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The real threat to Australia's big four


In May 1989, the Sydney news magazine ‘The Bulletin’ published a cover story of characteristic Australian bluntness: ‘Why the banks are bastards.’

The piece documented a litany of market abuses by the country’s largest lenders, which in those days, as now, were the so-called big four: Westpac, NAB, ANZ and CommBank. 

It became one of the most talked-about articles of the time, so deeply embedding itself into the zeitgeist that, even to this day, almost three decades on, the expression can still frame the national conversation around Australian banks and their relationship with their customers. Australian banks have spent millions since, in marketing and feel-good campaigns trying to counter those five words.

But is it still true? Are Australian banks ‘bastards’? A succession of scandals at the big four seems to make a solid case. All four possess hairshirts they’ve donned frequently to address and apologize for all manner of transgressions, from staff sexual harassment and in-office drug use to botched emails encouraging staff to vote in the recent same-sex marriage plebiscite. 

NAB and ANZ both recently settled an interest rate-rigging case brought by the regulator Asic, as Westpac fights on, claiming innocence. 

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