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Banks on notice

Our financial system is finally getting the political attention it deserves.

April 2016

We have come a long way within the current political cycle. 

At the time of the last election, there were a few scuffles about regulation of financial advisers, but you would hardly have said that it was a central issue in the election campaign. 

This time around, it is very different. Not only is the banking system in every news bulletin, the problems that are being debated are system-wide – traversing institutional culture, industry structure, remuneration structures and access to compensation. 

 This is a big turnaround in a few short years. And the fault lies predominantly with large institutions. 

 Their profitability is based on processes and structures that are inherently bad for consumers. Commissions that encourage advisers to push the products that are best for them. Financial advice and mortgage businesses that look independent but are really just another wing of a major bank. Cultures that fail to value good consumer outcomes. 

These problems that were hidden within the system have been laid bare by the big financial scandals of the past five years. And even the banks now recognise them as problems, having announced an industry-wide plan to build community trust, including an independent review of sales commissions. 

But it looks a lot like they have been dragged to this point. They may be saying now that they welcome more regulation but less than two years ago, they were lobbying to wind back consumer protections. 

It is fear of what might happen in an election campaign that has caused the rapid turnaround. And that's why we're so happy to see the financial system at the centre of election debate. 

 If we have one concern, it's about the binary nature of that debate. The way it's being reported suggests that we can either have a stronger ASIC, or we can have a royal commission. In reality, there's a clear case for both. 

A royal commission would provide an opportunity for the many people who have been ripped off in the financial system without adequate compensation to tell their stories, and for us to consider what deeper reform is required to stop this happening again. 

But there's also an urgent need to move on ASIC's powers right now. The Financial System Inquiry recommended that ASIC have the power to step in and ban or modify dangerous financial products, and until ASIC has those powers, some consumers will continue to be exposed to unacceptable risk. That's why we welcomed the government's announcement of their intention to provide these powers and restore most of the funding that has been taken from ASIC since 2014. 

While these past few weeks of debate have given us new hope, fixing the problems in the financial system is going to require sustained political attention, with pressure on financial institutions to back up their public statements with serious reform. 

 Whatever happens in the election, that's what we'll pressuring the next government to deliver.