Ever since Scott Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull, Labor has been struggling to find the right line and length with the new Prime Minister.
That appeared to change with Friday’s release of Commissioner Kenneth Hayne’s interim report, which acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek quickly badged as “the report that Scott Morrison never wanted”.
“The Liberals have never taken this seriously. They were dragged kicking and screaming into holding a royal commission and they gave it an unreasonably short time frame.”
Hours before the report was tabled, Labor released a 45-second commercial entitled “Scott Morrison, whose side are you really on?”, which detailed the myriad excuses Morrison, as Treasurer, gave over the months as he fought a royal commission.
These included “populist whinge”, “reckless distraction”, “opportunistic” and “let’s not forget that our banking and finance sector is a well regulated sector”.
In recent weeks, Morrison has twice conceded openly that he had been wrong to have opposed the commission.
He admitted he was preoccupied with trying to fix the problem with rules and regulations while being oblivious to the hurt the industry had inflicted on people, their right to be heard, and the need to effect cultural change by publicly shaming the villains.
He should be given a pat on the back for admitting fault. It is rare these days. Ultimately, however, the only reason the government caved in and called the royal commission was because it faced being rolled by its own backbench.
Misconduct ‘went unpunished’
Labor is entitled to press home what it senses is a clear advantage.
More so after Commissioner Hayne, in his refreshingly simple and honest style, effectively concluded that it wasn’t a lack of rules and regulation that was the problem, it was that nobody followed or enforced the existing rules.
“I begin from the premise that breaches of existing law are not prevented by passing some new law that says ‘Do not do that’,” he says.
“When misconduct was revealed, it either went unpunished or the consequences did not meet the seriousness of what had been done.”
One could argue that the government, as it piled red tape upon red tape to try to ward off the royal commission, had been wasting everybody’s time.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has obviously been sniffing the breeze in recent weeks and announced a fortnight ago that ASIC had been a failure in the past and would be given greater powers, including those of remediation.
On Friday, he left open the prospect of greater structural reform after Hayne suggested ASIC may need to be restructured because its remit was too big and its culture of negotiating outcomes (appeasement) rather than handing out punishment, was too entrenched.
Still, it was Labor that was fleet of foot on the day. Plibersek promised that Labor, if elected next year, would establish a financial services royal commission implementation taskforce within Treasury to ensure all of Hayne’s recommendations were swiftly delivered. (The government later advised it has already set up such a taskforce in Treasury. It might have been a good idea to have announced it.)
Hayne’s final report is due by February 1, less than three months before the election. His initial findings should stymie any pre-election arms race between the major parties in terms of trying to out-regulate each other.