The merchants of venality

Venality: the quality of being open to bribery or overly motivated by money.

Wherever we look, venality flourishes. Attune yourself to it and you’ll see evidence of it every day on TV and radio, and in the print and electronic media. You can’t escape its tentacles. It’s all pervading.

Where shall I start? The Royal Commission on Banking is an obvious place. It has uncovered venality that was hidden from most of us. Only the insiders knew.

Let’s start at the top. The governing boards knew of the dishonesty and fraud the banks were perpetrating. Only the criminally incompetent didn’t. Some have resigned in disgrace; others are being ignominiously ejected. More will follow as the scandal widens. These officials are venal. They placed making money above the interests of their clients.

Below them were the executives, choking on million dollar salaries and bonuses, who knew what their underlings were doing and approved of it.

Loans managers placed customers into loan arrangements that were not only disadvantageous to them, but also destined to cause them catastrophic loss of savings, often their entire life’s savings. Loans to small businesses and farmers were often abruptly terminated although repayments were on time, thereby jeopardizing the family homes they had offered as collateral. Claims managers disallowed legitimate insurance claims, leaving many in financial peril.

Why did these managers do this? Because their bonuses were conditional on them making money for the bank or saving the bank money. Self-interest overrode client interest. They were venal.

Venality filtered down to lesser bank officers. Retail bank staff at a number of Commonwealth Bank branches made fraudulent transactions in the junior saver program, ‘Dollarmite’ without the knowledge of parents, by putting just enough money (around ten cents) in each account so that they could accrue bonuses for themselves and meet targets.

Some of those who realized the venality of what they were required to do were terrified of speaking up, or being exposed as complicit.

From the top down there was layer upon layer of merchants of venality.

The same appalling state of affairs afflicts the financial planning industry. For years, armed with computerised generic plans and under the spell of investment fund executives, planners have been inveigled into placing clients’ funds in their favoured schemes, which earned all of them bonuses. It mattered not whether the schemes were of benefit to clients; that was secondary to the imperative to collect bonuses. Because they did not receive a plan tailored to their needs, clients often suffered while the planner benefitted. Venality writ large!

I suspect you are so disgusted about what the Banking Royal Commission is uncovering day after day that you are tired of hearing about it, so let’s look at another industry – the restaurant business.

Almost every day we hear of restaurants, often well known, that are defrauding their workers. Perhaps the most celebrated is the Vue Group that operates Melbourne’s Vue de monde, and its renowned owner Shannon Bennett, a regular celebrity on Channel Ten’s MasterChef.

Staff members complain that they are underpaid, often work overtime without payment, and that the tip money they rely on to supplement their incomes is regularly taken from them on the pretext that they have broken crockery, or arrived a few minutes late, or, would you believe, could not answer to the satisfaction of the managers a ‘tip test’, a quiz about the restaurant and its owner. In all these instances the managers pocketed the tips.

A female receptionist who complained that she was not given time for a toilet break was told: ‘Drink less’!

There were though some good aspects of working at Vue de monde. Read the article in The New Daily and judge for yourself if they balance the down side.

The Vue Group is not alone. Barry Café in the Melbourne suburb Northcote underpaid its staff, and refused to pay penalty rates. When challenged, it paid withheld wages but with the threat that further complaints would evoke legal action. You can read the details here.

The operator of the Indian restaurant Red Salmon, Abdul Hafeez Bilwani, was fined and the operating company likewise for chronically underpaying staff.

Former employees of Darren Purchese say that the celebrity chef, who has also appeared on MasterChef, underpaid them thousands of dollars when they were working at his upmarket Melbourne dessert shop, the Burch & Purchese Sweet Studio. They also claim he intimidated them.

St Kilda’s Cafe Di Stasio is another as is Burger Buzz in Brunswick.

There are many more.  

Wage theft is endemic in restaurants and franchises. Unions are up in arms. Sally McManus suggests a remedy for this venality in an article in The Guardian. In Victoria, it is now planned to legislate huge fines for businesses that underpay staff and jail terms for employers that do so.

Then there are the convenience stores. You know about Seven Eleven cheating its staff. 76% of Caltex franchises were found to be underpaying workers. The list goes on and on. I could fill a dozen pieces with examples.

All Merchants of Venality.

Let’s explore another realm; a government sponsored one – the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which is riddled with incompetence and suggestions of rorting similar to that seen among private education providers. The Government’s reaction has been to suggest a ‘crackdown’ on NDIS users, notably those with autism, as this condition is deemed too expensive for our government to tackle via the NDIS. Here again we see venality among users of the NDIS and the providers, and in the reaction of the government, which appears concerned only with saving money.

Before leaving the healthcare field, look at the behaviour of some aged care providers. Many have been exposed because of poor care, gross disregard for the vulnerable elderly they are paid to nurture, criminal negligence, overcharging, even fraud.

Look at the gambling industry where merchants of venality thrive.

Crown Casino has been found guilty of deliberately tampering with poker machines to maximize profit. Last year whistleblowers from the casino accused Crown of instructing staff to remove betting options from poker machines, in a scheme known as ‘blanking buttons’. Not satisfied with their massive profits already, Crown wanted more, even if it defrauded its clients, the very ones, the ‘pokie addicts’, who are losing their money in spades already. Another merchant of venality!

Moreover, every attempt to restrict the size of bets (as has recently been legislated in the UK), has been met with stiff resistance from the casinos, clubs, hotels, and pokie operators, who are more concerned with ripping off clients for fatter profits than the harm being inflicted on pokie users.

The same condemnation can be applied to all the merchants of venality in the gambling industry, which, with its persistent TV ads is trying to suck viewers into parting with their money by betting not just on horse racing, but also on anything that moves – footballers, cricketers, motor racing drivers; next it’ll be flies crawling up a wall!

Let’s look now at the Coalition’s bête noire, the National Broadband Network. It is not national, not broadband, and not a network. It has been a technological disaster ever since Tony Abbott instructed the then Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to ‘demolish the NBN’.

Customers have been cheated with slower than purchased speeds, long waits for installation, and in many places, no service at all. Complaints have surged. A recent talkback session on ABC Melbourne 774 radio evoked thousands of complaints that so overwhelmed the hapless NBN spokesman that he was left almost speechless. The NBN is a merchant of venality. Now it says it is abandoning its initial promise of an Internet speed of 100Mb/s as it’s become too expensive!

Recently, Optus was fined $1.5 million for trying to force customers onto its NBN service using misleading claims.

The quest for profit has always overridden client service, and likely will for a long while yet. From the outset Turnbull’s orientation was to use cheaper technology that he claimed he could roll out sooner than Labor’s FTTP NBN. Instead the rollout will take longer, will cost more, will deliver less, and will be more expensive for users. Turnbull, who originally had carriage of the Coalition’s FTTN NBN, which is now Fibre to the Curb and ageing copper to the premises, has been, and still is a merchant of venality. Another, the hapless Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, has now replaced him.

For a flagrant example of venality, one can’t go past the media, notably the Murdoch media. Focussed on profit and determined to keep in power the party that gives it most support, subsidies, and privileges, News Corporation uses its media power to uplift the Coalition and demonize the Opposition. Truth is irrelevant. Stories are manufactured shamelessly by compliant writers and promulgated brazenly via print and electronic media. Those who see through the tactics they use are affronted, but what can they do to combat their power and their venality?

Take the environment. Although The Conversation highlights the threat to our environment in its May 18 article: One-third of the world’s nature reserves are under threat from humans, and while Labor and the Greens both show deep concern for the natural environment, the Coalition exhibits disdain. Our treasurer brings a lump of coal into parliament urging us to venerate it, even though he knows that continuing to burn it is threatening our environment, our seas, our Great Barrier Reef, and all living things.

To fossil fuel advocates all that counts is making a profit, exploiting natural resources, enriching those who own them. These merchants of venality believe that it is man’s right to gain supremacy over nature’s gifts and exploit them shamelessly. To them, regulation is anathema and preservation is a dirty word used only by greenie ‘tree huggers’.

The trucking industry abounds with venality. Drivers are forced into killing schedules, dangerous driving timetables and inadequate rest breaks, all in the pursuit of profits.

The live sheep trade to the Middle East, where profits outweigh animal welfare, is another example of obscene venality.

Sadly, some religious orders too are merchants of venality. How often have we seen sickening poverty among the people alongside the excesses of the church? While the poor languish, massive churches with gilded effigies adorning their interiors are built at great cost. Priests decked out in their richly embroidered robes and mitres tout their extravagantly fashioned staff and waft expensive incense. While many church charities do care for the poor, the venality of the past haunts them still.

Let’s go overseas for a moment. On 21 May Four Corners exposed the venality of the electronics industry in China. For years, the world’s largest manufacturer of mobile phones and tablets, Foxconn Technology Group, which makes devices for Apple, Sony, Samsung and Philips, has been using well-known carcinogens, n-hexane and benzene, to clean those devices. These solvents have caused countless cases of fatal leukaemia. Instead of accepting responsibility, Foxconn blamed its workers for becoming ill. When whistleblowers exposed its venality, the government tried to shut down these advocates of better safety for workers. All this illness and death resulted simply because Foxconn used the cheapest chemicals, although it knew how fatally toxic they were.

The recently initiated inquiry into the disastrous fire on June 14, 2017 that engulfed the Grenfell Tower in London, incinerating over 70, will examine how cheap but highly flammable cladding was used. Questions demanding answers are: ‘Why was the cheapest cladding selected’; ‘How was it approved?; and ‘Why were the fire procedures so inadequate?’ The venality the inquiry exposes will shock us all.

Dozens of pieces could be written about the venality of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jung-un, Bashar al-Assad, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, Najib Rasak and all the other venal leaders, but the output would become encyclopaedic.

So let’s finish by describing the venality of our political system. For all political parties, winning is all that counts. With it comes power, privileges, influence, prestige, and of course, money!

Time and again we have seen our leaders propose measures that serve their aims, or promote their entrenched ideologies, rather than the common good. Whenever a leader looks generous, whenever a politician offers something that seems too good to be true, you can be sure it is. Look behind the show of generosity and goodwill and you will see what’s in it for them. You’ll always find the reward they expect. Political parties are open to bribery – they are venal. They accept donations that are nothing more than bribes to gain an advantage, no matter whom it disadvantages.

The vengeful Tony Abbott habitually exhibited venality. He instituted inquiries and a Royal Commission hoping to nail Julia Gillard, Bill Shorten, and the unions. The courts have thrown out all charges arising out of these witch-hunts. Millions were wasted. Abbott failed ingloriously. His successor is not much better. His most recent venality is the deliberate timing of the upcoming by-elections to advantage the Coalition and disadvantage Labor.

Politicians are merchants of venality, and everyone knows they are, even the millennials, as this Deloitte study shows.

I’m beginning to realize that when venality is the subject, only an encyclopaedia could contain all the instances of it, so I’ll stop before you’re all bored stiff.

So what can we do about it? Philosophically we can, indeed must accept that venality is ubiquitous. It has always been so, and always will be. It’s outrageous; it enrages us every day.

To retain our sanity though, while we are being tossed around in the swirling currents of menacing venality, perhaps the best approach is to acknowledge the bleak reality of it, but target for comment instances of it in whatever area interests us.

For those of us who are political tragics, pinpointing venality among our politicians and calling it out in our chosen forum, may give us some satisfaction. It might too let our politicians know that we see through their deceit, their dirty tricks and their venality, and we despise them for it.

Enough feedback from constituents, might, just might, change their behaviour! Hope springs eternal!

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Hi Adastra   your articles are always  wonderful to read,   but I have to say this one is magnificent absolutely  strikingly impressive.  Your work has left me breathless.  The information and research is astounding .  Thankyou Adastra

Ad Astra


Good Afternoon Lyn

Thank you so much for your complimentary comment. It is so encouraging to read your words and see that you have enjoyed The Merchants of Venality. The tragedy is that there is so much venality in our society, indeed throughout the world. 

We, who follow the political scene closely, need to expose venality whenever we see it, with the hope that we might shame the venal into more appropriate behaviour. As this piece concludes: 'Hope springs eternal!'

Ad Astra



Venality is not new, as you will see as you read this fascinating article from The New Yorker: What Happens When a Bad-Tempered, Distractible Doofus Runs an Empire?   

The likeness of Kaiser Wilhelm II to a current world leader is striking!

How many Rabbits do I have if I have 3 Oranges?