Westpac has been accused of hypocrisy for hosting an extravagant lunch dedicated to the fight against human trafficking, while potentially helping to facilitate child sex trafficking behind the scenes.
It has emerged that the 200-year-old lender hosted a lavish business luncheon that promised to expose "the truth about human trafficking".
United States-based reporter and globally recognised human trafficking expert Christine Dolan was the guest speaker at the glittering event in 2016, which was also attended by author and former model Tara Moss, and Liberal powerbroker Michael Photios, the Daily Mail reports.
That same year, senior managers within the bank were warned its systems for international transfers had the potential to be used to send money to child sex hot spots, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
Three years later, Westpac stands accused of helping facilitate the very cause it paid lip service to, with financial watchdog AUSTRAC alleging it failed to investigate customers who made transactions potentially linked to child exploitation in the Philippines and South-East Asia.
The lender is also accused of breaching money laundering and counter-terrorism finance laws.
Public relations expert Nicole Reaney said the banks' woes were worsened by the hypocrisy of being a vocal supporter of human rights while potentially helping to facilitate abuses behind the scenes.
"To champion human rights and sustainability causes on the one hand, and then fail to identify, address and mitigate these from your organisation is extremely damaging to the organisation's ethical standing and reputation," Reaney told news.com.au.
So far, the scandal has claimed the scalps of both chief executive Brian Hartzer, who will step down within days, and chairman Lindsay Maxsted, who will bring forward his retirement to the first half of next year. Meanwhile, Labor, major investors and the Australian public are baying for more blood.
The awkward lunch — where bankers were pictured — has been branded hypocritical by the public and experts alike, and Westpac has now been accused of insincerity by backing a number of worthy causes while failing to ensure its own ethics.
Since the lunch was held, the bank has released an annual "Slavery and Human Trafficking" statement touting its "zero tolerance" for the criminal practice.
"The Westpac Group believes that respecting and advancing human rights helps us to achieve our vision to help our customers, communities and people to prosper and grow," the 2018 statement – signed by outgoing CEO Brian Hartzer – states.
"Accordingly, we have zero tolerance for all forms of modern slavery and human trafficking."
The Westpac website also boasts a commitment to a slew of noble causes, including the environment and sustainability, human rights and indigenous reconciliation.
But the growing crisis has prompted a number of commentators to put the boot in.
The Australian editor-at-large Paul Kelly slammed Westpac's "moral bankruptcy" in talking up its advocacy on progressive causes while allowing potentially criminal acts to occur.
"The hypocrisy is mind-numbing. If you are a Westpac investor appalled your bank has facilitated for years the abuse of children in The Philippines, be happy that it champions diversity and climate change," he wrote.
Australian Financial Review columnist Parnell Palme McGuinness also took aim at Westpac's "culture of corporate fictions" along with "everyone who accepts them at face value".
Reaney said Westpac's image as a "very wholesome, socially led organisation" had been "completely shattered" by AUSTRAC's claims and would "now open a Pandora's box".
She criticised comments Hartzer allegedly made on Monday, which were revealed in an explosive report in The Australian yesterday.
According to the newspaper, the embattled boss allegedly told a closed-door meeting that the scandal "was not playing out as a high street issue" and that the Westpac board "don't need to overcook this" because "for people in mainstream Australia going about their daily lives, this is not a major issue".
The comments were branded "tone deaf" and "wrong" on social media, and Reaney said Hartzer "could also use a number of lessons in reading a room".
Fellow PR guru Catriona Pollard told news.com.au the comments would "absolutely backfire" on both Westpac and Hartzer's personal brand.
"It's not acceptable to make comments like that as a leader of a bank," she said.
"To be a leader, there needs to be an element of ego … but the fact he said something like that shows there is a level of arrogance and that he has lost touch with his customers.
"You have to be very careful about language if you're the leader of a large organisation such as Westpac – and talking [that way] about 'people in mainstream Australian' is actually disrespectful to the people who bank with you."
Pollard said the "disconnect" between Westpac's on-paper support of human rights causes and its actions would damage its credibility, and that there was "no excuse" for the organisation not to practise what it preached.
News.com.au contacted Westpac for comment, but was told "we have no further comment" by a company spokeswoman.