The banks are bastards. Every Australian knows that and has known it from birth – it is fixed in our DNA. Deep in our psyche is the indelible picture of Mr Moneybags, the bloated cigar-smoking capitalist, shovelling in the loot and grinding the faces of the poor.
But it was still a shock to hear the first few days of testimony of the Royal Commission exposing the greed, perfidy, fraud and sheer depravity in which our money masters have indulged at our expense. And that, of course, is why they and their political clients worked so hard to prevent the Commission taking place at all.
Utterly unnecessary, Malcolm Turnbull reassured us. There were perfectly adequate regulations and safeguards already implemented by a diligent and caring government.
We had ASIC, APRA — a whole series of ineffective acronyms constantly on the case, and as a clincher, the bank executives would have to come before a parliamentary committee at regular intervals to apologise to their unconscionable conduct and promise to do better in future.
As it turned out they had no difficulty in concealing, obfuscating and at times downright lying about their manifest offences against their customers, which, by and large, we accepted as par for the course: after all, the banks are bastards. We can look forward to the rest of the year as the implacable and imperturbable Kenneth Hayne exposes at least some of their more egregious sins.
This will, of course, be a good thing, even if it proves an ongoing embarrassment for Turnbull and the rest of the apologists in his government. But it must be doubted that it will provide any lasting reform, because there is myth, assiduously promoted by the bankers themselves, that they are truly repentant and are willing become good corporate citizens.
It has been suggested that the problem is one of culture, that there is a conflict between the commercial interests of the banks and the national interest of the Australian community. But there isn’t: there is no conflict because, as far as the banks are concerned, the national interest is irrelevant, if indeed it exists at all.
Margaret Thatcher once declared that there was no such thing as society, only individuals. Perhaps this should be a sign plastered on the walls of the head offices, along with the one that says: The buck stops here – right here in my wallet.
The banks are interested only in profits, huge profits, record profits; and if, unusually, the expected record profit does not result, the bankers will sack staff, cut services and gouge fees until it does next year. It is the mantra of Gordon Gecko: greed is good and nothing else really matters.
So the likelihood is that the fat cats will continue to cry their crocodile tears all the way back to their banks, eager to trouser their executive bonuses. And the rest of us will have to make do with the judicial theatre of the Royal Commission. Not a lot of extra bread, but at least a circus, although Turnbull would have denied us even that.
And the banks are made of marble
With a guard on every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the workers sweated for.