Sixty years ago, come this November, a twenty-eight-year old Geoffrey Blainey published a history of The National Bank of Australasia marking its first commercial century. He took us on a ride through start-ups and crashes, panics and depressions, wars and peace into a 1950s mired in controversy and banking reforms.

Almost thirty years on Blainey would re-write this volume shortening it, then expanding it into 1982—to the dawn of Australia’s greatest economic re-imaging via the Hawke-Keating Neocon era.

In that expanded story of the bank we now know as NAB, Blainey both celebrated and lamented the shortening of his first edition, leaving out as he needed to details of some juicy mergers and minutia. But interestedly, in re-writing his first volume’s preface he also left out a cogent insight which read:

It is no light matter for a bank to open its records to an outsider and ask for a history which is “fairly and truly presented”. It is no light matter in Australia, where banking glows as a political issue, or in any country which shares the tradition that a bank should maintain the secrecy about its customers [sic] affairs.

Today, Australia’s banking sector is once again under political scrutiny; should we be surprised? If by now we don’t know that history repeats—it’s merely the impact that grows—then we really need to open up our schools to a more rigorous curricula and our media to a better reporting of the news.

Thing is, as the light of day is both antiseptic and cliché to misdeeds, we’ve also seen especially in America this past decade, that political banking oversight sometimes leads to farce. As fiction’s Gordon Gekko said, “Greed is good”: it’s just that farce makes excellent fodder for greed.

For me as a young kid, banking meant a blue Donald Duck Bank of New South Wales money box, a Commonwealth Bank school passbook recording a weekly deposit of ten cents and Aussie Bonds paying 11.25% at call. (The Commonwealth Bank eventually took everything in that passbook in fees; the Commonwealth Government more than gave it back to me with runaway interest.)

Sometimes therefore, it’s good for an industry to be reminded that if its greed comes too easily, then it’s not working hard enough at its real bottom line.

Yes, the current Australian Banking Royal Commission will not produce the farce of America’s GFC hearings, the result being the latter’s banks siphoning government bailouts in salaried bonuses. For one, we don’t domicile privatised ratings agencies here. Nor is anything in Australia, “too big to fail”.

But Blainey’s history reminds us of times when Capitalism implied building something; powered by people with one eye on profit for sure but the other firmly set on competitive service.

If the Royal Commission shows that greed has indeed become a fiasco for Australia, then it’s those banks with a true underlying service mentality that will survive the industry shake-up to come.

They’ll be the lifeblood of a new economy, set at a time six decades after Blainey’s first work, when our world feels like it’s about to explode and no one can truly explain why.

© 2018 Adam Parker.
Main picture credit: Blainey, G. 1958. Gold and Paper: A History of The National Bank of Australasia. Georgian House, Melbourne. Author’s copy.