‘Woke-washing’ Has Real Consequences

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27 July 2023
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It’s difficult to spot the difference between what Coutts did to the Brexit leader and what the Commonwealth Bank does to coal miners.

What NatWest bank in the UK and its boss Alison Rose did to Nigel Farage has proved a headline from Time magazine a few years ago to be absolutely wrong.

According to Time, “Cancel culture is not real – at least not in way people think”. Apparently, cancel culture is merely what happens when “people in power face consequences for their actions or receive any type of criticism”. No – cancel culture is alive and very real.

As revealed over the last fortnight, Coutts, a private bank owned by NatWest, and the UK’s fourth-largest bank (and following the GFC 38.6 per cent-owned by the British government) cancelled the accounts of broadcaster, former politician and bete noire of the left, Nigel Farage because, according to a 40-page dossier prepared by Coutts’ staff, his supposedly “xenophobic, chauvinistic and racist views” did ‘not align with the values of the bank.

Two days ago, NatWest chief executive Rose was forced to resign after she admitted to being the source of a BBC story claiming Farage’s account was closed because of insufficient funds. This was untrue. Documents obtained by Farage from the bank under Britain’s personal information laws proved Rose had misled the BBC.

She might also have broken UK laws on data protection by publicly disclosing confidential information about a bank customer. Farage has called for the entire NatWest board to resign. As the story has developed, an ever-growing number of episodes of customers being debanked for their political opinions are coming to light.

There are so many aspects to this story it’s hard to know where to begin.

It’s almost impossible to participate in the 21st century without a bank account. If every UK bank acted as Coutts did, Farage would be as good as cancelled from society – at the behest not of the government but of private corporations. As one Tory MP said: ’In 2023, banking services are as vital as water or electricity supplies. It is a utility.”

Following Coutts’ precedent, a power company committed to net zero might conclude that providing electricity to the home of a climate change sceptic was contrary to its values.

And Australian banks are close to that position already. The Commonwealth Bank has said, for example, it won’t finance new clients with more than 25 per cent of their revenues from thermal coal. It’s difficult to spot the difference between what Coutts did to Farage and what the Commonwealth Bank does to coal miners.

In the UK it’s not yet unlawful to be a vocal supporter of Brexit, as Farage is, and in Australia coal mining is still legal (for the moment, at least). Yet, both Coutts and the Commonwealth Bank have taken it upon themselves to decide the limits of what is acceptable for companies to do and individuals to say. “Woke-washing” as it’s been called, has real consequences.

The classic free-market position would be, of course, that corporations should be free to decide to whom they sell their services and the conditions in which they do. Which is fine in theory, except that’s not the law and that’s not how the world has worked for a very long time.

Rose was the epitome of a modern banking CEO. She was appointed a Dame Commander of the British Empire in the 2023 New Year’s Honours list. She was “passionate about NatWest Group being a purpose-led organisation”. She championed diversity and inclusion, and claimed “tacking climate change would be a central pillar” of her tenure.

Some commentators in the UK have remarked that Rose’s mistake was not telling the truth from the beginning. They have a point.

When the question first arose of why Farage’s account was cancelled, the CEO of a genuinely “purpose-led organisation” would have said clearly and publicly it was because NatWest disagreed with his politics. But Rose didn’t even have the courage of her convictions. Instead, she chose the easy option and so, potentially, broke the law.

Whether it’s PwC in Australia or NatWest in Britain, we see again that very often the fine words of corporations and their bosses don’t match their actions.

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This article was originally published in The Australian Financial Review and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication. It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

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