If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever, wrote George Orwell, foreseeing, our Border Protection policy, in the news this week as Australian War Memorial Director, Brendan Nelson proposes the creation of a type of shrine or monument to paramilitary thugs; the weaponising of compassion to enable us to deny our own innate humanity.
Similarly highlighted this week is the tender loving care our government lavishes on loan sharks, insurance touts, embezzlers and other predators in “the financial advice industry” at the expense of “ordinary hardworking Australians”. Yet nothing shows our open, transparent, democratic, government so clearly as its suppression of criticism; dissent.
Group hugs must surely break out all round at Sunday’s news, that the Coalition has pressured the UN to excise from its expert report on irrigation, a critique of the government’s $13 billion failure to restore our Murray-Darling river system.
The “Australia chapter” is now cut from the UN report “Does Improved Irrigation Technology Save Water?” published online by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Down the memory hole it goes; extinguished.
Water allocations to irrigators will in fact increase an extra 605 GL under innovative “on-farm efficiency: schemes but nothing may distract us from the government’s carefully orchestrated inquisition into usury and other money-lending malfeasance this week in Melbourne, an antipodean Malleus Maleficarum, which can turn grown men to water.
Banks Behaving Badly-or Business as Usual, a spell-binding, live-streaming, morality play, stars Royal Commissioner, The Honourable Kenneth Madison Hayne, QC, AO, as Grand Inquisitor, brilliantly assisted by Ms Rowena (shock and) Orr, QC.
The show, so much better than anything Labor had planned, government ministers keep telling us, continues its blockbuster run, as a hand-picked cast of spivs, charlatans and rogues and other financial advisers show open contempt for corporate cop, ASIC, and expose Coalition nobbling. Yet mystery shrouds this week’s show. Where are the big guns?
Conspicuous by their absence, possibly in witness protection, as secure as if in Monash fox-holes, are any CEOs.
Schadenfreude seizes the nation. Outrage. The drama has our full attention. True. Bonkers Brendan Nelson does his best to distract with his proposal to honour Border Force; to extend The Australian War Memorial to commemorate those brave souls who served in the war on compassion; our nation’s glorious battle with innocents; those compelled by cruel fate to seek asylum by any means. Some troops, he says, even jumped into the water to save people from drowning.
By Monday, the plot of Banks Behaving Badly includes dead people, knowingly being charged for financial advice; The CBA pockets $118 million for advice it doesn’t provide; NAB bribes people – its innovative “Introducer Program” -pays commissions to unqualified “spotters” – no financial expertise necessary- for home loan referrals, a subplot which includes forged payslips to settle loans, and envelopes stuffed with cash. The Introducer nets NAB $24 billion in loans.
(Former banking lobbyist, Scott Morrison’s tough new fines are capped at less than 1 per cent of that. Offenders will be brought to account, thunders former Goldman Sachs banker Turnbull. NAB is laughing all the way to the bank.)
Fee for no service turns out to be a nice little earner also. AMP’s head of financial advice, Anthony Regan, says he’s lost count of how many rip-offs; how many thousands of customers are charged fees for services they don’t receive. Lives are destroyed by bad advice; or when advisers’ financial ineptitude is compounded by avarice and duplicity.
It’s bad timing, however, for government by and for the banks, a Coalition which has to sell the electorate the last $35 billion of its $80 billion tax cut package, a gift of $13.2 billion in savings to our big four banks over the next ten years.
Even worse, its big business pals are no help. In the parallel universe where senate enquiries are held, Business Council of Australia’s CEO, Jennifer Westacott is asked, this week, by The Greens’ Lee Rhiannon.
“Can you give us an example of another country where tax cuts have resulted in wage rises?”
Westacott wimps out. She’ll “take that question on notice”, despite the claim’s being a central plank of the BCA and the government’s campaign for the past two years. But let’s be fair. There’s too much business bashing around these days, as Westacott often wails. Above all, even the BCA can’t provide evidence that doesn’t exist.
Examples abound, however, from Canada or from The UK where, despite ten years’ company tax cuts, real wages continue to decline. The National Bank conducts one of Australia’s largest business surveys only to report that a mere 8 per cent of businesses would give workers a significant wage rise if they received a company tax cut.
One-in-five say they don’t need a tax cut to secure their company’s future. But who needs research in an age of neoliberal faith? The Coalition takes heart in the recent dismissal of The White House Chaplain, Jesuit Patrick Conroy who has held the job for seven years. No reason has been given for Father Conroy’s sacking. Nor is it needed. In a Trumpian universe, it’s heresy to frown upon trickle-down or laugh at the Laffer Curve or even just express dissent.
Best explanation, reports The New York Times, is that the priest is being punished for his prayer last November, at the opening of a debate on the Republican tax bill. Conroy asked God to make sure that the members’ efforts “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
Amen. Fairness is the last thing our government needs in its agile, innovative business-friendly zeitgeist but former Xenophon team member, now the more prosaic Centre Alliance, Sterling Griff, (a name that conjures confidence) is quick to remind listeners of government trumpet ABC Radio National that some top BCA companies pay no tax.
Australia’s effective company tax rate is 12% already. He warns his audience, moreover, where cuts will come from.
“It’s hard to see how a reduction in corporate tax is not going to lead to a reduction in public services like health and education.”
“The economic case for these company tax cuts never stacked up. The benefits were largely to foreign shareholders, with a huge long-term revenue cost to the budget,” says The Australia Institute’s executive director, Ben Oquist when the Coalition withdraws the tax cut legislation it fails to get through the senate last month.
“It’s a tactical retreat” explains former HealthGuard and HBF Insurance companies’ general manager, Mathias Cormann.
Desperate to stop the rot, Malcolm Turnbull mounts a type of apology for his government’s howling down the very idea of a Royal Commission into banks, an opposition it kept up for two whole years. His government would have been “better off politically” to have called the Royal Commission, “several years ago”, he calls in from Berlin, Monday.
Not that he’s accepting any responsibility (Westminster or otherwise) for any malfeasance that his government has effectively enabled by its two years of spirited opposition, evasion and delay,
“The responsibility for wrongdoing lies with the people who did the wrongs. Let’s be clear about that,” he says, hopefully.
It is too little, too late and will do nothing to appease his critics who rue his dreadful political judgement; nor those who ask why his government protects wealthy banks and big businesses, while hounding and gouging the poor.
ASIC’s official boast is that it’s “Australia’s integrated corporate, markets, financial services and consumer credit regulator”. The Coalition hypes the regulator’s powers. Two years ago, Treasurer Scott Morrison claimed that,
“ASIC has the powers of a royal commission and, in fact, it has greater powers than a royal commission.”
But just in case, penalties will now be increased; jail time provided for some offences, a hollow response that overlooks the core problem. ASIC has neither the will nor the resources to act. It’s launched but one criminal case in ten years.
As this week’s testimony shows, ASIC’s the financial sector’s family pet, lying doggo or sitting up and begging to play fetch or rolling over to have its tummy tickled. Of course there’s a weasel-word for it. In ASIC- speak it “negotiated” rather than prosecuted misconduct cases which is why it’s brought only criminal prosecution in ten years.
Does Hayne’s royal command performance have more power? While a royal commission can refer suspected offences to the Director of Public Prosecutions who can then prosecute, in practice, criminal prosecutions rarely result from recommendations of either a royal commission or a parliamentary inquiry.
Key to the commission’s power are its terms of reference. Here is a huge weakness. Its terms of reference dictate that it is not required to look at anything the commissioner believes “has been, is being, or will be, sufficiently and appropriately dealt with by another inquiry or investigation or a criminal or civil proceeding”.
In other words, it will ignore the findings of at least 38 other inquiries held into banking and financial services since 2010. Sensational, shocking as it may be, the misconduct Hayne has revealed, so far, is but the latest scandalous chapter in a long series of instalments, all of which have also exposed ASIC as a Clayton’s corporate regulator; a paper tiger.
When The CBA ruined many clients with bad financial advice a 2014 Senate inquiry criticised ASIC for being “too slow to act, lack[ing] transparency and … too trusting of the big end of town”. The verdict still applies today.
In the meantime, by popular demand, – and the instigation of The Nationals helped by The Greens and with the late support of Labor, the show must go on. And on. Talk abounds of an extended season. Yet can it fix anything?
Crusty Justice Hayne’s superbly orchestrated production is in danger of being upstaged by its own lurid revelations of the graft, fraud, usury, collusion, extortion, embezzlement, cheating, lying and bare-faced robbery integral to our banking system; as a series of wretched pin-striped small fry from the big four take turns to spill their guts.
Equally distracting are the sideshows. A stampede to steal the glory includes the two-bob populist Pauline Hanson, even though it was her hapless former colleague, Rod Culleton, a bankrupted WA farmer who campaigned for a royal commission. Perhaps she’s getting confused with her repeated calls for a Royal Commission into Islam.
Also confused is Hanson’s new pal, Tony Abbott who channels the Queen of Hearts. “Off with their heads”.
Tin-pot general of the monkey pod rebels, Abbott is pumped. He’s led his peacock peloton and mobile media squad coal revival cycle tour through the Latrobe Valley of death-by-coal-fire, his latest sortie in his “no sniping or undermining” war of revenge by attrition on Turnbull. He’s just back from the $100 million Monash Centre he had built in France.
He goes off like a frog in a sock. “Sack ASIC”, he shrieks, despite his own role as ASIC’s chief nobbler.
Abbott’s government snatched $120 million, a cut of 200 workers, from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, a pillaging which left the watchdog unable to do very much at all effectively, let alone chase up the banks. Instead, the corporate regulator would get banks to self-report. What could possibly go wrong?
At the same time, in July 2014, Mattias Cormann attempted to weaken Labor’s Future of Financial Advice legislation (FOFA) which sought to ensure that advisers acted in their customers’ best interests, amendments put up by the banks but lost only when two cross-benchers voted them down.
ASIC hit the panic button. It complained that all advisers would be caught on the hop. It would do nothing, it said until July 1 2015 – two whole years after the new law was supposed to apply.
This, the corporate regulator supported Cormann, giving advisers two extra years in which to charge commissions and evade their duty to put the clients first. This week has seen how AMP flouted the FOFA law with impunity.
“Through AMP’s dealings with ASIC regarding the extent and nature of its fee-for-no-service conduct, AMP adopted an attitude toward the regulator that was not forthright or honest, and demonstrated a deliberate attempt to mislead,” Ms Orr sums up Friday.
“AMP and its advice businesses misled the regulator 20 times from 2015 to 2017 about the nature and extent of its fees-for-no-service practice.”
The Coalition is responsible. It can’t pretend now that it merely got the timing wrong. Surely. But that’s just what it does.
Time to chuck a U-turn. Not far from Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, in the Reichstag’s shadow, Monday, Turnbull grabs the Coalition handbrake; burns rubber in a tyre-shredding U-turn. The government’s been driving the wrong way up a one-way street for two years but a quick U turn will fix it. Memo: Get updated talking points to Kelly O’Dwyer.
Facing overwhelming evidence that its concerted opposition to a Royal Commission into the banks was palpably not in the public interest, a willful misreading, if not contemptuous defiance, of public opinion in defence of the top end of town, the PM and his minions hastily abandon their epic, sandbagged, campaign to defend their banking mates.
Seldom has a government looked more ridiculous. Or more compromised. More incompetent. Less trustworthy.
Tragically, Terry McMaster, of Dover Financial, a pillar of the financial advice industry, oxymoron of the week, is taken ill, mid-sentence – but quickly recovers sufficient self-possession to sit bolt upright in his ambulance stretcher like some grandee being ferried up above the masses upon a palanquin. He’s excused from further participation in Hayne’s show.
But not before he’s been able to defend hiring advisers who were under investigation and later sanctioned for serious breaches. At least, he makes some incoherent response. Perhaps he’s just choking.
McMaster’s also questioned on Dover contracts which purport to give client protection yet which, in fact, attempt to indemnify Dover advisers from accusations of bad conduct. Doubtless ASIC plans to catch up with him on that, too.
Dover is the only big financial advisory group to decline to assist the Royal Commission. It has not supplied adequate documentation. Yet McMaster has dramatically collapsed in the attempt. His clients will wish him a speedy recovery.
You can’t fault the performances. The Royal Commission into crony capitalism is an orchestrated confession of wrongdoing; a lavish smorgasbord of malfeasance even if the grubby money-grubbers of the “wealth industry” themselves, are cynical, untrustworthy, grossly overpaid, self-interested spivs who’d sell their own grandmothers.
The formidable Rowena Orr, QC, continues to impress as she leads a brilliant supporting cast in homage to the English theatrical tradition of personifying justice as a Judge, a trend since Respublica, the mid-15th Century, morality play which has the body politic under insidious, deceptive attack from Avarice, Indolence, Oppression and Adulation.
By Monday, however, our political masters are back on song, a Hallelujah chorus of shock, surprise and outrage, the necessary ritual disclaimer and distancing which will enable them to snatch the whip hand back from Hayne.
“I have to say I have been surprised. I have to admit some of the revelations in recent times, I have been surprised.”
Mathias Cormann tells Sky News, Australia’s Fox News of government spin, while Matt Canavan, Minister for Coal, is “shocked“. Kelly O’Dwyer is “appalled” in a in a duet with Barrie Cassidy on Insiders. At the Self-Managed Super Fund expo in Melbourne on Friday, (no irony in the venue?) the assistant treasurer is back on stage and on song.
“The royal commission has highlighted in the most profound way, some of the devastating personal consequences that have resulted from corporate misconduct in the financial services sector,” she says.
“The government did get the timing wrong.”
That’s it, then. Just dud timing. Could happen to any government bank protection racket. As Helen Razer notes in Crikey, not one MP is surprised, or shocked, or appalled, or devastated enough to call out a scandal when they see one.
As Bob Katter fears, Karen Middleton reports, the real problem remains. Banks will continue to transfer loans between them, unilaterally dictate and then change the terms, downgrade property values and then foreclose without negotiation, seize and offload the properties at fire-sale prices, leaving borrowers still owing them the difference.
And it’s all perfectly legal.
Routed by the sheer force of numbers, rubbery figures, lies, impersonation and other evidence of illegality elicited from bankers so far, by beak of the week, Justice Hayne and his crack team of silks so far, Monday, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull beats a retreat on his quixotic Coalition forces’ foolhardy ideological charge against Labor and The Greens’ impregnable position; that there be a Royal Commission into Banking. It’s also a retreat from credibility and legitimacy.
News of the PM’s surrender from Berlin where he commends John Howard’s Pacific Solution (2001); lecture Germany on how to deal with refugees as he fills in time before opening yet another monument to John Monash and to honour his government’s militarisation of history and fetishising of war.
Some may admire his chutzpah. Germany took in a million Syrian refugees. The nonsense that border control helps build a multicultural society is insulting; demeaning to any audience. But it’s all designed for domestic consumption.
Turnbull makes no apology for his government’s enabling of what clearly amounts to a banking oligarchy; helping our new robber barons hold the country to ransom, destroying careers, wrecking families and ruining the lives of thousands.
“It was a poor political decision“, is the best the former merchant banker can manage.