An end to virtue signalling? Don’t bank on it.

19 December 2023
An end to virtue signalling? Don’t bank on it. - Featured image

Isn’t it strange that the industry excoriated by a Royal Commissioner as recently as 2019 now, a mere four years later, presumes to lecture ordinary Australians on the ethical issues of the day?

In his final report into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, former High Court Justice Kenneth Hayne found, first, that “providing a service to customers was relegated to second place [behind] the relevant entity’s pursuit of profit [and] also by individuals’ pursuit of gain”. Second, “there was a marked imbalance of power and knowledge between those providing the product or service and those acquiring it”. Third, the intermediary standing between the consumer and the bank was rarely acting in the interests of the former and, fourth, “too often, financial services entities that broke the law were not properly held to account”.

There was of course the obligatory hand wringing and the predictable mea culpas from the banking CEOs. Then there followed the equally unsurprising charm offensive. But now—and you have to admire their brazenness—the bankers are telling us to take a long, hard look at ourselves.

In late September, in the crucial weeks leading up to the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum, ANZ confirmed a $2 million donation to the Yes campaign. The ANZ website also featured Indigenous employees of the bank extolling the virtues of the Yes case.

The NAB website included a video of activist Thomas Mayo reciting the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It lasted just over three minutes, so it must have been the abridged version rather than the full 26 pages. Also, no mention was made of a Treaty or reparations, which Mr Mayo has publicly endorsed.

Meanwhile, Westpac enlisted the services of Noel Pearson. On its website, there was a photo of bank CEO Peter King alongside Mr Pearson and an accompanying story in which he declares Westpac’s unstinting support for the Yes campaign. In March Mr King informed Australians that the bank will “be helping our employees to understand what the Voice is, and what it’s not”. So, readers with their life savings deposited with Westpac have been warned: apparently the bank’s staff are unable to think for themselves.

And our biggest bank, the CBA (2023 profit $10.16 billion), trod the same path, announcing in October its support for the Yes campaign while unveiling its own Reconciliation Action Plan. Interestingly, the first objective of this plan is “Removing barriers to accessing appropriate financial products and services”.

Does this mean Indigenous Australians will soon be as vulnerable as all other Australians to the sort of unscrupulous conduct exposed by Kenneth Hayne?

Sadly, it would be a mistake to expect any let-up in the banks’ virtue signalling post the October 14 referendum, regardless of the result. If anything, the banks will have more time and resources to devote to such other fashionable causes as “sustainability” and “inclusion”.

So, get used to banks being the self-appointed custodians of our consciences, as well as our cash. Virtue signalling is, at any time, an unattractive practice, but coming from such a virtue-free sector as banking it’s more than a little galling.

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