SYDNEY (Reuters) - A government-backed inquiry into Australia's finance sector will demand to see confidential settlements brokered by banks, pension funds and insurance providers if they shed light on wrong-doing, the head of the inquiry said as it began on Monday.
Any attempt by an institution to prevent information being made public, including dispute settlements with customers, would "incite the closest attention", Commissioner Kenneth Hayne said in opening remarks as the inquiry got under way in Melbourne.
The Royal Commission is Australia's most powerful government inquiry, with the ability to compel witnesses and recommend criminal charges. It is scheduled to run for 12 months and was ordered in response to allegations of poor practices targeting customers.
The government relented to public pressure to call the inquiry after years of scandals at Australia's major banks, including interest rate rigging, insurance fraud and alleged money laundering for drug syndicates and terrorists.
The banks have vowed to respond to public concerns and co-operate with the commission, while rejecting suggestions the industry needed root-and-branch reform.
Hayne said the inquiry would not have time to publicly examine every case of alleged misconduct and that it would instead focus on identifying why problems arose and examine how institutions responded.
Lending practices in Australia will be put under immediate scrutiny, Rowena Orr, a barrister who is assisting the commissioner, told the opening day of the inquiry.
"The commission will hear evidence of events involving certain financial services entities in the context of home lending that suggest that consumers have not always enjoyed the right to be treated honestly and fairly when it comes to home loans," Orr said.
"Some of these events may have involved breaches of the law while others may have involved departures from community standards and expectations."
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Paulina Duran in SYDNEY; Editing by Stephen Coates)