One can’t actually overstate the significance of AUSTRAC’s legal assault on Westpac. The numbers alone are well past staggering. The federal regulator overseeing Australia’s anti-money laundering law has filed in the Federal Court its accusation that, between 2013 and 2018, Westpac broke that law over 23 million times.

That’s around 12,000 contraventions a day. People with bigger calculators than me have been doing the maths, working out that the theoretical maximum possible fine is over $400 trillion.

Not long ago, AUSTRAC went after the Commonwealth Bank over a mere 53,700 breaches, and CBA agreed to a penalty of $700 million. On that basis, Westpac would be up for about $300 billion.

Realistically? We’re looking at the multiple billions, if AUSTRAC can prove its case.

The media has focused on the allegations that Westpac allowed money to flow out of its customers’ accounts to pay for child sex trafficking in the Philippines. That detail is disgusting, both in itself and in what it says about the bank’s values.

AUSTRAC had been warning the banks since at least 2013 about specific risks — what they call child exploitation typologies. There are financial behaviours that tend to go hand in hand with trafficking, and the banks are supposed to implement policies to detect them. 

Westpac instead allowed, for example, one customer over six years to transfer $136,000 in 625 separate transactions to the Philippines, where he had no family ties or other obvious reason for sending money there. In 2014 he transferred money to a person who was arrested a year later for live streaming videos of child sex and offering children for sex.

This should have lit Westpac’s screens up like Christmas. But it did nothing, and the money kept flowing, right through to July this year.

There are other similar examples. But the wrongdoing is so much more comprehensive than that. Over five years, Westpac received over 19 million incoming international funds transfers from four overseas banks, totalling $11 billion. These represented 72% of all the international transfers it received in that period. Each of the transfers was required to be reported to AUSTRAC, within 10 business days. Not one was; Westpac didn’t start reporting them at all until late in 2018, and still took a year to get them all in.

In over-arching terms, what AUSTRAC says Westpac did between 2013 and 2018, to comply with its anti-money laundering compliance obligations, was four-fifths of fuck all. The bank set up numerous arrangements with overseas correspondent banks to facilitate the cheap and easy transfer of funds, for the convenience of each bank and its customers. It allegedly paid nothing more than lip service to the law which was designed to combat money laundering, knowing what money laundering facilitates: terrorism, organised crime and human trafficking.

AUSTRAC’s case is not that Westpac was asleep at the wheel. Its case is that Westpac blithely allowed itself to become an unsecured ATM for the inflow and outflow of billions of dollars of money coming from or going to people (like traffickers) and places (such as countries under UN sanction) with no mechanism or concern for identifying, tracking or knowing who or what these were. It simply didn’t care.

The breach of clear legal obligation is breathtaking in its extent (I’d keep saying “alleged” but it’s tiring and anyway banks can’t sue for defamation). Westpac is facing civil penalties only, not criminal sanctions, but this case will highlight that we need a bigger stick than just money for this degree of wilful culpability.

Whatever penalty Westpac ends up paying, it just announced a full-year profit of $6.78 billion — and that was a disappointingly low number. It will, financially, survive this, just as each bank has survived each post-Royal Commission scandal.

There is a bigger question though. Westpac, like its peers, has a social licence that justifies its continued existence. That is not merely abstract; the licence is enshrined in the Four Pillars policy and the implicit guarantee of its deposits which rests on the sovereign wealth of Australia. There are no non-government institutions in this country that enjoy the special status with which we have vested those four banks.

Westpac has no biblical or constitutional right to be. Its licence carries a quid pro quo: that it will act with integrity. Our social expectation of banks these days is, in reality, lower than in times past, because we have become inured to their venality and we know that that reflects the primacy we have given to pursuit of shareholder gain. So we’re not really that surprised that they sell life insurance to the dead or charge fees for no service.

Still, even within the frame of our lowered faith, there’s a line. There’s a point at which the disgust reaches our mouths. AUSTRAC is trying to say, in its own way, that the Rubicon has been crossed. The immediate indications are that Westpac is not contemplating that there may be no way back, and the media largely agree.

They may be right; maybe Westpac cuts a cheque for a few billion, takes the hit and the circus moves on. But I’m not so sure.