system.