MUNGO MACCALLUM. Morrison spins some fairy tales

Apr 24, 2018

Last week the Sydney Daily Telegraph spent a couple of days playing silly buggers with our beloved Treasurer Scott Morrison, depicting him first as Santa Claus and then as not.

But they might have been more accurate to portray him as the fabulist Hans Christian Anderson, or perhaps the fairy-tale hero Pinocchio, the long-nosed lying puppet.

After three week of the Royal Commission, the big bankers have admitted that they were wrong to oppose the Commission. Several government backbenchers, including Barnaby Joyce, recently liberated from the demands of cabinet solidarity, joined them.

The robotic Finance minister, Matthias Corman, normally relentlessly on message whatever the merits or otherwise of the message itself, conceded that given the way it was going, the inquiry might need to be extended. Even Malcolm Turnbull now safely overseas, had to the grace to be slightly abashed.

But not good old ScoMo. Why, it was actually his idea, he bragged at a disbelieving press conference. He and his sidekick, the still less credible Financial Services Minister Kelly O’Dwyer, had been working on the problem for years, and now, by an amazing coincidence, they had scrabbled around in the back drawer of a disused filing cabinet and located a dusty copy of the 2014 Murray Report and were ready to act.

From now on there would be swingeing penalties for defaulters – if anyone could ever be persuaded to enforce them. Of course there was actually no need to do so, because the energetic government had already taken measures: once or twice a year bank executives would be summoned before a committee where they could obfuscate, dissemble and mislead while politicians looked stern. And  there were always APRA and ASIC, which had all the powers necessary. Or we have been told they have; there has been very little evidence of it to date.

But Morrison, with the aid of the bankers, devised  his very own you-beaut Commission, and although he had said that it was a waste of time and money and would undermine confidence in the financial system and put the economy at risk, now he was in charge, there was absolutely no cause for alarm. The four pillars were as sound as ever, strong, stable and of course immensely profitable. Well, yes, rather like Cosa Nostra, actually.

And this is the political morass in which the government has found itself. It resisted the demands of first the Greens, then Labor, and finally a number of its own backbenchers for a Royal Commission for years before finally caving in to the numbers and acting, but too little and too late.

They were not to know the scale, scope and effrontery of the depredations, but they knew there was a lot bubbling away: after all, just about everyone either had a horror story about the banks or knew friends who had; everyone knew the banks were bastards.

If Turnbull had been prudent, he would have moved to initiate surgery a couple of years ago and then, although the revelations might have been embarrassing and alarming, at least they would have been out of the way before the next election. But as always, our Prime Minister stubbornly insisted that he could ride it out.

And as always, this has led to yet another potential disaster. The dust is a long way from settling, but it appears that Turnbull and Morrison are determined to persevere with the Enterprise Tax Plan – to hand over some $65 billion to the godfathers and capos of the mob.

It is not all for the banks, but this hardly matters: they will be major beneficiaries, and despite the best efforts of Derryn Hinch, it would not be practical to exempt them from the forthcoming bonanza. But even if it were, the political problems will not go away.

The banks are being exposed for their bastardry, but what about all the other predators at the top end of town? The giant multinationals who routinely invade your privacy, exploit your data, and then refuse to pay local tax anyway? Just what are they getting away with that we do not know? Should not they also get a bit of a going over?

The Murdoch press will immediately rail about class war and the politics of envy and no doubt the Business Council will tell us this is entirely unnecessary, everything is the best in the best of all possible worlds, but then they said that about the banks. It may turn out that the Royal Commission will be a catalyst for change and reform beyond the immediate financial services sector. This is not about a few rotten apples: this is about a culture which has rotted to the core and it will require drastic and continuous reform.

Just for starters, it will be a lot more difficult to deny the need for a national corruption commission along the lines already implemented in most of the states; Turnbull has already signalled that although he is not really in favour of it he may have to consider it. It would be another big backdown, but what the heck; no doubt Morrison will be able to explain it away.

And he will apologise to nobody, not for the opponents he slandered, the public he ignored, even the mavericks from his own side: George Christensen and Wacka Williams need not expect acknowledgment. And, like everyone else, they can forget about transparency, consistency or even a basic level of honesty from our Treasurer. Which is not good news as the last pre-election budget looms.

The Royal Commission on the unions was devised as a deliberate political tactic and to a certain extent it worked: offences were uncovered and the opposition leader was marginally damaged in the process. But it was not the blockbuster Kenneth Hayne is progressively unloosing at the government and its financial and political allies.

Malcolm Turnbull used to find the idea of a Royal Commission akin to treason. When it was forced upon him, he still called it regrettable. As the atrocities mount up and the deadline for the election draws nearer, it is starting to look more like Nemesis – a Nemesis brought about by his own stubbornness, short-sightedness and sheer lack of nous.

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