The sight of the government standing four-square behind Australia’s banking oligopoly as it exploits its privileged position to gouge consumers and businesses must be deeply unsettling not merely to progressive-minded Labor MPs, but all those interested in reining in the excesses of this cartel at the centre of the Australian economy.

It’s ironic that today’s announcement of a $5.1 billion profit by ANZ was accompanied by some vituperation aimed by its CEO at Joe Hockey and his calls for greater regulation. Mike Smith is the architect of ANZ’s strategy to do exactly what it should not be permitted to — leverage off its domestic oligopoly profits and its too-big-to-fail status to chase rapid growth in Asian markets. Such growth, in markets with poorer governance and legal structures than here, leaves it exposed to the sort of foreign-sourced debacles that have plagued other Australian banks before it and which potentially endangers the viability of its core business in Australia come the next financial crisis. And there will be another one.

It’s also rich given that during the GFC, ANZ cut and ran from Australian domestic borrowers, slashing its loan-to-value ratio for mortgage lending and dramatically cutting its supply of credit to Australian households.

The dismissal of Hockey’s proposals as “populism” by both Smith and the government is risible. Hockey is talking about recognising the too-big-to-fail nature of our banks in a regulatory system built on the idea of not guaranteeing parts of the financial system. He’s talking about the banks’ drive for higher-risk sources of growth from endangering their core business of borrowing and lending, which is critical to the economy. And he wants to engender greater competition in lending. If that’s populism, it appears to have grown up and got an MBA since we last encountered it.

It is not good enough for the banking cartel and Wayne Swan to dismiss these issues or hide behind opposition divisions. It’s time for Swan to justify his resistance to an inquiry into financial regulation, and why he thinks his own measures to strengthen competition for the banking cartel are effective when, by all possible measures, they are anything but.

Peter Fray

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