Shaking faith: the Taylor and Westpac scandals

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The current controversies engulfing Westpac and the Federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction have a number of things in common: judgement, or the lack thereof; a perceived difficulty in recognising right from wrong; and inflicting adverse effects on their respective institutions.

Liberal MP Angus Taylor during Question Time on 25 November 2019. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)In light of the recent banking royal commission and the government's work in developing a plethora of transparency and integrity measures, it beggars belief how Brian Hartzer and Angus Taylor could bring upon themselves and their respective institutions so much unwanted publicity.

Paul Kelly, editor-at-large for the Australian, was particularly savage regarding Westpac and its former CEO: 'The Westpac money-laundering scandal, compounded by the initial efforts of its leadership to cling to office and deny accountability, further shatters trust in financial elites. It exposes their moral bankruptcy, self-interested complacency and flawed management.'

Kelly's assessment is as true as it is harsh. But he, like many Australians, is simply fed up with the lack of any moral compass being displayed by some of our business and political leaders.

The Guardian's political editor, Katharine Murphy, was also clear that Angus Taylor should have stepped aside once the police were called in to investigate the case of an altered city council document.

There is no suggestion that Taylor himself doctored the document, but his letter to Sydney Mayor Clover Moore and the doctored financial account was provided to media with what must be assumed as having the intention of causing her political and reputational harm. As Murphy correctly wrote: 'Taylor vacating his post temporarily should have happened without fuss, just because it's the right thing to do.'

The current scandal engulfing the minister is not his first foray into controversy. Taylor found himself embroiled in controversy earlier this year over his dealings with Jam Land, a company currently under investigation for illegal land-clearing.

 

"At a time when public institutions are suffering from trust deficits, why do people in high office continue to get it so wrong?"

 

If Hartzer and Taylor could have their time again, you would expect they would have acted differently. Hartzer would have focused on Westpac's compliance culture, especially after his organisation was said to have been briefed years earlier on the child exploitation risks as a consequence of Westpac's compliance breaches. Taylor would have thought twice about publicly attacking his ideological opponent, Moore, without doing a basic double-check of the facts.

At a time when public institutions are suffering from trust deficits, why do people in high office continue to get it so wrong?

Both Kelly and Murphy hit on part of the problem — both men have placed self-interest ahead of doing what is right. The actions of Taylor and Hartzer seem to have been motivated by operational and political expediency with a touch of hubris. Actions primarily motivated by self-interest and expediency, and which cause harm to others, no longer cut it in public life. Just ask Prince Andrew.

The Taylor and Hartzer scandals continue a pattern of misjudgements by those who ought to know better. The impacts of their actions go beyond themselves, reflecting poorly on the institutions they represent.

Over recent decades we have rightly argued that sportspeople have a higher standard of public behaviour because they are role models for others. Our political and corporate leaders should be held accountable for the same reason. Yet despite countless inquiries and royal commissions highlighting myriad unconscionable actions and behaviours, some appear incapable of learning the lessons from the past.

High-level decision-making is not straightforward and is all too often a balance of risk and reward. That said, those charged with that responsibility ought to know the difference between doing what is right and what is wrong.

There are consequences for our decisions and action; some good, others not so. Hartzer has lost his job, albeit with a $2 million parachute to soften the blow. Taylor continues to hold the confidence of his prime minister, but if it becomes a choice between Scott Morrison's reputation and that of his minister, Taylor will find himself quickly despatched to the backbench.

Our faith in financial and parliamentary institutions continues to take a battering. While we all make mistakes, the true test of our character is defined by how we respond to them. Both men in these latest scandals seem to be victims of hubris and an inability to distinguish right from wrong — to the detriment of themselves and the institutions they represent.

 

 

Joe ZabarJoe Zabar is deputy CEO and director of economic policy at Catholic Social Services Australia.

Main image: Liberal MP Angus Taylor during Question Time on 25 November 2019. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Joe Zabar, Westpac, banks, Brian Hartzer, Angus Taylor

 

 

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Existing comments

Aww, come on Joe; don't be too critical of these guys...they must know what they're doing; one of them has the full backing of the PM, another is the PM. We've had 2 weeks political entertainment for quite a low cost if you set aside that Energy is in crisis and the minister is focused on a worthless download rather than the business at hand. The energy retailers must be relieved to know that they're dealing with someone who doesn't check provenance before making decisions and can't assess budget numbers within a factor of 10. ...and you can't blame the PM for calling the police commissioner; of course he'd have to check the veracity of a publicly announced investigation, he'd certainly be of the opinion that there could be no political pressure by a phone call from the PM. Similar to the Michaelia Cash cuffuffle, it'll all blow over with time and strategically placed whiteboards. So please don't be too harsh, they're just people, "just" being the operative word. White collar scallywags :)
Ray | 04 December 2019


Hartzer and Taylor are, in the eyes of some, unfit for their positions. One columnist pointed out the problems with internal promotions within the major banks and that there are no requisite qualifications to hold high office within them. Judith Sloan got stuck into bloated salaries and totally unnecessary bonuses. Angus Taylor, like Susan Ley, will be resurrected. Our banks are, to me, more of a problem than our politicians. Compared with some of the politicians abroad: Corbyn and Macron spring readily to mind, ours are pretty reasonable. Some, like Cormann, are excellent. At least we have a system where these matters can be brought to light and dealt with. People in Iraq and Iran have been shot for taking similar action. The superannuation industry forced Hartzer to go. Do we have an embassy somewhere like Burundi Taylor could go? Like 'Father Tony' he probably wouldn't take it.
Edward Fido | 04 December 2019


Part of the problem may be that they have surrounded themselves with yes men (gender deliberate) and there is no one who will eyeball them and say 'no', you must not do that'. There was a time when permanent secretaries would be able to do this - without fear or favour - but the top of the public service has been so politicised since the days of Howard that ministers and their secretaries seem joined at the hip and stand or fall together.
Ginger Meggs | 04 December 2019


And the Church, Joe?
Denis Fitzgerald | 05 December 2019


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