Australian Bank Logos

Don’t Wait for the Banks to Apologise

Andrew Thorburn and his merry band of banker mates couldn’t even bring themselves to utter the words “I’m sorry” this week.

Sorry to the families who have lost a loved one through the banks’ unethical and deliberate practices.

Sorry to the farmers who have been sent to the wall, without an iota of empathy. Sorry to those they charged, despite not providing any service. Sorry to the thousands of Australians – their clients – who they have betrayed.

But it was the response to Kenneth Hayne’s meticulous report that provides the stellar lesson in leadership – and what not to do.

Mr Thornburn, NAB’s chief executive, actually planned long service leave ahead of the report. “You have life outside the company. You know I’ve got a marriage. I’ve got children. I’ve got elderly parents. They’re the people who I want to spend some time with,’’ he said in one interview.

What? Can you imagine the Townsville mayor, Jenny Hill, going on a month’s leave, as her city was submerged?

Or the head of our terrorism efforts heading to a northern summer, just as a high and particular alert was issued at home here.

Or even our cricket team jetting off for a month’s rest and relaxation, ahead of a Test match?

The analogies could run for pages – but it was only at the point when he was being criticised in the wake of Hayne’s damaging accusations that he decided it might be prudent to stay at his desk.

And that was just the start of what has been a lacklustre, disappointing and heartbreaking response from Andrew Thornburn – and his counterparts – to the commission’s revelations.

So much criticism has been levelled at our political leadership but the response by the NAB has shown the same leadership vacuum in business.

Andrew Thorburn is not a junior clerk. He is the managing director and group CEO of NAB. He’s been the head of retail banking, and the managing director and CEO of the Bank of New Zealand. He’s held senior management positions at the Commonwealth and St George banks, too. And he’s served as chair of the Australian Banking Association.

And yet with all that experience, all he could tell us was that the commission’s report was “very hard to read’’, and he was proud to be a banker. He was determined to lead a change to make things better, and the commission’s report didn’t reflect “who I am or how I am leading, nor the change that is occurring inside our bank”.

Spare me. “But I can tell you,’’ he said, “that I am more committed and more deeply determined than ever to be a strong leader for our company’’.

It’s a bit too little, a lot too late. Dr Ken Henry, a highly regarded former public servant and the bank’s chairman, sounded similarly unrepentant, dismissing the royal commission’s view that he was unwilling to accept criticism.

And former Queensland Premier and Australian Banking Association head Anna Bligh jumped to their defence.

The response highlighted the lack of empathy for those who have been hurt by NAB, and its inability to change, going forward.

But more than that. It sounded petulant and arrogant, particularly given the credibility earned by Kenneth Hayne during his investigation.

Perhaps, in retrospect, it is ironic that Commissioner Hayne said it was not clear from Mr Thorburn’s or Mr Henry’s evidence that NAB’s most senior leaders had learnt from mistakes of the past.

Their response this week proved that.

Photograph of Madonna King

Madonna King is a leading journalist and commentator. An award-winning presenter of 612 ABC Brisbane, she has authored 12 books and now works across radio, television and online.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.