I remember him so clearly. He was the bank manager at the Marrickville Westpac branch. He was lovely despite refusing to count my income when it came to borrowing for a mortgage. That was how they did it then. He advised me it was unlikely I would work after I had kids. Ok Silent Generation.
And for all that time, since 1983, I've been a Westpac customer. Believe me, after the Royal Commission, I was relieved if not smug. Of the big four banks, Westpac came off pretty well. It didn't rip off dead people.
Now I discover that the bank knew it was funding child exploitation. Let me make what it did perfectly clear. Westpac failed to obey anti-money laundering and counter-terror finance laws. According to AUSTRAC, the financial intelligence agency, that failure allowed payments to a person in the Philippines, later arrested for child sex trafficking and livestreaming child sexual abuse. As The Sydney Morning Herald's Adele Ferguson wrote, skin-crawling stuff.
Livestreaming child sexual abuse. And it has known that for at least six years. It did nothing. No demonstrated remorse could ever make up for that utter ethical failure. I cannot even imagine being the person or people who did nothing to prevent that particular funding stream for child sex trafficking.
And here I am with my bright red debit card wondering what to do next. Is it possible to bank ethically? I asked Queensland University of Technology academic Erin O'Brien, who specialises in investor activism, if she thought it could be done. She says some some banks are more ethical than others when it comes to environmental sustainability and human rights abuses. She recommends organisations such as Market Forces (yes, precisely the group the Prime Minister Scott Morrison would like to put out of business). Market Forces provides information about which banks have divested from fossil fuels industries. O'Brien also says the new Modern Slavery Act provides another impetus for banks to be more transparent about their connections with forced labour, child labour, and slavery-like practices.
"Consumers often vote with their wallets when making purchases. When consumers have information about which banks are embedding ethical values in investment decisions, it becomes easier for consumers to make an ethically-motivated choice when choosing a bank."
But how could I have known about what Westpac did? The Banking Royal Commission was irresponsibly short and strategically underfunded and now I realise we have only scratched the surface of what the big banks have done. It's fine for the Prime Minister to stand up and say it's now the responsibility of the boards of the banks to take a stand, to get rid of directors. But that's not enough. We urgently need more scrutiny. Can we ask Kenneth Hayne to take up where he left off?
The convenor of the Australian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility Howard Pender tries to reassure me. He says there are two questions I have to ask myself. 1. Can I trust the bank to be ethical in how it handles my deposits? Pender says it's certainly possible to find banks which make statements about their ethical values. 2. What about investments in unethical industries, such as coal? He says shareholders have some capacity to influence what companies do.
This is good advice - although this government doesn't think activists should put pressure on companies. Let capitalism do whatever the hell it likes, whenever the hell it likes. And we need to ask ourselves why the Coalition limited the terms of reference of the Banking Royal Commission.
In the meantime, check out the Global Alliance for Banking on Values. Australia has only two member banks - but better than none. The Alliance is just 10 years old and the aims of its members include making banking more transparent, supporting sustainability of all kinds and trying to build a positive alternative to the current banking system.
Now I realise we have only scratched the surface of what the big banks have done.
But seriously, I'm wondering what to do. Maybe I should be keeping the money in socks. Professor of business at the University of Technology Sydney Thomas Clarke tells me I have to pull myself together. He says it's understandable the public might despair but it's wrong to put ethical banking in the "too hard" basket.
"This only serves the purposes of the cynical who have an interest in the continuation of poor standards. Of course there can and will be ethical banking in future. But this involves a lot more than simply a few high profile prosecutions and the Royal Commission's focus on 'culture'."
We must now ensure there is a focus on the interests of individual customers, the community and the development of the national economy. We need to ensure - our government needs to ensure - that real competition and choice is reintroduced into the Australian banking system. Clarke says we must replace what he describes as the oligopolistic control of the big four banks.
In the short term, change banks. In the long term, become one of those radical activists the Morrison government despises.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.