Australian banking heads face parliamentary grilling over misconduct

SYDNEY, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Australia’s two top bankers will be questioned by a parliamentary committee on Thursday over revelations from a public inquiry that found banks repeatedly pursued profits ahead of their customers’ interests.

Commonwealth Bank of Australia Chief Executive Matt Comyn, and Brian Hartzer, who heads Westpac Banking Corp , are each scheduled to face intense questioning from parliamentarians over their banks’ governance failures.

It will be the first time CEOs of Australia’s biggest financial institutions are questioned about the misconduct uncovered by the inquiry, disclosures which shocked the country, drove down share prices, raised the spectre of financial penalties and cost several executives their jobs.

The inquiry known as a Royal Commission could recommend tougher regulation and civil or criminal charges when its final report is handed down early next year, having heard evidence of widespread product miss-selling, charges for services-not-rendered and fees taken out of dead client accounts.

“Our main focus will be on how some of the best-qualified and certainty highest-paid directors and senior management in the largest corporations in Australia allowed their companies to be involved in such scandalous behavior over what has been a decade now,” Matt Thistlethwaite, an opposition Labor lawmaker and the deputy chair of the 10-member committee, told Reuters.

Thistlethwaite said he would take a particular interest in CBA, Australia’s biggest bank and the one which has suffered the biggest reputational damage from the inquiry.

“There are going to be lots of questions that are going to flow to the new CEO of the Commonwealth Bank, about why his particular organisation seems to have been the most scandal-prone over the last decade,” Thistlethwaite said.

The heads of the remaining members of the “Big Four” - Australia and New Zealand Banking Group and National Australia Bank - will also be probed later this month.

Although a traditional ally of Australia’s financial sector, Australia’s governing centre-right coalition government has sought to reassure angry voters that it is committed to tougher banking oversight.

“A large part of what I’m going to be inquiring about is what is their response to the report, and more critically, what they are going to do to address it and respond,” Tim Wilson, the Liberal chair of the committee and coalition MP, told Reuters.

Late last year, the government proposed new laws to increase penalties and lengthen prison terms for financial crimes in a bid to strengthen the regulator’s enforcement powers.

Reporting by Paulina Duran in SYDNEY; Editing by Stephen Coates