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Shareholders don’t give a...
I had planned to write about the Royal Commission into the Banking and Finance industries, and its probable outcomes: I may still do so, but I have been distracted by a larger paradox. On the day after the Royal Commission report was released, the value of shares in the banks jumped as opportunistic share buyers rushed in and by so doing pushed up the price and increased the value. What? The banks were clearly guilty on very many counts of anti-social, verging on criminal, activity. While these behaviours have not yet been tested in the courts, they will be, and there may be some financial restitution to those people, still living, whom their decisions and policies have defrauded and their quality of life assaulted. The financial compensation aspect wil be more or less readily addressed. Damage to persons, psychological, medical and personal, is more complex to assess and cost, less objective than fiscal losses.
But the implications of the stock market’s behaviour are deeper and more troubling. What it means is that measured by the way the share market measures things, the banks have been wildly successful. Plainly, the shareholders who rushed to buy the stock of the disgraced banks are not going to walk away from their potential profits no matter whose unhappiness and misery it rests upon. For them, as for Gordon Gecko, “greed is good”. They are the people for whom, as Mrs Thatcher once said, “there is no society: there are only individuals”. Coming from someone who stood at the apex of the society, called for a moment ‘Great Britain’, that was always a bit rich. But that mean, anti-social philosophy blooms today in the persons of her natural heirs, David Cameron – the man from the privileged and self-serving side of British society who engendered a nation-shattering disaster and walked away, and Theresa May, who surely might have been Mrs T’s godchild.
Mr Tusk was right to damn those politicians, actual and would-be, who led the country’s innocent under-privileged to vote for self-exclusion from the European Union, an action about the consequences of which those politicians had not an inkling. And as to the likelihood of an exit on less than optimum terms, the government of the day had not given a moment’s thought. Stop and ponder this for a moment: I am reminded of the Ursula Le Guin fable about a society which is, on the face of it, rich, successful and happy, but whose wealth depends on a single child in a dark and filthy basement somewhere in that society being unceasingly tortured. The fable is called The ones who walk away from Omelas, a 1973 short work of philosophical fiction.
Once citizens of Omelas are old enough to realise the truth, most, though shocked and disgusted, ultimately acquiesce to this one searing injustice that secures the happiness of the rest of the city. However, a few, young and old, silently walk away from it and no one knows where they go. The story ends with, “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas”.
If the ‘he said’ ‘they said’ comments so far emanating from the Federal Government on who actually initiated or didn’t initiate the Financial Services Royal Commission when they might have, are an indication of the quality of the debate yet to come, it’s going to be a very long autumn indeed. Having said that it approves “in principle all of Commisioner Hayne’s recommendations” the Goverment is already qualifying this approval and moving to stay in Omelas.
The next few months or so are going to see these principles tested as the nation makes its choice between three contending forces: either the two ‘major parties’ condemned to play tit-for-tat while the country self-destructs, or the fresh thinking of a growing minority of independents unshackled by old beliefs, fears and ancient postures. It will be fascinating to see how it turns out. It may not be well. But I’ve checked my passport. It’s still current.
John Fleming II
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