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Australia PM says 'would have been better' to order banking probe earlier

By Alison Bevege

By Alison Bevege

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Saturday that it would have been better to order a major investigation now under way into misconduct in the country's troubled banking industry "some time ago".

The wide-ranging inquiry, known as a 'Royal Commission', has proved a headache for the government, criticized for its reluctance to order the probe, as well as a severe setback for Australia's major lenders and its largest listed wealth manager AMP.

"With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been better, certainly from a political point of view, to have set the Royal Commission up some time ago," Turnbull told reporters in Sydney. There had been "a failure in the culture in the banking sector and in the financial services sector," he said.

According to the PM, though, there was an advantage to the later timing of the inquiry, launched last December, in that it was now able to have a wider scope to review reforms that had been recently put in place.

Last week, the government vowed to double prison terms for financial crimes, dramatically increase penalties and ramp up the investigative powers of the country's corporate regulator.

Meanwhile the Australian Financial Review reported on Saturday that asset manager AMP was on the brink of parting company with chairwoman Catherine Brenner over a fee mischarging scandal that has already led to the departure of former chief executive Craig Meller.

AMP declined to comment on the report that said Brenner might leave her post by Monday, or whether it was holding an emergency weekend board meeting.

A Royal Commission hearing on Friday was told by a senior lawyer assisting the year-long inquiry that AMP may face criminal charges after it broke the law by charging customers fees without provide service and misled the regulator.

"AMP acknowledges the seriousness of the closing submissions made by counsel assisting the Royal Commission," an AMP spokeswoman told Reuters via email. "We are reviewing those submissions closely and will respond fully next week."

(Reporting by Alison Bevege; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)