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Cause for concern

Can we trust the banks to implement reform?

December 2018

We entered 2018 knowing that the year would be dominated by the banking royal commission, but few could have imagined just how significant it would be.

Every time hearings have been held, they've dominated the news with explosive revelations about irresponsible lending, misleading practices, fees for no service, and blatant mis-selling of products in pursuit of commissions and bonuses.

But the real test of a royal commission isn't the sound and light show – it's what happens next. It will only make a difference if it leads to lasting reform, to stop the harms revealed from happening again.

It's been interesting to see the major bank CEOs acknowledge problems in their institutions and commit to fixing them. But this has occurred while they faced the ever-present threat of being called before Commissioner Hayne. Let's see how genuine their words are when it comes to implementing reforms that undermine the very practices that have made their businesses so big and profitable.

Judging from the industry response to other major financial inquiries, we've got real cause for concern.

Back in December 2014, the government released the report of the major Financial System Inquiry led by David Murray. At the time, this was described as a "root and branch examination of Australia's financial system" that would help to ensure the system was "resilient, efficient and fair".

The report contained some important recommendations that could have reduced the risk of some of the things we have seen in the banking royal commission hearings.

It said that ASIC should have the power to ban or restrict the sale of products that were dangerous to consumers. Think of this as the equivalent of the product recalls that we use for dangerous goods such as Takata airbags.

It also said that financial firms should face stronger obligations around how products are designed and distributed. This would force firms to identify who would benefit from a banking, investment or insurance product, making it easier for us to see where a product is being flogged to people who will never benefit from it.

But four years later, we're still waiting for these laws to be introduced. And the draft laws put forward are a weak alternative to the strong reforms proposed in 2014.

The main reason for this delay is industry resistance. While the CEOs and their PR teams are out in public, asking us to believe that they have changed, their lobbyists are working furiously behind closed doors to slow or prevent reform.

Alan Kirkland, CHOICE CEO
Twitter: @AlanKirkland

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