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Regaining our trust

Statement from Julie Kun, WIRE CEO, in response to the Royal Commission into the financial sector.

I am writing something you may think imprudent to mention this week — that WIRE has received grants from financial institutions’ charity arms.

We have used that money to run programs and provide services to Victorian women and gender-diverse people. We have also worked with several financial institutions to improve their response to family violence.

We have received this money and provided this advice knowing that financial institutions are also engaging in intentional behaviour that hurts innocent members of the public. We have praised some financial institutions for the work they are doing in the financial abuse space but let me be clear: the right hand does not wash clean the left hand. Nor does receiving grant money from a financial institution buy our silence.

For more than a year, we have watched the wrongdoing of financial institutions being exposed through detailed Royal Commission cross-examinations and now finally the Royal Commission into the financial sector is public.

For most, this was a confirmation of what we already suspected or already knew. The findings include recommendations for further legal proceedings against some institutions and individuals, as well as referral to the financial regulators. But the question on everyone’s lip this week is: how much is really going to change?

The Royal Commission provided a rebuke of individual organisations rather than comprehensive criticism of the system that enabled and encouraged financial institutions to rip off and price gouge. As a nation we are asking ourselves how this was allowed to happen. The answer is that it happens when our economic system and the social expectations of our financial institutions enable profit above all else to dominate, when having power and wealth in itself is seen as a license to make profit at the expense of others.

The wrong doing and illegal acts did not happen due to poor financial literacy on the part of members of the public. To say that is akin to blaming a family violence victim-survivor for not protecting themselves from abuse and failing to mention the abuser themselves. In the same way that abusers choose to use violence, too many financial institutions choose to use predatory behaviour and in many instances act in ways that are simply illegal and can be described frankly as institutional economic abuse.

I was dismayed that the report didn’t place greater emphasis on the predatory behaviour that some financial institutions inflicted on — and continue to inflict on — Indigenous communities. The word Indigenous is only used 11 times in the report even though some companies specifically targeted Indigenous communities to sell funeral insurance that is less than useless and commodities in which there is no redress when products never come or are outrageously priced.

Apart from pursuing any criminal matters and regulation breaches that have occurred, our government and our communities must engage in changing our expectation of financial institutions and see predatory behaviour for the abuse that it is. Our societal structures need to stop rewarding those who chase profit at all costs and instead create meaningful incentives — regulations and societal expectations — for them to become better corporate citizens. We have seen some acts of good citizenship but we must see more before we can begin to trust again.

Julie Kun, WIRE CEO

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