04 October 2016

Over the next few days, the CEOs of Australia’s big four banks will fly to Canberra for lunch and a quick chat to a parliamentary committee run by Liberal politicians.

For a couple of hours they will cheerfully defend a system that has led to thousands of ordinary Australians losing their savings, homes and businesses because of dodgy financial advice, illegal and unethical behaviour.

Australians are supposed to believe that this annual friendly catch-up will stop the unconscionable rorts and rip-offs that have destroyed so many lives.

Make no mistake. This isn’t anything like a royal commission. It’s a political stitch-up created for one reason only: to protect the banks from the genuine scrutiny of a royal commission.

Unlike a royal commission, the committee won’t be run by independent commissioners with the proper expertise. It will be run by Liberal politicians.

It won’t have the same powers to compel people to give evidence or produce relevant documents.

It won’t allow a forensic cross-examination of witnesses by people representing the victims.

Worst of all, it will let the bank CEOs give their side of the story, but it won’t hear the voices of victims of banking rip-offs.

All year I’ve been doing what Malcolm Turnbull refuses to do – meeting with people who have been ripped off by dishonest financial practices.

I’ve heard hundreds of stories from mortgagees, credit card holders, small businesses owners, and people on the land.

A common theme runs through every heartbreaking story – a betrayal of trust.

Take Michelle’s experience – a single mum who took out a big loan on bad advice from a broker, ending up with a mortgage she shouldn’t have been given and couldn’t pay off.

After being put through the ringer, Michelle tried to get independent help. She was sent to six different institutions who passed her problem onto someone else – and she still hasn’t seen justice.

After working so hard just to hold her life together, she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

I recently met another couple who have worked hard their whole lives, building a small business and raising a family.

When their kids left home, they wanted to set up a better financial future for themselves. They decided to seek “expert advice” from a financial adviser, who told them to put all their money into Great Southern.

Instead of building a secure retirement, they lost everything – just two of the 40,000 mum-and-dad investors who were fleeced of about $2bn when Great Southern went under.

I’d like to see Malcolm Turnbull tell Michelle that system is fine as it is. I’d like to see him tell the victims of Great Southern that nothing needs to change. One victim told me that her biggest mistake was “trusting people”. 

“But you’re supposed to trust the experts,” she said. “You’re supposed to trust the banks.”

Thousands of working Australians trusted their banks, their financial planners, their insurance companies with their future – and they had that trust betrayed.

Only a royal commission will clean up the banking sector and restore the integrity and confidence it needs to be strong into the future. Only a royal commission will deliver the systemic, structural and cultural change that is long overdue. Anything less is a cop-out.

Right now, the system seems rigged against ordinary Australians. It’s a system that puts profits ahead of people. We need to have an honest conversation about making banks better instead of just richer. Protecting customers will make the sector stronger, not weaker.

We need to look at how widespread instances of illegal and unethical behaviour are, how financial institutions are treating their duty of care to customers, and whether our regulators are properly equipped to prevent rip-offs and punish the perpetrators. 

We need to talk about how remuneration structures might contribute to the problem, how whistleblowers are being treated, and how credit card rates and fees are pushing ordinary people into more and more debt.

I’ll never forget what Suzie – an advocate for banking victims – told me when I met her couple of weeks ago.

“Their one fault is they wanted to be good Australians,” she said. “They wanted to pay for their own retirement and not be a burden.”

She said every victim she meets blames themselves first, instead of the people who ripped them off. 

“People are so ashamed,” Suzie told me. “They think it’s their fault, but it’s not.”

It’s time for the banks and the Liberals to start taking this seriously. It’s time they started listening to victims, instead of hiding from them.

There has been scandal after scandal. Rip-off after rip-off. Enough is enough.

It’s time for a royal commission.

Labor, the victims of dodgy financial advice and the broader community are all calling for a royal commission. The only people who are fighting it are the Liberals and the big banks. 

This piece was first published on the Guardian Australia on Tuesday, 4 October 2016