There might be more to Wayne Swann’s nudge and wink about bank mortgage competition than meets the eye – which would be just as well, as so far there isn’t much to see.

Admittedly there isn’t much the Federal Treasurer can do: nationalising the banks wasn’t a successful policy initiative in 1949 and still wouldn’t play very well beyond the Public Service Association.

“Forcing” banks to help customers re-establish automatic credits and debit is a little something while a “detailed and informative website” is bound to be fabulously exciting, but there could be value yet in stirring a somnolent watchpuppy.

The curious thing is, which watchpuppy? The talk is all about what’s best for consumers and increasing competition – but the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has been left out of it with the establishment of a consumer complaints hotline and a review of fees going to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

It’s a fault of the system Costello established after the Wallis Report that bank fee issues fall between the valleys of our “three peaks” regulation. And until now, ASIC, ACCC, APRA, the RBA and the Rabbit-Proof Fence Control Board have been equally uninterested in doing anything about it.

During our occasional campaigning about the banks’ legally dubious penalty fees (what they euphemistically refer to as “exception payments”), each of the watchpuppies happily tried to pass the buck to another. None displayed any hint of initiative in wanting to pursue a glaring abuse of power – they didn’t want to know about it and happily hid behind charters that omitted mention of the bank rip-off. Of course it didn’t help that Costello didn’t care either.

The faint hope now is that the bureaucrats will sniff what interests their new political masters and show some enthusiasm for going beyond the initial limited tilt at the cartel.

The “ASIC-led industry review of entry and exit fees that apply to mortgage accounts, shining a light on fees, putting downward pressure on them, and providing better information to consumers to inform their switching decisions” sounds nice, but why limit it to mortgage account fees?

Of potentially more interest to a crusading contracts lawyer might be the question of whether penalty fees on paying out a mortgage are any more legally enforceable than the scam of penalty fees on late credit card payments.

There’s no suggestion whatsoever of the government getting heavy by funding a test case against the more outrageous penalty fees; it’s just a bit of the old “naming and shaming” threat.

Does that mean anything? Well, the NSW Government has been named and shamed for years without having any impact. Maybe banks aren’t as thick-skinned.

And speaking of an execrable state government, Malcolm Turnbull has a completely reasonable point that Swann would have more credibility if he also whacked the states for their mortgage stamp duty grab – another key part of the costs that make changing banks difficult.

But that’s a bit harder than “detailed and informative” websites.

Peter Fray

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