QUEENSLAND Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan will copy tactics used by Liberal colleague and WA Senator Dean Smith on same sex marriage legislation, in breaking Coalition ranks to join opposing political forces, to instigate a Royal Commission into the banking sector.
If successful, the Commission will also examine farm lending practices that he has long-championed to ignite “cultural change”.
But Senator O’Sullivan has rejected claims his potentially divisive strategy is a political “stunt” in preparing a private Senator’s Bill to set-up the comprehensive banking examination, to be introduced this week.
To pass the Senate and move onto the House of Representatives for debate, the Bill would need the Nationals to win support from core political rivals Labor and the Greens and crossbench members.
That would follow a similar pathway used by Senator Smith last week in response to advancing reforms using his private Senator’s Bill, tabled following the clear 61 per cent ‘yes’ vote on marriage equity.
Senator O’Sullivan’s tactic is also emboldened by the Coalition having lost its majority in the House of Representatives, dropping to 74 seats, due to the citizenship disqualifications of Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and Liberal John Alexander who now face by-elections.
Outspoken Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen has previously indicated he’d cross the floor to vote for a banking Royal Commission and has strengthened Senator O’Sullivan’s push by writing to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week, threatening to keep his word on such a vote.
Senator O’Sullivan said reports on his strategy being an act of direct vengeance in response to Senator Smith’s same sex marriage manoeuvre, which the former police officer and other conservatives have opposed fearing it doesn’t provide enough protections for religious freedoms, were factually “accurate”.
But he said “My motive ought to be clear”.
“I’ve had a long and personal interest to do with matters around banking and finance – particularly about the agriculture and primary production sector,” he said.
“I’m not a Johnny-come-lately to the question.”
Senator O’Sullivan said he was merely taking an “opportunity” to pursue the banking Royal Commission, due to a “pathway” that was presented for “backbenchers to be able to introduce legislation that has the general support of the Senate”.
“This is a very, very important piece of legislation to be debated,” he said.
“I’m taking advantage of the current season where backbenchers can get their matters before the Senate and in my case I’m receiving a lot of support in that effort.
“I don’t want to reflect upon what may happen in the House of Representatives – it’s another house to mine and it’ll be what it is.
“But there are enough people on the public record to indicate that they might be inclined to support legislation like this, to give it a real chance.
“We’ve seen a private Senator this week have a great deal of success getting a Bill, not just in the Senate, but debated to a conclusion and I’m next in the traffic line and I’m ready to go when it’s finished.
“I see this as an oportunity and it is driven by excitement.”
Senator O’Sullivan said any number of his Senate colleagues were currently, “looking at using this new pathway for them to be able to pursue legislation of interest”.
“Dean Smith has shown us the way and how to do that and the government has virtually facilitated it and I’m just going to put my feet where Dean Smith’s went and follow him along the path,” he said.
“He’s pursuing a matter of significant importance to him and the nation and I’m about to do the same thing.”
Mr Christensen said he’d written to Mr Turnbull asking for his government to reconsider its stance on “certain issues” indicating how he intended to vote on them in future.
“I support a Royal Commission or commission of inquiry into the banks,” he said.
“I do not support cutting the pay of local workers, whether those pay cuts emanate from decisions of the independent Fair Work Commission of whether they’re from dodgy deals between unions and big business.
“And I’m going to vote accordingly.”
With Mr Joyce’s by-election set for December 2, and the Lower House due to sit next for a fortnight starting on November 27, it’s understood Mr Christensen indicated in his letter that he won’t cross the floor before December 4.
Labor ACT Senator and Shadow Finance and Small Business Minister Katy Gallagher welcomed the news of Senator O’Sullivan’s Bill, “particularly for those who have suffered as a result of banking scandals and misconduct”.
“Labor welcomes Senator O’Sullivan’s support to establish a Royal Commission this year and commits to working with him to deliver majority support in the Senate and across the parliament for the legislation,” she said.
“Labor hopes that Senator O'Sullivan is genuine in his support for victims of bad banking conduct and isn't just playing political games with the divisions and dysfunction that are tearing the Turnbull government apart.
“Labor will hold Senator O'Sullivan to account on this.
“Years of scandals, misconduct, illegal conduct and unethical practices has caused serious harm to banking customers.
“The Nationals talk a lot about their support for a Royal Commission into Australia's banks - now they have the opportunity to help deliver one.”
Royal commission no political stunt but farmers at the forefront
But Senator O’Sullivan reinforced his genuine intent and denied his strategy was a political stunt or one potentially timed to coincide with the Queensland state election.
“I’ve been working on matters around debt and banking for two and a half years so if it were regarded as a stunt I’ve put a fair bit of effort in, in getting ready for it,” he said.
“I’ve got very significant policy adjustments to drought funding that include the banks and that’s over at Treasury now getting costed and that’s taken me years to prepare.
“Along with my colleague (NSW Nationals Senator John “Wacka” Williams) we’ve been advocates for people in the bush and we’ve been the go to people, when they’ve experienced issues with their banking relationships.
“I’ve had six meetings, either myself or my professional staff, with all the key people in the major banks with regards to my policy developments so this isn’t a Johnny-come-lately thing.”
If successful, Senator O’Sullivan said the Royal Commission would investigate financial services, banking, insurance and superannuation.
“I’ve lived through a Royal Commission and participated in a Royal Commission and seen the massive positive impacts it had in Queensland with the police services who are still experiencing the benefits 25 years later,” he said.
“It had a massive impact on culture and behaviour and the effort by that organisation to look after its reputation and I suspect the same will happen here with the banks.
“I want to see cultural change.
“I’ve got evidence of quite literally hundreds of serious, serious anomalies around banking, finance and insurance and often at times, if they feel they’re going to be exposed, you’ll see physical and cultural changes within those organisations as they seek to restore trust with the public and defend their corporate image so that’s the motive behind this.
“In terms of dollars and transactions, agriculture is one of the smaller sectors in banking but it’s one of the most significant.
“If you get a stone in your shoe in the bush, and you’re about to lose the only asset you have, that denies you the ability to even make a living for yourself and your family.
“As opposed to others who have tragic cases of where they may lose significant parts of their superannuation and life savings, but they still have the basic amenities on life.
“But in the bush you could lose something that’s taken generations for your family to build up.
“That’s most important and I’ll be keeping a very keen eye on that aspect of the inquiry, if we’re fortunate enough to get it up.”
But Mr Turnbull rejected the move saying the government had already made "enormous reforms" to clean up the banking and financial services sector and “we're seeing much greater accountability”.
“All of the recommendations that a Royal Commission would be likely to make are being undertaken now,” he said.
“So that is why we have not established a Royal Commission which, of course, would not compensate anyone."