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Issue #1723      March 16, 2016


Which system?

The capitalist system!

Banks aren’t popular with the people of Australia. Once trusted institutions are now held in contempt for their manipulative behaviour towards small account holders through unjustifiable fees, for example. Last year, the now privately owned Commonwealth Bank was embroiled in a scandal over dodgy and self-serving financial advice. The latest revelations concerning Comminsure, the Commonwealth’s insurance arm, have surely sunk the bank’s self-proclaimed reputation for ethical behaviour and, along with it, that of the whole privately-owned and under-regulated financial sector.

Dr Benjamin Koh has blown the whistle on Comminsure’s treatment of claims from terminally and other extremely ill policy holders. He alleges Comminsure deleted and altered documents that confirm policy holders’ entitlement to a payout and that medical professionals are bullied to provide opinion helpful to Comminsure’s bottom line. ABC TV’s Four Corners program last week introduced the viewing public to several of the very ill victims of this drive for profits.

Dr Koh has been sacked from Comminsure. The bank claims this was for “serious and repeated breaches of customer privacy and trust involving highly sensitive personal, medical and financial information over a lengthy period of time.” The former chief medical officer is filing an unfair dismissal claim and stands by the disclosures of improper practice he first made to the board of the insurer.

The Four Corners program and subsequent newspaper reports were widely discussed and roused a lot of anger in the community. The example of Evan Pashalis is emblematic. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and told he had less than a year to live. Under the terms of his policy, he should have been entitled to a payout of $480,000. “When Comminsure rejected my claim, I wasn’t surprised,” he told The Age. “The type of tactics, the stalling … I clued on straight away that they would do anything in their powers to reject.”

You don’t have to be a personal customer of Comminsure to wind up at the mercy of their assessors. Several superannuation funds contract out their insurance responsibilities to Comminsure. And it is not correct to think this “culture” involving unethical methods in pursuit of profit is restricted to a single rogue member of the “big four” group of banks. The examples that have come to the surface are the tip of a very big iceberg. Earlier this month, a former National Australia Bank financial adviser was banned for five years for offences that include pretending to be someone else in order to obtain information on a super fund.

Of course, dishonesty is spread right across industry in capitalist societies. Substitution rackets, the underpayment of wages and entitlements, skimping on health and safety practices, regularly leading to death and disability, feature daily in the news and barely raise an eyebrow. It is so common as to be of little note. It is a logical development on the basic theft carried out under capitalism – the private appropriation of wealth that is created socially.

The scope for this type of “business” has expanded markedly in recent decades. De-regulation and privatisation of the open and underhand kind have been top of the agenda of both major parties. Corporations have been given a greater and greater role in the provision of services once seen rightly as the responsibility of governments. Medicare is under threat. So is TAFE and the CSIRO. If health, education and research are fully privatised as dictated by the planners of the corporate state, we will be confronted with more and more profit-driven scandal.

We mustn’t throw our hands in the air and declare that this is “human nature”. It’s not. It is part and parcel of capitalism and there is an alternative. Socialism is a system of collective ownership and control of the means of production directed towards meeting the needs of people, including a healthy environment. The idea of swapping capitalism for socialism has powerful, extremely influential, cunning and well-financed enemies. In this battle, the working class and other exploited people have scant resources except for one – their capacity to organise. The time has well and truly arrived to get more organised for the struggles ahead.

Next article – Concern over prison rates

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