Now that Peter Costello is a humble backbencher earning less than his wife, ANZ Bank executive Tanya Costello, it would be fascinating to hear the former Treasurer’s views on Wayne Swan’s decision to beat up on his wife’s employer.

What Swan did yesterday – first on AM and then in a later press conference – was far more substantial than any action the Howard Government took against the banks over its 11 years in office.

Swan was smart because he didn’t get into old Labor bank bashing, but instead hid behind the advice of Treasury and the Reserve Bank, as if to suggest that they had advised him to make his hard hitting comments about ANZ’s “excessive” 0.2 percentage point increase in the standard variable home loan rate from this morning.

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The Herald Sun’s George Lekakis today made the rather extraordinary claim that we had seen a “benign response from the Federal Government to the arbitrary rate increases announced by ANZ and National Australia Bank”.

Sometimes journalists just don’t realise the power of their own industry. Lekakis obviously hadn’t watched last night’s TV news bulletins when he wrote that because ANZ has copped a media thrashing from Swan’s audacious “name and shame” strategy. There is no way Westpac or CBA will follow ANZ’s lead as Swan has effectively said NAB’s 0.12 percentage point rise is all that will be tolerated.

It would be interesting to know what ANZ chief economist Saul Eslake felt about Swan’s attack given this comment last week: “The main reason why banks haven’t moved before this point is, to put it bluntly, because of the extraordinary political pressure exerted on banks by the previous government, and in particular by the previous treasurer Peter Costello during the lead-up to the last election campaign.”

Then again, Eslake and Costello have form. You really should read Andrew Probyn’s fascinating account of Peter Costello’s monstering of Eslake from The West Australian on December 7.

It is surprising that other victims of Costello attacks, such as Tim Colebatch and Fleur Anderson, haven’t been more forthcoming with their own tales. Maybe it is because former Liberal bagman Ron Walker remains the utterly inappropriate chairman of Fairfax Media and he used to receive many of Costello’s complaints.

Despite Eslake’s claims, the Howard years were characterised by tolerance of an outrageous banking cartel. No fee was too much, no gouge too harsh.

The banks have enormous pricing power – especially given competitors like RAMS have been wiped out – but Swan clearly isn’t going to allow them to execute it.

Kevin Rudd’s view of all this will be interesting given that his wife placed her 3,300 ANZ shares and 3500 NAB shares into a blind trust last year.

Unless the entire portfolio was liquidated and then re-invested, the PM presumably remembers that his family owned $210,000 worth of big bank shares, even after today’s sharp falls, when he contemplates how hard his government should go.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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