This, apparently, is a moment that brings “shocking revelations“, “shame” and dishonour, especially to dead diggers. Local media’s most unsurprising outlets have been reacting with daily surprise to reports of the royal commission into banking. Surprise might not describe your response to news that the national economy’s most powerful sector doesn’t always produce extreme private debt in a nice way. But, it may be the sincere response of many journalists.

Who knows? Perhaps some commentators are so truly forgetful that they can be be truly surprised each day. Perhaps disgust, surprise, and outrage are symptoms of a virus contracted in newsrooms. Perhaps a database hiccup at News Corp directs all internal searches for the 2008 financial crisis to Madonna’s divorce settlement. I dunno. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that surprise, whether cynical or naïve, is a very sound means of reviving dominant order.

Took the government a while to remember. But, finally, they’re on it.

The Minister for Finance was surprised on Monday. It was then that Mathias Cormann told Sky News, “I have to say I have been surprised. I have to admit some of the revelations in recent times, I have been surprised.” Matt Canavan, Minister for Resources, reportedly said that he was “shocked“. Even our Financial Services Minister took a moment to be “appalled” in a magnificently appalling television interview. Not surprised enough, though. Not willing to call this a scandal.

It is, of course, possible that Kelly O’Dwyer is not truly surprised by these accounts of predation in the financial services industry. She has worked in the sector and perhaps has seen such things directly, even accepted them as inevitable. I can’t say. As I could find no description of her duties at the National Australia Bank more detailed than this by News Corp: “she looked after extremely rich families worth more than $30 million“.

(This last sentence and the quote it contains in no way serves the point I seek to make here about the political power of surprise. But, it would be a shame not to share this scrap of late journalism itself so extremely rich.)

O’Dwyer’s moment has been celebrated widely. But, the moment is no more a demonstration of her bad character than it is of Barry Cassidy’s skill as a journalist. A failure to appear surprised, or as suddenly shaken by those terrible banks as Tony Abbott, is not much to celebrate. Not one politician is surprised. Not one.

Say Kelly O’Dwyer was not merely appalled or very surprised that such terrible things could ever unfold. Say she named those Few Bad Apples who’d most surprised her with their stench, then called for their immediate composting. What then?

This is no proof that Sir Humphrey Appleby was wrong to identify that basic rule of government: “Never set up an inquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be”. Sir Humphrey was never, as I recall, wrong about anything. As truly monstrous as some findings are, government, and opposition, are not shocked that banks feed like jackals on the bodies of the dead.

What else might such a powerful sector do to retain its primacy, one erected in this nation on phantom credit itself founded on commodities for which China may soon have diminished use? Australian banks don’t facilitate investment much in actual things these days. They give cheap money to the wealthy and impose harsh penalties on the rest.

What they can produce, though, is a good lesson that equilibrium under capitalism is a bit of a fib. How can a small house be worth a million dollars? Because houses are in short supply, says a government that pretends to be shocked by the behaviour of banks. No. Houses are not in short supply. Vacant dwellings in Australia vastly outnumber homeless Australian persons. The transformation by banks of a home into an asset of such extreme value punishes people, and creates a private debt to GDP ratio that may punish our entire economy.

So perhaps the response to the royal commission should not be one of surprise. To denounce some banks, as Abbott and others have, as scandalous is to state that the problem with a monstrously powerful sector is its bad morality, its disrespect for dead diggers etc. It is to create the illusion that a fundamentally unsustainable national economy can be sustained if we tell the bad bits of it off.

It’s not a scandal. It’s scandalous to say so. It’s business as business has been permitted to become, and this was known not just by Kelly O’Dwyer in advance.

Peter Fray

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