17 November 2015
by Jeff Morris
Commonwealth Bank threw its customers 'under the bus'
The allegation against the bank was made by property developer Rory O'Brien.
Last Friday was a day of shame for Commonwealth Bank. Several "BankWest victims" related to a joint parliamentary committee the destruction of their businesses and lives at the hands of our biggest bank.
The BankWest saga is a story of a power imbalance so massive that even the legal system is made to serve the interests of the powerful rather than the wronged.
CBA is Australia's VW scandal with an extra letter.
It is a story of ruthless, untrammelled abuse of power by CBA, an institution that seems to be untouchable precisely because it is too big to be allowed to fail.
At the time, the bewildered victims had no idea what CBA was doing to them.
These were individual stories that were never meant to see the light of day. The first victim, property developer Rory O'Brien, was able to tell his story only because of the parliamentary privilege the inquiry provides.
Otherwise – the final twist of the knife – he was subject to a gag order imposed by CBA as part of his paltry settlement.
All because CBA, which did handsomely out of the BankWest purchase, decided, for whatever reason, that it didn't want the commercial loan book of BankWest.
Rather than deal with these customers in an orderly and civilised fashion, CBA threw them under the bus. Loan agreements have always been one sided in favour of the bank; never before have they been so ruthlessly and capriciously enforced as they were by CBA against this group of unwanted BankWest customers.
The method used, as in the CBA Financial Planning Scandal, was to pick off the victims individually. At the time the bewildered victims had no idea why CBA was doing this to them, they didn't know they were part of a group of discarded customers.
The most explosive allegation is that CBA acted so heartlessly with this group of people and indeed, manufactured at least some of these defaults, because it could claw back the write-offs from the vendor of BankWest: HBOS and ultimately, the British taxpayer. If this is true, heads should roll.
Correction: heads should roll but on past form probably won't.
Scarcely two weeks earlier, another parliamentary committee heard evidence of the manipulation of the compensation process for victims of the long-running CBA financial planning scandal.
This came from Russell Phillips, a former employee who worked on the program. I sat beside him as he gave his evidence and contributed some of what I know. It is not the first time I have heard this story from people involved in the process, just the first time someone was prepared to step up and go public about it. For his pains he has been shamefully vilified by CBA.
The denials by CBA tread a well-worn path but nothing can get around the fact that this is a scheme where all the shots are called by CBA, the victims have even their "independent" customer advocates dictated to them by CBA.
An "independent" expert verifies that a flawed process, carefully designed to minimise compensation paid, has been faithfully followed.
All conducted by CBA behind a shroud of secrecy. The pitiful outcomes, 19 customers paid a total of $480,000 in more than a year, bear this out.
At least this is up from the amount paid when the chief executive fronted a parliamentary inquiry back in April, when he admitted that the farce would run through to the end of next year, because it wants to get it right this time.
7 Eleven has recently shown how to run a genuine compensation scheme: hand the cheque book over to an unimpeachable independent person like Allan Fels and let him take it from there. In a few months he has paid out twice what CBA managed in more than a year.
You would have thought that CBA wouldn't monkey around with the compensation for the financial planning victims after their near-death encounter with a royal commission last year but then again, why wouldn't they?
Nobody was held accountable for attempting to mislead the Senate inquiry that recommended the royal commission, a virtually unprecedented disaster for a private company that seems to have been shrugged off with serene complacency.
An aggrieved shareholder at the AGM last year was blithely told by the chairman that he was "accountable" for what had gone on.
No, part of the problem at CBA is precisely that the board has not been held to account for its complete failure in relation to the financial planningscandal, which it knew about from at least 2009.
Nor is it likely to be held to account in relation to the BankWest scandal.
The AGM votes are held mainly by institutions that tend to follow the party line and don't rock the boat. Thus, in turn, the board doesn't hold management to account.
Where there is smoke there is fire. CBA is Australia's VW scandal with an extra letter. The head of VW resigned virtually straight after the scandal broke, as a means of taking responsibility.
No sign of anything like that happening at CBA. They still don't think they have a problem. Sadly, it is the CBA shareholders who pick up the tab.
Editor's note: Commonwealth Bank strongly refutes the allegations made at the Senate hearing. In a statement it said it believed the claims "are without foundation and are untrue". The bank will appear at the inquiry in December.