Ross Greenwood speaks to Former Tasmania cattle farmer Michael Hirst, who fronted the Royal Commission this week, accusing ANZ of showing no empathy and no compassion.
Introduction: ‘Belted to bits’ by the banks
Ross Greenwood: Now, some have actually gotten to tell their stories– not all, but some. In fact, talking to Peter Rich Wilson, we did mention about the Bauers and whether there were sufficient ideas about whether they would get compensation for what Rabobank had put them through. Again, here’s Brad James, the executive from Rabobank who fronted and explained the story as to what had taken place from the bank’s perspective. Today, here’s what he had to say.
Interviewer: Does Rabobank propose to remediate the Brauers in any way?
Brad James: I haven’t considered that.
Interviewer: Will you consider that?
Brad James: In this forum, I don’t feel comfortable considering that. I think it’s something that should be done without the public gaze. I think it should be something that should be referred to our executive and I think it’s something we will quietly consider.
Ross Greenwood: And just a little reminder of Wendy Brauer, yesterday, and her attitude about Rabobank after everything she’d been through.
Wendy Brauer: I recommended those jerks to other people and said what a great experience they were and how understanding they were. I trusted them. They came hunting for us. They came looking for us to buy this block and 12 months later, they wanted us to pay them back more than we’d borrowed. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.
Ross Greenwood: One person who would understand, very much, the confusion, but also the frustration that Wendy Brauer has is Michael Hirst. Now Michael Hirst is a former Tasmanian cattle and land farmer, who basically has accused the ANZ bank of never showing empathy or compassion. He fronted the Royal Commission and effectively said he and his family had been belted to bits. He’s on the line right now. Many thanks for your time Michael.
Interview with: Michael Hirst, Tasmanian Cattle Farmer
Michael Hirst: Good evening, Ross.
Ross Greenwood: Just explain. Let’s take you all the way back because this actually comes into this area of forestry that we just spoke with Peter Rich Wilson about. Much of your issue actually happened as all of that industry collapsed around you, didn’t it?
Michael Hirst: Yes. I think when ANZ got involved with us, it hadn’t quite collapsed but certainly by the time they finished with us, we’re in depths of the worst– a perfect storm, to be honest.
Ross Greenwood: So, in terms of the perfect storm, you head there, Wendy Bruer say that she felt as though Rabobank came and hunted her for her business. Do you think the ANZ hunted you for your business as well?
Michael Hirst: Well, they already had us and they didn’t have to hunt us because they pretty much just did what they wanted. So, I didn’t feel hunted but they held all of the jokers, really. So, the imbalance of power was huge. You got to remember when you go through– and I wish and hope not too many people go through what we go through again. To be quite honest, it was just my wife and myself because they take all of your resources. Therefore, if you can imagine farmers trying to deal with banking and lawyer language and trying to get a grip on what’s going on. It is absolutely impossible because, of course, you can’t pay for accountants and good solicitors to help at least understand what’s going on.
Ross Greenwood: So, in your particular case, Benjamin Steinberg from the ANZ, the head of lending services who many people said gave a very poor representation for himself and the bank at the Royal Commission. He did concede that the bank should have engaged in mediation with you at a much earlier stage before they tried to settle with your debt. It was one of these points where you were just strung out to dry and basically it was almost a case of them waiting for you to basically hit the wall.
Michael Hirst: Yes, I think Benjamin Steinberg may have said that, but in actual fact, there wasn’t even the opportunity for any negotiations because our valuation dropped 40% in 12 days.
Ross Greenwood: Just hang on. Just stop there, Michael. Just explain this to me. So, in other words, the bank’s view of your properties is that they dropped 40% in 12 days. So, today you think your property in a capital city is worth a million bucks. Go in 12 days time, imagine the bank walks in and says, “Actually we think it’s worth $600,000.” That’s what happened to Michael Hirst, with his properties. What was the justification for the collapse in that property valuation, Michael?
Michael Hirst: They’ve never really– I mean how can you explain that, Ross. I mean, I’m sorry. I’ve never found an explanation for it. There were contributing factors but I don’t think any business could stand that sort of treatment.
Ross Greenwood: So, you’re forced to sell at the worst possible time and of course, if anybody puts up a mortgage in possession or any sign such as that, every shark knows that this is blood in the water and so, therefore, you might as well try to put in the lowball offer because you’d certainly be crazy to try to beat what seems to be a market price for those assets.
Michael Hirst: That’s not a question. I’ve never quite got my head around why they do what they do, but certainly, in our case, they sold our properties in the depths of a forestry crisis where there was no buyers and the outcome reflected that.
Ross Greenwood: Just a question, because I raised this also with Peter Rich Wilson, and that is about banks taking a legalistic view of life as distinct from taking a human view of life. How do you feel you were dealt with?
Michael Hirst: Look, I sat through those hearings for three days and I got a good grasp of the feeling in both the room, outside the room, and of how ANZ, I believe viewed what went on. There’s no doubt to me that, in my opinion, they just still do not get it. They don’t get that there are humans involved in the decisions they make and the dollar is still the holy grail.
Now, I don’t blame a guy like Ben Steinberg, who had a horrific three days on the stand, but I do blame the people above him and it comes from the board. The board created the asset-lending portion of the bank and they supported them, and this is the trouble. If you want to talk about how things need to be fixed it starts from the top. The top lets the culture filter down through the employees and they are the ones that either need to change tomorrow or they need to move on. There’s no doubt about that because until they do, the wrong messages will be filtering down through their ranks.
Ross Greenwood: Let’s be honest. While Ben Steinberg might have had three uncomfortable days in the witness-box at the Royal Commission, you had eight years dealing with this, Michael.
Michael Hirst: Yes. It took us eight years to get an apology and you know what? That wasn’t half of it. I head a little extract earlier before I came on about that guy, and I wasn’t following it today– but that guy that said, “Look, it would be better if it didn’t go on tomorrow because- [crosstalk]”
Ross Greenwood: I’m going to play that again in a moment, Michael, as a matter-of-fact.
Michael Hirst: That absolutely disgusts me. That shows to me how removed they are about what’s going on. Nothing is going to change. Nothing is going to change when you get statements like that, Ross. I can tell you that now.
Ross Greenwood: There is no doubt about that. Well, I trust that life is improving for you, even slowly, Michael, and that there is always another tomorrow. That’s the most important thing but as I say, to even tell that story at the Royal Commission is so instructive for so many other people. As I say, former Tasmanian cattle and land farmer Michael Hirst, an ANZ customer formerly, who said that there was never any empathy or compassion shown in the dealing with his family. Michael, I appreciate your story on the program this evening.
Michael Hirst: Yes. Thanks so much, Ross.
Ross Greenwood: Tell you what, just before we get to an ad break, and we are a bit short of time, I still want to do one thing. I’ll go back, as Michael talked about and play it again. We did at the very start. This is the exchange at the very end of the Royal Commission today. Just to show you as he said–
Commissioner: Can we begin at 9:30 tomorrow?
Mr. Sherry: Yes, commissioner.
Commissioner: We can begin at 9:30 tomorrow.
Mr. Sherry: Commissioner, can I respectfully ask, how much extra time we need? The difficulty is that Miss Taylor comes from Perth. She has a young family. She’s been involved in this for weeks now, and if it’s possible to finish tonight, we would very much appreciate it. We have been told several times that it’s expected that she would finish tonight.
Commissioner: I’m surprised by that, Mr. Sherry, but there we are. What do you say Ms Taylor.
SPEAKER 3: I think I’ve got up to an hour, Commissioner.
Commissioner: Well, I’m not sitting that long, Mr. Sherry.
Mr. Sherry: No, I understand.
Commissioner: It’s not fair to the witness.
Mr. Sherry: I was only trying to clarify if it was 10 minutes of an hour. Or two hours. Some of the estimates have been pretty inaccurate, I should say, with respect, sir.
Commissioner: Mr. Sherry, do you want to think about that statement again?
Mr. Sherry: Yes. It is the fact, sir, that witnesses have cooperated to extraordinary extents and the estimates of when they’ll be required and where has changed a lot.
Commissioner: Well, I have not about what you said instead of sharing. It may surprise you then to know that very careful attention is given to trying as best we can to minimize disruption. Now, do we always succeed? No, we don’t. I accept that I know we don’t always succeed but we do try.
Mr. Sherry: Yes, sir.
Commissioner: 9:30 tomorrow.
Ross Greenwood: 9:30 tomorrow and you see, wouldn’t put up without the come up thing to save a moment of inconvenience, one night now itself as compared with what some of those farmers have been through from what we’ve heard. That’s the difference.
Interviewed Debbie Viney, Farmer, titled ” Is this how you would expect banks to treat farmers?
‘Belted to bits’ by the banks