It took a while to get to item one at the Westpac AGM on Thursday.
Before considering the financial reports that normally constitute the first order of business, chairman Lindsay Maxsted asked for any questions about the Austrac matter – the damning report alleging that Westpac committed money-laundering offences that enabled transfers of money linked to child abuse.
Lindsay Maxsted, Westpac
More than three hours later, the questions were still coming in.
The tone was set by Chris Schacht, a former Labor senator, who was the second to get the microphone, after the bow tie-wearing activist group Bank Warriors.
Schact said one Westpac customer who sent A$115,000 to the Philippines through the bank did so “to get access to the most vile abuse of human rights short of murder”.
“How the hell did this go on for five years, and Austrac [the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre] warned you last year and the year before? What are we going to do to the restitution of our reputation?”
There was plenty more of this.
“You being here is an affront,” said questioner number seven to Maxsted, who has said he will step down when his current term expires next year. “You are proving your incompetence every time you open your mouth.”
Another urged the bank not to spend any money on new external consultants to get it out of its mess. “Go and burn the midnight oil like everybody else does.”
In the vernacular, you sir, and your board, have stuffed up
By the two-and-a-half-hour mark, the mood was truly febrile.
“In the vernacular, you sir, and your board, have stuffed up,” said another shareholder. “You should go now, you should all go. But before you do you, should hand back your fees.”
The mood among Australian bank customers and shareholders is toxic a year on from the Royal Commission, with a sense that nothing has changed and that bank behaviour is as bad as it was beforehand.
The meeting also became an unlikely battleground for a topical dispute on the nature of climate change, as the Sydney skies outside burned amid uncontrollable bushfires. Shareholders represented every end of the debate from Thunbergian to Trumpian, though this achieved little.
In the end, it felt like the only real progress that was made, bar a lot of therapeutic venting, was when a questioner asked why Brian Hartzer, before stepping down at CEO, had cancelled all staff Christmas parties.
“Will you reverse the decision to cancel Christmas parties for branch staff?” asked the investor.
Maxsted turned to acting CEO Peter King.
“Yes,” King said, leading to the only applause for management or board all day.