ALISON BROINOWSKI. Banks wake up to their responsibilities: will governments be next?

May 9, 2018

Australians are watching transfixed as the Financial Services Royal Commission gives a running report on a reactive, insular, complacent, greedy culture which has broken its own rules and failed its customers for years. With the people’s verdict looming at the next election, Ministers who last year resisted holding the Royal Commission now proclaim a ‘wakeup call for every director, particularly those who are the custodians of the savings and shareholdings of Australians’ (Scott Morrison, SMH 2 February 2018: 1). The salaries and bonuses their top executives receive put politicians’ remuneration in the shade. The billions Australia spends on defence and on war, huge sums as they are, don’t compare with the combined turnover of Australia’s biggest financial institutions.

But replacing the names of banks and insurance companies with ‘government’, and financial services with ‘war’ is a recent preoccupation of mine. If, instead of the findings of the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority or the Royal Commission, we could read a ‘Report of an Independent Committee of Inquiry into Australia’s Wars 2001-2018’, many of us would be even more engrossed. Unlike other countries, Australia has had no such inquiry, because Ministers and former Ministers in both major parties deny we need one, meaning they don’t want one. So we are reduced to trying to penetrate a firewall of official secrecy. What we find is that governments are even more protective of their capacity to wage war than they are of the banks’ ability to make money. The boards of financial institutions may care little about their clients and shareholders: ministers care less about the views of taxpayers who fund their wars. Banks may seek to preserve their financial power: governments rigorously protect the power of a prime minister effectively alone to dispatch the troops to war.

Substituting governments’ management of defence for the banks’ management of Australians’ money is revealing:

The Commonwealth Bank (CBA) has fallen from grace…desensitised to failings with its customers…a slow, legalistic and reactive, at times dismissive culture characterised many of CBA’s dealings with regulators…it did not reflect and learn from experiences and mistakes…a remuneration framework had little sting when poor risk or customer outcomes materialised (Australian, 2 May 2018: 1, 19, slightly abbreviated).

The Government has fallen from grace and is desensitised to failings in its current wars…a slow, legalistic and reactive, at times dismissive culture characterises many of its dealings with citizens making FOI requests…it has not reflected or learned from experiences and mistakes in recent conflicts…expenditure on wars increases even after poor outcomes.

While the CBA cuts executive pay and bonuses and sacks senior staff, the Government has sacked no-one and reduced no-one’s pay over the disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. While Austrac was suing CBA in 2017 for more than 50 000 breaches of laws against money laundering and counter-terrorism funding, the Turnbull government had the ADF illegally attacking Syria and was sued by no-one. Joined at the hip with the US, together they caused thousands of deaths and injuries and potentially created more terrorists. While the Treasurer in April 2018 was calling on the custodians of Australians’ assets to wake up to their legal responsibilities, the Government supported bombing raids in Syria by the US, UK and France which were illegal, being neither in self-defence not authorised by the Security Council. While the Foreign Minister repeated her mantra about our international rules-based system, Australia had received no evidence from the inspection agency about who attacked civilians with chemical weapons in Douma (or if they were used at all). While speculation mounted that the Royal Commission would call past and present directors and executives of the banks to give evidence, because ‘these people need to be called to account’ (Adele Ferguson, SMH, 2 May 2018: 6), no Minister has been called to account for Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, nor asked to say what Australian forces may be doing in other places we don’t yet know about

Australia’s annual military budget provides for spending about $34 675 000 000 on war and preparations for war ($95 million daily.  Sue Wareham, 2018, April, Croakey article re Syria.docx). Even by banking standards, that’s a lot of taxpayers’ money. The Government aims to make Australia one of the world’s ten largest arms exporters, and is trying to oblige the US by raising defence expenditure to 2.0 per cent of GDP, even while it has reduced ODA to its lowest proportion of GDP ever. Can we be surprised that the big banks get away with what they can while their clients suffer what they must? Australia is doing exactly the same by its belligerent behaviour.

If the banks can be made to change how they do business, in response to public pressure, governments can be pushed by the electorate to change how Australia goes to war. An independent inquiry, over even a royal commission, would be a good start. Two campaigns are now up and running to change the war powers that were used by successive prime ministers, virtually alone, to send Australian forces to Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Both Australians for War Powers Reform and Civil Liberties Australia see the next election as the right time, and none too soon.

Dr Alison Broinowski FAIIA is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform and of Honest History






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