NAB's bosses Andrew Thorburn and Ken Henry have quit – what took them so long? | Martin Farrer

As custodians of Australia’s most profitable companies, bank chiefs have a duty to maintain the highest standards

It came as no surprise on Thursday when NAB’s chief executive, Andrew Thorburn, resigned from the bank, along with his chairman, Ken Henry. The real surprise was that it took them so long to walk the plank.

On Monday the pair endured the ignominy of being given a special mention by Kenneth Hayne in his royal commission final report. The former judge felt moved to name them as executives that had left him “not as confident as I would wish that the lessons of the past have been learned”.

The fact that Hayne singled them out for criticism made his words doubly effective and cast them off from the safety of the pack. The re-emergence this week of allegations of misconduct by people in Thorburn’s office ratcheted up the pressure on the chief executive, who wore a hounded look despite having been on a long summer break.

Although Henry might have fancied toughing it out and seeing in a new regime, the reality was they both had to quit.

But what took them so long? It shouldn’t have needed the public dressing down of Hayne’s report to make them see it – the whole nation had already worked that out after Thorburn and Henry were hopelessly exposed during the royal commission and parliamentary hearings last year.

In August Thorburn was forced to apologise for charging fees to superannuation customers for services not provided – but only after the bank’s lawyers had fought tooth and nail to prevent the relevant documents from becoming public.

Then in September he admitted the bank had “drifted” away from doing right by its customers, a fairly astonishing mea culpa for someone earning millions of dollars a year.

Then NAB came to symbolise the industry’s complacency when Henry took the stand in November. The former Treasury secretary, who had been on the board since 2011 and chairman since 2015, nonchalantly explained that it could take 10 years to change the bank’s culture. He didn’t seem to acknowledge that for seven years he had been paid handsomely ($600,000-plus as chairman) to ensure that the bank had the right culture in the first place. How could he be the right person to suddenly put it right?

Another telling moment came when Henry conceded that he and the board had not been strong enough to force through cuts in staff bonuses, despite a damning report by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority in 2016 that said they were too high. Then the board suffered an 85% vote against its remuneration report at its annual general meeting in December.

Despite this, there was no investor revolution to turf them out, and Thorburn and Henry stayed on. The feeling was obviously that these experienced operators could turn it around.

But one of their duties as officers of a public company is to be accountable, not just to investors but to the wider community, and to accept responsibility when things go wrong. They failed to see that bigger picture until Hayne wrote in his report that they didn’t seem willing “to accept the necessary responsibility for deciding … what is the right thing to do”.

His words should serve as a reminder to the bosses of the other banks that as custodians of Australia’s biggest and most profitable companies they have a duty to maintain the highest standards. Ian Narev left Commonwealth Bank under the cloud of the Austrac money-laundering scandal in 2017, before he was pushed, so his successor, Matt Comyn, has time on his side.

Hayne didn’t spell it out but the remaining pre-commission chief executives – Shayne Elliott at ANZ and Brian Hartzer at Westpac – are effectively on notice to up their game.


Martin Farrer

The GuardianTramp

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