The banking royal commission – it’s even worse than it looks

Commissioner Kenneth Hayne has heard a litany of corporate lies, deceit and greed.

Commissioner Kenneth Hayne has heard a litany of corporate lies, deceit and greed. Photo: AAP

If you think the banking royal commission is big, you’re wrong. It’s much bigger.

This week’s disclosure of corporate lies, deceit and greed has damaged the reputations of the big five (big four banks plus AMP).

Down the track, some third-string heads will roll and the vertical integration of the wealth management industry will be unravelled.

But they’re only the immediate headlines. The bigger story behind these early days of the royal commission is the trashing of the entire Big End of Town, of the great and the good who make up the nation’s network of ASX 200 directors, CEOs and CFOs, of the chairmen and women who reached the peak of Australian corporate culture – the top of a big five board table – only to be shown to be, at best, incompetent.

They’re meant to be the cream of the market crop. Certainly the executives and chairs are paid that way. Having a big five directorship on your CV is about as good as it gets in the NEDs (non-executive directors) Club.

If these, the masters of our little universe, could so lose the plot at institutions as important, solid and rich as the big five, what are they capable of across lesser entities?

The companies that are now the big five have been the cornerstones (yes, you can have five corners) of Australian business all my life. I’ll add the relatively young Macquarie to make a neat half-dozen. Plot the careers and connections of the men and women directors and C-suite executives of the financial big six and you pretty much have Australian capitalism.

AMP admitted it had lost count of the number of times it misled the corporate regulator. Photo: Getty

There are 58 current board members of the big six. Add those who have been directors over just this century’s culture failure and you’d have a network of 200 or so names that encompass pretty much all of corporate Australia. They include former Reserve Bank governors, Treasury secretaries, the usual big law firm and accountancy partners, recidivist financial sector NEDs, former finance CEOs and sundry bizoid and professional odds and sods.

We should give some of the more recent appointments the benefit of the doubt (Catherine Livingstone is working hard at CBA), but those 200 bluebloods have been collectively responsible for institutions egregiously and repeatedly failing their customers and, therefore, Australia.

And when that failure has been exposed, it really hasn’t mattered in the Club. No matter how many times it’s happened, it’s always been merely an unfortunate matter among the lower ranks. Million-dollar bonuses continued to be paid, golden handshakes and parachutes made and taken.

For example: I don’t especially want to single out AMP but it did star this week by lying to the regulator and fiddling “independent” reports as well as dudding clients so …

It is testimony to AMP’s once-great reputation that it has survived more than a decade of rolling scandal. That reputation was built up over its long history as a fine mutual before being floated off 20 years ago in the usual fee-feeding frenzy and executive salary explosions.

The float itself turned out to be a poor investment except for the policy holders and executives who took the opportunity to quickly sell out. Management since has had little to be proud of on the performance front.

AMP first made the big-time financial advice scandal headlines way back in 2005 when the toothless ASIC watchpuppy did a little shadow shopping and found a third of AMP financial planners seemed to be putting AMP’s interests ahead of their clients as they switched them into AMP products. Nearly half of a randomly-chosen bunch of AMP files didn’t disclose a reasonable basis for advice and did not make proper disclosures about the cost of switching.

ASIC barely whipped AMP with a feather.

Do you like a bitter joke? The ASIC deputy chair, Peter Kell, droning about poor adviser performance at the royal commission this week was releasing ASIC shadow shopping surveys on poor adviser performance at AMP 15 years ago.

To use a technical phrase, ASIC has achieved bugger-all while occasionally feather-tickling.

Andrew Mohl was AMP’s CEO at the time of that shadow shopping. He is now a CBA director.

Craig Dunn was running AMP’s financial services division at the time. Did his career suffer? AMP subsequently made him CEO. He is now on the Westpac board.

Scandals down the line have barely scratched those at the top. The CBA’s recent bonus cuts are the exception. In general, the people in charge of corporate Australia, the boards of directors, have let it roll along.

This is where the culture of the 200 and their concept of their role should be questioned. Their tendency to be captured by the CEOs they appoint and their ignorance – wilful or otherwise – about what’s really going on in their companies and how bonus hurdles are being met is a collective failure.

That’s why it’s open to this royal commission to shoot responsibility to the top where it belongs, instead of just taking a few mid-level scalps, to prove wrong the doubts I had two years ago about what the commission might achieve.

Aim high, Commissioner Hayne.

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