This month, the Banking Royal Commission uncovered atrocious greed and dishonesty in Australia’s finance sector.
Among its findings were executives receiving bonuses of 300 per cent, customers being charged for no service, and even a man with down syndrome being sold insurance he didn’t understand by a worker bribed with gifts and holidays.
If that weren’t enough, in a dark twist of irony, even the dead were being charged for life insurance.
Capturing a mood felt around the nation, Labor MP Clare O’Neil declared, “Many Australians feel that if they steal from a bank, they would go to jail, yet if the bank steals from them they get a bonus and a promotion.”
How could so much corruption take place in the land of the fair go? Kenneth Hayne, who led the commission, put it simply: “Too often, the answer seems to be greed—the pursuit of short-term profit at the expense of basic standards of honesty.”
National Australia Bank (NAB) and AMP had the most to answer for. In the wake of it all, the CEOs and chairs of both banks lost their jobs. AMP’s full-year profit plunged 97 per cent. And NAB set the record for the most distrusted bank in Australian history, with only 11.5% of Aussies remaining confident in their brand.
Not without reason did meme creators enjoy pointing out the irony in the name NAB.
Distrust in the big banks is just one consequence of this scandal. The stock market slid, class actions have been launched, and as the government clamps down on the industry, battling Aussies fear that home loans will be put further out of reach.
But all of these impacts—however damaging—are still only pragmatic.
What many don’t see is that the banking scandal isn’t just bad for business—it’s bad for civilisation. And like so many similar scandals of the recent past, it uncovers a deeper rot happening in many once-Christian nations.
Countries with a history steeped in Protestant Christianity consistently rank as the world’s least corrupt. But as that heritage is abandoned, statistics show our integrity diminishing too. For years in a row, for example, Australia has been sliding further and further down the global corruption index.
It’s not as though Christians have a monopoly on virtue. But there was a day in Australia’s past when most citizens took for granted proverbs like “differing weights are detestable to the Lord, and dishonest scales are unfair”—and that do not steal was a commandment given from heaven.
When the number of Aussies viewing the world in this way drops from 96% to 52% in the space of a century—with an agnostic secularism mostly filling the vacuum—it makes sense that more of us will live like there’s no ultimate accountability beyond the state.
The government plans to act on all 76 recommendations made by the commission, and many believe that even greater overhauls than these are needed in the finance industry.
But while law reform is good and necessary, at a time when some of our deepest-held values seem to be unravelling, it is worth reflecting on what some of the founders of the free world had to say about morality.
Benjamin Franklin declared, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
And American revolutionary Samuel Adams insisted that “neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.”
These men were only exhaling the Christian worldview that surrounded them like oxygen—a worldview which says that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).
Or, as Jesus himself famously put it, the truth will set you free.
We Aussies still believe that everyone deserves a fair go. But this value that we hold so dear didn’t spring up from nowhere. Like so much of what we love and take for granted, it was richly fertilised by the Christian faith of our forebears.
In the race towards “progress” countless millions have abandoned that faith. In the giddy rush of it all, we also forget the great benefits that faith has brought us.
Maybe C. S. Lewis was right when he said, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”
The tragedy of the banking scandal isn’t just that it has led to a crisis of trust in our institutions—but rather that it exposes a crisis of truth in our culture. Does truth even matter anymore, or should we all just see how much we can get away with?
If there’s a Creator, then there is ultimate accountability. Transcending even the laws of the state is One who sees all and will dispense perfect justice at the end of time.
Most religions teach the same. But Christianity declares something even more marvellous.
To defeat all dishonesty and corruption, God broke the bank. He sent his own son, who suffered in our place. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus sets us free to live with moral integrity, as God intends for humanity. In purchasing our pardon like this, God gave us the ultimate fair go.
In a time of moral upheaval, our culture needs to be reminded that this nation-shaping story is still one we can bank on.