Leading article Australia


30 November 2019

9:00 AM

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

The Bank of New South Wales, now Westpac, got its start way back in 1817.  For two centuries, its name was a byword for prudence, reliability and trust: ‘You can bank on the Wales’.

No more. The allegations by Austrac that over years Westpac’s systems facilitated 23 million money laundering transactions, including in relation to child trafficking and abuse, have appalled Australians. The bank’s dismissive and arrogant reaction when Austrac made Westpac’s malfeasance public and announced pending prosecutions, was disgraceful. There were only a ‘small’ number, twelve, child-related transactions, said Westpac spinners. This is just a distraction and sorry we can’t have a full-on Christmas booze-up this year, said CEO Brian Hartzer, whose leaked comments dismissing the scandal as ‘not Enron’ cost him his job.

Make no mistake: 23 million dodgy transactions benefiting only financial criminals and paedophiles is more than a trifling inconvenience. The twelve identified child trafficking and abuse transactions is twelve too many, the inexcusable cause of human misery and not a statistic to be brushed away as ‘small’. In 2017, when Austrac fingered the CBA for similar things, the bank was fined $700 million for a mere 50,000 transactions. If the same formula is applied to Westpac, the fine would be in the tens of billions and would ruin customers, investors and shareholders as well as bring a 200-year-old company crashing down.

We talk about fining the bank, but the cash is coughed up by people who depend on that entity to behave lawfully, manage itself competently, and have governance of a high standard. As the fallout from the scandal widens, Mr Hartzer and chairman Lindsay Maxsted have rightly fallen on their swords, with the company’s board pressured to follow suit. But let’s not also forget those lavishly-paid top executives on whose watch money-laundering on such a massive scale was allowed to flourish undetected.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have happened if the Westpac board and management were more focused on prudent management and good governance than pandering to the woke zeitgeist. Go to the bank’s website and you’ll find a welter of self-congratulation about its commitment to diversity and inclusion, to gender equality and – of course – climate change, even to the extent of proclaiming it reflects these woke values in its lending and investment policies. In 2017, around the time Austrac’s interest in Westpac’s alleged money laundering was aroused, the bank’s leadership was obsessed with supporting a Yes vote in the same-sex marriage plebiscite. This obsession with being woke and hip applies to the other Big Four banks as well as most ASX 100 companies (here’s looking at you, Alan Joyce), but the mere fact that Westpac is no orphan when it comes to wokeness is no excuse for the massive dereliction of governance, accountability and fiduciary responsibility the Austrac investigation has revealed. Westpac heads are rolling for the disgraceful scandal, and rightly so.


Boomers are OK, OK?

In a parliamentary debate earlier this month a 25-year-old Kiwi MP delighted the Twitterverse by dismissing objections of an older MP with a throwaway ‘OK, boomer’, implying his old fartness. When it comes to baby boomers, however, it seems Treasurer Josh Frydenberg agrees with her.

Last week Mr Frydenberg urged more Australians over 65, a cohort being swelled by retiring boomers, to stay in work longer and retrain to stay productive. He effectively stated the productive economy can’t afford them. That white, straight men over 45, let alone 65, are discriminated against by youth-obsessed employers who care more about diversity targets and gender balance than talent, loyalty and experience, seems to have escaped the treasurer.

But what really disappoints about Mr Frydenberg’s Treasury-scripted remarks is the political tin ear he demonstrated in making them. A big factor in the Coalition’s ‘unexpected’ (other than by this magazine) election win in May was its successful, relentless campaign against Labor’s attacks on negative gearing and franking credits. And who are very significant small investors in rental properties and shares? Baby boomers providing for their retirement.

Having successfully won an election by demolishing Labor’s brazen intergenerational theft, the Treasurer is treating the very same people who saved his job as dire threats to the nation’s economy and prosperity. No slouch of a politician, Mr Frydenberg should rely on his excellent political instincts and not merely parrot the Treasury line.

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