Opinion  |  

The banks are ‘greedy and dishonest’. What has the church got to say?

Michael Frost on the response to our financial sector

Your blood will be boiling even if you’ve only just read the headlines about the interim report from the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.

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Commissioner Kenneth Hayne’s report says banks and financial advisers have demonstrated “inexcusable” greed and dishonesty by collecting up to $1 billion (with a B!) from customers for financial advice that was never given.

“The root cause for what happened was greed …” – Kenneth Hayne

“Charging for doing what you do not do is dishonest. No one needs legal advice to tell them that. The root cause for what happened was greed; the greed of both licensees and advisers.”

According to Mr Hayne, banks and financial advice companies were so motived by “greed, avarice, and the pursuit of profit” that they “ignored the most basic standards of honesty.”

In some cases, he suggests they may have acted illegally. Makes it hard to watch another cheery television commercial touting a bank or superannuation company as being there for us when we need it.

More interesting to me is the apparent silence of our church leaders.

As you might expect, the federal government has expressed high dudgeon about the report, saying how shocked and disgusted it is by the banks’ behaviour. But this is the same government that resisted launching the banking royal commission in the first place, calling the idea a “populist whinge.”

These days, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is warning that the “disturbing” practices revealed in the report could lead to jail time for the perpetrators. But more interesting to me is the apparent silence of our church leaders.

Where are they? Why aren’t archbishops or moderators or the CEOs of denominations also calling out the reprehensible greed of our financial institutions?

In the UK, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has regularly called on banks to put people before profit, accusing the financial services industry of screwing over the poor.

A church leader berating the banking sector by telling them they have a duty to contribute to the common good, not merely to increase profits?

In 2013, he went on the attack against those payday loan providers of short-term, high-cost credit, because they were causing untold misery for the families who needed to access their services. He even went so far as to launch a church-based credit union to provide low-interest loans to the cash-strapped.

Then in 2015, he told the banks they should make sure all sections of society had access to bank accounts and fee-free cash machines.

“If we’re going to look at financial inclusion, and the likelihood that some communities may depend on elements of support from financial services companies, then we need to be honest in recognising the existence of commercial dependency on a just and stable society and, hence, on the communities of which it is made up,” said Welby.

“The challenge for senior leaders in banking is whether they are willing to take the lead in helping to create that sort of society – and it appears, in general, that they are. Given what all our banks receive from society, I don’t see how they can avoid that responsibility.”

Wait, what? A church leader berating the banking sector by telling them they have a duty to contribute to the common good, not merely to increase profits?

Now is the time for the church to side with the victims of this greedy industry

At a conference in London that year, Welby accused the British banks of chasing profits by targeting the well-off and bypassing those less fortunate in a way that denigrated human dignity. His argument was compelling. He said, “At the heart of both these expectations is the value of the person as sacred, and all other things as secondary to human dignity. It is a value rooted in many faiths and especially in our Judaeo-Christian tradition. Of course profits have to be made, but they need to be measured not only in terms of their absolute return on capital employed, but also in terms of the human cost of achieving that return.”

“Large institutions with adequate balance sheets working to maximise returns from those who can most afford it do not produce a sustainable society in the long term. Such an approach is narrow-minded and short-termist, because sustainable societies are essential to the large companies within them. It is also an immoral approach.”

Maybe our church leaders have said similar things in light of our banking royal commission and I just haven’t heard them. But I think now is the time for the church to side with the victims of this greedy industry and speak up for justice, the common good and human dignity.

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Read the interim report

Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry

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