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The privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) is a significant event in the country's economic history

The process took place in three stages, beginning in 1991 and concluding in 1996. To understand the historical background and the rationale behind the Australian Labor Party (ALP) government's decision to privatise the bank, it's essential to consider the broader economic context and the political landscape of the time.

The privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) is a significant event in the country's economic history
The privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) is a significant event in the country's economic history

Historical Background - Establishment and Early Years

The Commonwealth Bank was established in 1911 by the Australian government and began operations in 1912. It was initially conceived as a government-owned bank to serve the financial needs of Australians, offering services such as savings accounts, personal loans, and business banking. Over the decades, the CBA expanded its services and became a central pillar of Australia's banking sector.

Economic Reforms of the 1980s and 1990s

By the late 20th century, Australia, like many other countries, was experiencing significant economic and structural changes. The 1980s and early 1990s were marked by a wave of economic reforms aimed at deregulating and modernising the economy. These reforms included financial deregulation, trade liberalisation, and privatisation of state-owned enterprises. The Hawke and Keating governments, both from the ALP, played crucial roles in these reforms.

Reasons for Privatisation

The ALP government, led by Prime Minister Bob Hawke and later by Prime Minister Paul Keating, decided to privatise the Commonwealth Bank for several reasons:

1. Economic Efficiency

The ALP government believed that privatisation would lead to increased efficiency and competitiveness in the banking sector. The prevailing economic theory suggested that private ownership would impose market discipline, leading to better management and improved performance of the bank.

2. Fiscal Policy

Privatisation provided a significant source of revenue for the government. The sale of the Commonwealth Bank was expected to reduce the budget deficit and help manage public debt. At the time, the government was looking for ways to strengthen its fiscal position without raising taxes or cutting essential services.

3. Financial Deregulation

The financial sector in Australia had undergone considerable deregulation since the early 1980s. The government had already removed interest rate controls, allowed foreign banks to enter the market, and floated the Australian dollar. Privatising the Commonwealth Bank was seen as a natural extension of these deregulatory measures, aimed at fostering a more competitive and dynamic financial sector.

4. Political Ideology

The decision also reflected a shift in the ALP's approach to economic policy. Under the leadership of Hawke and Keating, the ALP embraced a more market-oriented philosophy. This ideological shift supported the notion that private enterprise was better suited to run commercial operations than the government.

The Privatisation Process - 1991 - Initial Public Offering (IPO)

The first tranche of the Commonwealth Bank's privatisation occurred in 1991, with the government selling 30% of its shares through an initial public offering (IPO). This move was part of the broader strategy to test the waters and gauge public and market reaction.

1993 - Further Sale

In 1993, the government sold an additional 19.5% of its shares. This second phase continued the gradual reduction of government ownership in the bank.

1996 - Final Sale

The final stage of the privatisation process took place in 1996 under the newly elected Liberal-National Coalition government led by Prime Minister John Howard. The remaining government shares were sold, fully privatising the Commonwealth Bank.

Impact and Legacy

The privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank marked a significant shift in Australia's economic landscape. It had several notable impacts:

- Increased Competition: The privatisation contributed to a more competitive banking sector, encouraging innovation and improved services for consumers.

- Government Revenue: The sale provided substantial revenue, aiding in fiscal management and reducing public debt.

- Market Confidence: The successful privatisation was seen as a vote of confidence in the Australian economy, attracting both domestic and international investment.


The privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank was a landmark decision driven by a combination of economic theory, fiscal necessity, and ideological shift within the ALP government. It reflected the broader trends of economic reform and deregulation that characterised Australia in the late 20th century. The legacy of this decision continues to influence the Australian financial sector and economic policy today.

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