The new party with banks in its sights

A new political party is set to emerge from a group of disgruntled Bankwest customers, and the first item on its wish list is regulation to force banks into line with RBA cash rate moves.

A single yodel in the wilderness can, given the right conditions, trigger an avalanche. And the same thing might be about to happen in federal politics – the conditions are right for a new political voice to change the electoral terrain substantially.

Over the weekend the 'Bank Reform Party' sent its first signal to the major parties that it intends to do just that.

There's no mystery in the timing of the fledgling party's announcement that it intends to field Senate candidates in all states at the next election. Mortgage-belt Australia is closely watching the four-pillar banks announce interest rate cuts smaller than the RBA's 50 basis-point cut last week, and ANZ has announced a record first-half profit of $3 billion.

Anti-bank sentiment is building like deep drifts of snow on the edges of Mt Liberal, Mt Labor and on the lower slopes of the Green Ranges. It won't take much to send those votes tumbling in all directions.

This is clearly not just a danger for stressed political strategists – a popular revolt against banks carries the strong risk of damage to the economy. However, BRP founder Adrian Bradley says 'bank bashing' is not what his party is set up to do.

Bradley is much more than an enraged home-owner. He's a former business and finance journalist who's worked for a long list of papers including The Australian, The Financial Times and Canada's Financial Post.
And he's no stranger to politics either, having covered the difficult last years of Bob Hawke's prime-ministership for what was then the Melbourne 'Herald' (later to become the Herald Sun).

Bradley also worked in corporate communications for HBOS during the rushed, and controversial takeover of Bankwest – a bank that by 2009 had strayed way too far into 'sub-prime' lending territory.

While Bradley is not the only person running around collecting signatures to register the party with the Australian Electorial Commission, he is clearly somebody who knows the bank debate inside out. If any bank bashing takes place, it won't be because of simple ignorance, as is so often the case.

Bradley says the party is "very close" to securing the 500 signatures it needs to be recognised by the AEC. The BRP has grown out a lobby group called 'UnhappyBanking', which has around 500 members – mostly former Bankwest customers who believe Bankwest foreclosed on them prematurely in a bid to shore up its mortgage books.

The new party won't formulate hard and fast policies until it is registered, but in the meantime its shopping-list looks like this:

– Regulation to bring banks into line with RBA cash rate moves.

– Enforce new and tougher anti-predatory lending practices.

– Enforce greater transparency on fees and charges.

– Greater competition, more support for non-bank lenders.

– Dismantle the "apparatus of unfairness"; the unconscionable nexus between the banks and administrators, receivers and valuers.

– Examine a cap on excessive bank bonuses and executive salaries.

No mention, astute readers will notice, of the implied (and actual) bank guarantees created by the Rudd government's emergency bank bailouts during the GFC. They will no doubt be added to the list eventually.

Everything on the BRP list looks pretty reasonable, except the first demand. The major banks' funding profiles, still with nearly 40 per cent of their loans funded through international wholesale markets, make the RBA cash rate a poor yard-stick of what they should be charging the punters. That demand alone is likely to attract voters who have now idea how banks function, and just want to vent their rage at the price of money – bank bashers.

I put this to Bradley over the weekend. Isn't this a kind of dog-whistle platform – saying you're not bashing the banks, knowing full well you'll attract the vote of bashers?

"Just saying 'banks are bastards' would work," Bradley told me. "It would be very easy to get away with that." However, he maintains that's not what the party will do.

There is a danger, of course, that the bank bashing message will be what filters through the national media nonetheless – it's not only politicians who engage in crass populism.

Whatever follows the BRP's first war cry (and Bradley hints they might move on to examine supermarket competition after banks), this emerging and "non-aligned" party looks even more destabilising for the major parties than 'Mad Bob' Katter's Australia Party.

And they may even tempt a few bank bashers away from that old firebrand too.

Follow @_Rob_Burgess on Twitter.

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