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  • Writer's pictureDale Webster

A win for the people as Australia's big banks finally go too far

Updated: Jul 2

ABOVE: Submission 41 - simple but nailed it in five words.

IT is impossible to pinpoint an exact time when Australia’s big four banks turned on their regional customer base but May 24, 2024 will be remembered as the day the party ended – and they have no one to blame but themselves.


After 15 months, 13 hearings and more than 600 submissions, a senate inquiry into regional bank closures handed down eight recommendations the banks should have seen coming but, due to uncontrollable arrogance, didn’t.


During the progress of the inquiry, they pushed the boundaries of ethical behaviour so far – from how they responded to a request for a moratorium on closures, to the marketing spin they gave as evidence at the hearings – that senators of all political persuasions were given no choice but to put aside fundamental ideology and move to bring an end to this abuse of power.


Until now these four corporations – ANZ, the Commonwealth, NAB and Westpac – have been untouchable.


They got hold of regional Australians’ money decades ago through trusted relationships with local managers and built their banks into multi-billion-dollar companies.


But instead of showing loyalty to their customer heartlands, they have taken that money and exited, restricting customers’ access to their own funds and discriminating against the very people who helped build their empires.


Due to lack of competition and the difficulties of changing banks, regional Australians have simply had to work around the problems created by this behaviour and hope like hell that if they kept telling their stories the government would eventually come to their aid.


There have been three attempts before now.


The banks began to cull branches in regional Australia in the 1990s. About a third of the network had been slashed by the time the first inquiry was called in 1999, with first-term MP and now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese among those who grappled with the situation.


One of the initiatives this committee came up with was a “branch closure protocol”, which in its original form should have at least been an effective tool to ensure banks still had to provide and pay for access to cash in communities they were leaving.


Unfortunately, in responding to the final report, the Liberal Government of the day added two words to the recommendation, “where viable”, disarming its power. Placed in the hands of the banks to self-manage, the protocol has become a highly problematic document much discussed during this latest inquiry.


Despite repeated calls in submissions for community service obligations to be imposed, the 1999 committee, led by David Hawker, bowed to intense pressure from the Australian Banking Association and, falling back on previously published views that “regulation for social purposes was inefficient”, made no recommendations on the subject.


A second inquiry specifically looking at regional branch closures was held not long after in 2004.


This time led by Senator Grant Chapman, the joint committee was swamped with submissions asking for the government to intervene but again, despite a thorough investigation of the issues, the recommendations in the final report pulled up short of enforcing community service obligations.   


As a result, the Labor members issued their own ultimatum in a separate statement warning the banks that if they couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing by their customers, the ALP was prepared to re-regulate the banking industry.


It would be nearly two decades, during which time another 1000-odd regional banks would be lost, before another inquiry was held.


The announcement that a “Regional Banking Taskforce” was being formed in 2021 was initially welcomed but it soon became clear that the purpose of this exercise was more about media opportunities for Coalition senators coming up for re-election than addressing the banking crisis.


Even worse, the first-term senator behind the idea, Perin Davey, did something incomprehensible (and arguably negligent given what followed) by inviting all the major banks and their representative Anna Bligh from the Australian Banking Association to the table as part of the decision-making team.


The result was catastrophic.


Despite more than 500 submissions detailing the distress and turmoil being experienced by individuals and businesses due to the loss of their banks, the final report (just 20 pages) pushed the banks’ own agenda that regional branch closures were inevitable, with the recommendations giving them a government endorsement to proceed.


Almost 100 regional banks were lost in nearly as many days after the report was released.


Ms Bligh admitted later she had not read a single submission.


This most recent inquiry – undertaken by the Senate Standing Committees on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport – was called in response to the landslide of closures that followed the release of the taskforce report.


Thanks to Queensland Senator Gerard Rennick, who grasped the seriousness of the situation and moved the motion for the new inquiry on February 8, 2023, the bank executives would this time be in the witness stand where they belonged.


Given what was uncovered through dogged questioning by the senators involved – special mention to chairman Matt Canavan, Richard Colbeck, Senator Rennick, Malcolm Roberts and the late Linda White for their performances grilling the CEOs of the major banks – the recommendations to come from this inquiry were right and fitting, but that does not mean they did not come as a surprise.


The stripping of self-regulation, recognition of banking as an essential service, guaranteed access to cash and a pathway towards the re-establishment of a government bank are powerful political moves that even the most optimistic followers of this inquiry did not think the senators would have the courage to put forward.


The problem for the banks was that they left the committee with no choice.


The strength of the recommendations needed to match the strength of the evidence or the result would have been an unforgivable insult to the people who had put their faith in them.


So what did the banks finally do to find themselves in this situation after getting away with so much for so long?


These are some of the key issues that could not be overlooked this time:


-          hurting the most vulnerable in society

-          failure to do due diligence

-          gaslighting

-          transferring costs

-          transferring risk

-          general arrogance

 

HURTING THE MOST VULNERABLE IN SOCIETY:


A blind man humiliated by bank staff who made him try to use an ATM at an ANZ branch where teller service had been removed.


NAB telling its elderly customers they must drive more than 70km on one of the most dangerous stretches of road in Victoria to do their banking after closing Alexandra’s last bank.


Two-hour wait times to use Westpac’s Indigenous support line after the bank closed its Tennant Creek branch, only to find there are no interpreters or First Nations staff to speak to.


Of all the inquiries that have specifically looked at the issue of regional bank closures, the latest is the first to directly reference the welfare impacts in its terms of reference.


If life was not hard enough for the elderly, disabled, poor, illiterate, those who don’t speak English as a first language, Indigenous Australians living in remote areas and victims of domestic violence, branch closures have only added to their problems according to the senate inquiry’s final report.


These people are simply collateral damage to the banks.


There is no plan – when their local branch closes, banking is simply no longer accessible to any customer who cannot use digital or phone banking, ATMs or does not have the means to get to a branch outside their community.


These customers are forced into a situation where the only way they can manage their finances is with outside assistance, taking away their independence and exposing them to the risk of abuse.


There is no acceptable reason for the banks to have put customers in this position but under self-regulation this cruelty – the word has not been used lightly – has been allowed to perpetuate.


“There is a strong case to be made that the banks are actively discriminating against aged and disabled Australians,” Peter Sutton, a former banker who grew up in northern Victoria, wrote in his submission.


West Australian farmer Angela Sims told the Beverley hearing that her mother had begged her to attend to speak for the many elderly people who can’t use online banking, ATMs or the complicated, multi-level phone systems most banks are using now.


She said her mum had not been able to get money out of her account after her bank closed at Augusta because she didn’t know how to use an ATM.


“I am not there to help her, and she doesn't feel that should be my role. She is a private person. It concerns me that there are people out there who are not accessing their banks. My mum has hip issues. She has to leave town to go to the bank. She recently had a fall. The closest town is Margaret River, so she really struggled. The bank says to ring, but she can't deal with the automated messaging. They say, 'Get on the Internet and do Internet banking.' My mum wouldn't know how to turn a computer on, let alone own one to navigate Internet banking. She is also suspicious of giving banking details over the phone because the elderly are bombarded with scams—'Don't talk to anyone, don't tell anyone anything.' Even in a conversation with a trusted bank, they are frightened of giving out details in case they lose their hard-earned money.


“I have elderly in-laws. My mum is 85. My father-in-law is 90 and his wife is 85. Due to health conditions, one has lost their licence and one has a licence, but in a very limited capacity. They need to drive from York to Northam to access their bank. They can't. Their attitude is, 'I don't understand. I have been banking with these people since I started work as a 16-year-old. I have had bank loans, I have had bank accounts, I have saved all my life, and in my hour of need the bank runs for the hills.' Accessing banking is made so difficult that they end up not accessing their funds.


“I also have a family member who works in a bank in a small community. She often speaks of how terrible she feels when someone is away, because the bank shuts. There are no relief staff. They have part-time banking services. If someone is ill, the bank shuts for the day. So even if people know the bank is only open from 11 to one o'clock on a Tuesday, it is not there when they need it. They have no other people to help, they don't have cars, they don't have family members, they don't have access to anyone to drive them to another location. They are financially stranded.”


Senator Canavan was clearly moved, acknowledging the power of her words.


The final report stated that the committee held the view that where a bank has closed a branch there has been a material breach in the customer contract.


This would relate to restriction of access – a pillar of the Banking Code of Practice, yet under self-regulation the people affected by the removal of face-to-face service have no recourse to independently dispute the closure in a way that could have any impact on the outcome.


Even if the Australian Securities and Investments Commission could be motivated to show interest in pursuing the banks over closure issues, the wording of the branch closure protocol gives it nothing to work with.


The worst the Banking Code Compliance Committee can do is write a cross report and human rights and discrimination complaints are settled privately with confidentiality agreements because people in the demographic most affected are hardly going to be able to negotiate or afford taking the matter to the Federal Court.


The banks can literally take their customers' money and run and there is currently nothing the government can do about it.

 

FAILURE TO DO DUE DILIGENCE:


Perhaps the most staggering fails of the big four banks to come to light during the inquiry is that they appear to have changed their business models to digital first and took away face-to-face access to banking without checking how many of their customers would not be able to use the technology.


The Digital Inclusion Index is a highly respected research database that has been run in collaboration by RMIT and Swinburne universities and Telstra since 2014, meaning anyone wanting to know how many Australians can and can’t access digital banking has had the information available at their fingertips for the past decade.


This research was quoted repeatedly in submissions, including those from state governments, to both the Regional Banking Taskforce and recent senate inquiry.


Exclusion from the digital world is at the heart of the welfare issues being caused by regional bank closures yet ANZ chief executive Shayne Elliott told the senators at the September 2023 Canberra hearing that he was not familiar with the database.


He had just explained to the senators that according to research by the University of South Australia, “most older Australians like and accept the online banking environment and that Australians over 65 are responding in line with younger cohorts in adopting digital banking”.


The senators noted the contradiction between this research and what they had been told by other witnesses quoting the Digital Inclusion Index.


Had Mr Elliott done his due diligence before starting to strip away face-to-face service by closing branches and removing teller service, he would have discovered that the number of Australians excluded from digital banking is roughly seven million.


That is almost a third of the population of Australia who depend solely on cash and cheques.


It’s not just about having the ability to use technology – the index tracks other important factors such as connectivity and being able to afford the devices required to access digital technology and run them.


“Online banking services using mobile, fixed or satellite connectivity is only as good as location, internet services offered, capacity to pay and digital literacy, and is contingent on good power supply that is often problematic in East Gippsland,” the East Gippsland Shire said in its submission.


David Morcom, chief executive of neighbouring Wellington Shire, the third largest municipality in the state with more than 45,000 residents, brought the numbers with him to the Sale hearing.


“Two-thirds of our community don't have access to broadband,” he told the senators.


“Thirty per cent of the population in Sale is over the age of 60 and eight per cent of Sale's households don't have a car. The Australian Digital Inclusion Index, which you may be familiar with, measures access, affordability and digital affordability. Wellington Shire's index is typical of many regions at 65, as opposed to a Victorian average of 72, so there is a clear level of disadvantage that we experience in the regions.”


After being tackled by three senators in a row over his lack of awareness of the Digital Inclusion Index, Mr Elliott said he would “have a look at it”.


“I am sure there are always things we can learn,” he said.


The senators would later find out that the study quoted by Mr Elliott involved only 46 people being interviewed, none of them were from regional Australia and that ANZ had paid for the research.


The biggest lesson for Mr Elliott from this inquiry may well be that politicians do not appreciate being treated like idiots.

 

GASLIGHTING: 


The major banks and the Australian Banking Association have continually blamed customers for the closures of their local branches, quoting falling visitation and a rise in digital transactions to justify their decisions.


This has been consistently met with confusion by customers who say the branches were always busy.


It turns out they were probably right.


Whispers of profitable branches being closed due to policies to forcibly transition customers away from face-to-face service to distort data used to justify closures have been around for about a decade but it was the Financial Sector Union’s submission to the Regional Banking Taskforce that finally exposed the practice.


Bank whistleblowers told of being performance-managed to reduce over-the-counter interactions with customers, sign up customers for digital banking and use ATMs to get cash.


Of course, with considerably more banking representatives on the taskforce than MPs, it was not until the latest senate inquiry that the FSU was able to deliver the information to a receptive audience.


Queensland executive secretary Wendy Streets was the final witness at the first hearing at Sale.


“Today, you've heard from representatives of the banking industry that regional branch closures are solely driven by customer preference—that customers are voting with their feet and crying out for digital options to do their banking, instead of the traditional branch model of service,” she said.


“Get used to it. You will hear this repeated ad nauseam for the duration of this inquiry. You heard phrases such as 'we want customers to be aware of all their banking options' and heartwarming stories of the convenience of banking when you want. These are weasel words, in our view. The banks claim that the public prefer to complete their financial transactions online. However, it is disingenuous for the banks to single out their customers as the reason for these closures. It is the banks that have enforced this change. It has long been part of the business model of all of these banks. The banks have engineered the move to digital and herded their customers into these options.”


She went on to read statements from bank staff explaining how this was done.


Over the course of the inquiry and even Senate Estimates, bank executives were grilled over the manipulation of data, with NAB copping the brunt of the assault.


Their release of closure “fact sheets”, a result of a taskforce recommendation the banks had hoped would take the heat off them, left them exposed to closer scrutiny than they had ever had to deal with before.


Then a slip-up on one of the documents blew the lid off the scam: NAB was only counting transactions.


All the essential business that customers need face-to-face assistance with that didn’t result in a transaction (ie, everything that could not be done using Bank@Post) was not being recorded.


NAB was also caught omitting to mention that 63 of the branches it had closed in regional Australia since the start of 2021 because of “declining visitation” had their opening hours drastically cut at the end of 2020.


Customers giving evidence at the inquiry confirmed that many branches hadn’t even been opening during these reduced timeframes.


Add in the practice outlined by the president of Shire of Wyalkatchem, Quentin Davies, of banks moving big farming and business accounts to branches in larger centres and it became very clear that the banks have been playing a dangerous game with the truth when justifying closures.


While the gaslighting didn’t please the senators, it was what was hidden under the data-fudging that for them was unforgivable – that the branches that were being closed were profitable.


Until this inquiry this was always a grey area, with an inference when announcing a closure that because customers were not using a branch it was therefore not a viable site.


But from the moment a Westpac executive admitted under questioning at the first hearing that a decision to close a branch at Sale was not based on profitability but rather a desire to change operating model, the senators were on the scent of a scandal.


Closing a branch because it was losing money could be accepted; closing it at such a high human cost because of greed is a difficult thing for any reasonable person to rationalise, if not impossible.

 

TRANSFERRING COSTS: 


The big banks have two types of savings in their sights these days – monetary and emissions – and it is debatable which is worth more to them.


For the $1 million a year estimated to run a branch – a paltry sum compared to the billions in profits the banks make annually – it may well be that the electricity savings they are claiming against their net zero targets are the real prize as “clean and green” becomes its own currency.


But as the banks close in on net zero, customers have been telling the government inquiries about the extent to which they have had to take to the roads – and even the air in some cases – to chase banking services they could once access in their own community.


They are bearing the cost of fuel, wear and tear on their vehicles and time lost away from work and businesses.


They are also adding to their carbon footprint each time they travel out of their area to do their banking.


Until recently there was no way for anyone without inside knowledge of how many customers a bank branch had to correlate the amount of travel that would be generated by its closure.


However, thanks to activity data being included in the recently introduced “fact sheets”, that is no longer the case.


Numbers are broad but they do provide a window into the environmental impact of branch closures for the first time and confirm suspicions that closures are most likely generating more emissions than are being saved.


Using a basic carbon footprint calculator, an analysis of customer numbers at 31 regional branches closed by NAB leading up to and during the senate inquiry shows that, at the bare minimum, the emissions generated by the extra distance customers would need to travel to access banking services equates to 10 per cent of global Co2 savings claimed by the bank under the Federal Government’s Climate Active program in 2021-22.


What’s worse – and this was something the senators cottoned on to during the inquiry – the bank has been using branch closures to help meet its net zero targets.


NAB says in its 2021-22 Climate Active report the savings it made that year were achieved mainly through though reducing its electricity consumption which “can be attributed the consolidation of NAB’s property portfolio (commercial buildings and branch closures) and relocation of colleagues into new, energy efficient buildings”.


Former NAB chief executive Ross McEwan didn’t like being asked about this at the Canberra hearing in September 2023 and became agitated when Senator Rennick asked if branch closures were linked to executive bonuses.


Mr McEwan denied that they were, but NAB's 2022 Climate Report states that climate change had been formally added in 2021 to NAB’s Risk Management Framework, which it says is used by the board to help determine executive “variable rewards”.


In a response to a question on notice from that hearing, NAB confirmed that branch closures helped the banks achieve a 10 per cent reduction in total energy usage across NAB’s branch network between the year ending 30 June 2021 and the year ending 30 June 2022.


By anyone's standards this isn't a good look.

 

TRANSFERRING RISK:


Access to money, or lack of it, sits at the core of human wellbeing and because of this, banks are often the places where things can turn nasty.


Robberies are top of mind when it comes to risk due to the amount of cash being held on premises and although they appear to happen less than they did in the 1980-90s due to better security acting as a deterrent, they are still a very real threat.


In Victoria for example, there have been six violent robbery/burglaries at a bank each year on average for the past 10 years according to the state’s Crime Statistics Agency.


Add in violent assaults, firearm and weapon offences, threatening behaviour, conduct endangering life, riot and affray and terrorism and the number of violent incidents bank staff have had to deal with each year since 2014 hits 75.


Looking at all crime – a large part of which is deception offences that bank staff receive specialised training to identify – every single bank in Victoria would have had to call the police twice a day, every day for the past decade.


Guns, knives, angry people, family violence, deceit, even arson – this is what the big four banks have handballed to post office owners.


And these people – usually just a person or couple running a small business on their own – must manage the risk of being the closest thing to a town’s only bank without the benefit of a building designed for banking, security screens, duress alarms, armed guards or a vault.


Many sleep in the same premises the money is being kept at.


When questioned at the senate inquiry about how much they pay Australia Post to be their representative in a community, the three major banks who do offer Bank@Post would not disclose the amounts, but it is widely understood to be between $10-$20 million per year each.


If Australia Post did share this with its licensees (it doesn’t) it would put the daily contribution to the 3500 post offices who act as their proxies at between $8 and $16 per day per post office.


Not a lot to mitigate the increased risk of having a sawn-off shotgun pointed at you.

 

GENERAL ARROGANCE:


Could one last display of arrogance have been what finally brought the banks unstuck?


On February 10, 2023, two days after the motion for an inquiry into regional bank closures passed through the Senate, the committee responsible wrote to all banks “respectfully” asking that they postpone any further closures until the conclusion of the inquiry.


While all other banks agreed to this at least in part, the answer from NAB was a categorical no and it went on to close 53 regional branches, or nearly 20 per cent of its regional network, before the final report was delivered. 


It was a bold move its chief executive would have been aware had the potential to upset the senators but history might explain why the bank was willing to gamble with such high stakes: it had done it before and got away with it, closing at least 69 branches between the first two regional bank closure inquiries in 1999 and 2004.


Forty-three of these were while the second inquiry was being conducted.


While the other major banks were not as brazen as NAB, they still tinkered around the edges of the moratorium.


Westpac was caught out withholding information from media resulting in it being reported that the bank was honouring the moratorium agreement in full when it was in fact still going ahead with more than half the closures it had planned, including branches in Coober Pedy and Carnamah that would be left with no banks at all.


ANZ also proceeded with 14 closures, leaving Smithton in Tasmania without a bank, and the Commonwealth chose not to extend the agreement to its Bankwest brand, turning what was once Western Australia’s regional bank for farmers entirely digital and closing 19 regional branches.


Both Westpac and the Commonwealth closed branches in regional coastal areas and larger regional cities, arguing that they were exempt from the moratorium due to population density classifications used by the banking regulator.


They may well have had a loophole to exploit but when it comes to perception, a miss is as good as a mile.


Why win a battle if it’s going to cost you the war?

 

The final report


The Senate inquiry into Bank Closures in Regional Australia officially came to an end just after noon on May 24, 2024, with the tabling of the final report.


In their own words, the senators found the following:


Committee view*


“Bank branch closures are devasting to many regional and remote communities (and) it is clear that the current model of banking industry self-regulation has failed to shelter regional Australia from the damaging impacts.


Along with an increased need for cash, regional and remote communities are more dependent on face-to-face services. Many have a higher proportion of elderly, Indigenous and/or disabled populations, and may be particularly exposed by bank branch closures.


Vulnerable residents and small businesses may be left 'high and dry', or forced to drive hundreds of kilometres to the nearest bank to complete essential and basic financial tasks.


As well as disadvantaging individuals living in regional and remote areas, bank branch closures—particularly the closure of a community's last bank—often have a devastating effect on the town's morale. The loss of a town's last bank causes downstream economic impacts: businesses failing, other services relocating and people moving to be nearer to essential amenities.


The committee believes Australia's banks are failing to take these impacts seriously. In many cases, banks are simply walking away from communities where they have been a mainstay for decades.


The frustration felt by those in affected communities, including branch staff, is exacerbated by the banks' disrespectful treatment and failure to meaningfully engage with communities, customers, and staff alike.


Despite their evidence that they do not 'take these decisions lightly', banks are clearly failing to comprehend, and take responsibility for, the impact of closures on communities.


Branch closure impact assessments—now provided by banks as an outcome of the Regional Banking Taskforce—represent a disappointing, 'tick-a-box' exercise, and are an inadequate reflection of the impacts of closures on communities. The committee believes that many of these so-called 'assessments' are being prepared after a decision has been taken or announced, and in some cases, after the branch has closed.


There is nothing in Australia's existing regulatory architecture that could stop, or even slow the pace, of branch closures, and there is no regulator that routinely deals with these concerns.


Under their current Code of Practice, banks have no obligation to provide face-to-face services if they do not consider it 'financially viable' to do so—even for their elderly, disabled or vulnerable customers. Banks can, and do, walk away from communities they have served for decades, with little warning and no consultation.


This is unacceptable.


Banks enjoy a unique position within the Australian economy, with deposits guaranteed by the taxpayer to protect against potential bank failures. They also enjoy access to capital at a discounted rate compared with other entities and citizens. These benefits engender commensurate responsibilities to the community.


Without regulatory intervention, banks will continue to close branches and communities will pay the price.”


The eight recommendations from the Bank Closures in Regional Australia Senate inquiry (2024) are as follows:


Recommendation 1

The committee recommends that the Australian Government adopt a policy recognising access to financial services as an essential service. To this end, it should commit to guaranteeing reasonable access to cash and financial services for all Australians.


Recommendation 2

The committee recommends that the Australian Government commission an expert panel to investigate the feasibility of establishing a publicly owned bank. In investigating this, the panel should examine options including, but not limited to a stand-alone public bank or one associated with, and using the branch network of Australia Post.


Recommendation 3

The committee recommends that the Australian Government urgently develop a mandatory Banking Code of Conduct or Customer Service Code (Code), incorporating a robust branch closure process, to be administered by a regulator with expertise in consumer protection.

The new Code would require financial institutions to:

  • undertake meaningful consultation with communities before a branch is closed;

  • prepare and submit a comprehensive report on the potential impacts of the closure and identify alternative financial services in the event of closure; and

  • implement and fully fund transition arrangements and ongoing support services which ensure access to cash and essential banking services following a closure.

The committee recommends that the regulator would assess compliance with the Code before any closure is agreed to.


Recommendation 4

In enforcing the mandatory Banking Code outlined in Recommendation 3, the committee recommends that the regulator be authorised to approve or defer any closure request. In deferring a closure, the regulator would be authorised to direct a bank to take certain reasonable actions, including to order further consultation or provide additional information to the regulator. The regulator should be provided with a range of penalties should a bank fail to comply with an order to defer closure, or with any other undertaking.


Recommendation 5

The committee recommends that the Australian Government commission the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to explore the barriers to customers switching banks, with a view to allowing those that open and/or maintain branches in regional, rural and remote towns to attract more business.


Recommendation 6

The committee recommends the Australian Government establish the Regional Community Banking Branch Program (RCBBP). The objective of the RCBBP would be to help underwrite the establishment of ‘community bank' branches providing in-person banking services in regional, rural and remote Australia. Local communities would be required to raise their own capital as well, but the government contributions could help lower the required amounts. Consideration could also be given to using this fund to help enhance financial services available at Australia Post. To support the RCBBP, the committee recommends that the Australian Government establish a supplement to the Major Banks Levy to be levied on the major banks. Funds raised by the supplement must be hypothecated to provide funding to the RCBBP.


Recommendation 7

The committee recommends that the Australian Government works closely with the banks and Australia Post, to require all major banks to have agreements with Bank@Post and to harmonise the terms of Bank@Post agreements to improve fairness and sustainability. Specifically, agreements should include increased deposit limits to support small businesses, provisions to facilitate identification verification, and to handle issues around temporary account closures or multiple signatory requirements. Major banks that do not put in place agreements with Bank@Post to deliver financial services should pay an increased supplementary levy as described in Recommendation 6.


Recommendation 8

The committee recommends that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission consider measures to protect access to personal and business banking services in regional, rural and remote locations. This may include, but not be limited to, proposing an authorisation to circumvent anti‑competitive laws such that banks can cooperate for the purposes of reducing the impacts of bank branch closures on regional communities.

 

Finishing the job


The magnitude of these recommendations will have come as a shock to the major banks, indicated by an almost complete halt to regional bank closures since the report was handed down.


Even NAB, which closed nearly one branch a week for 15 months while the inquiry was on, has not announced one closure since the report was released.


There is no doubt banking industry representatives will now be madly working their government and friendly media contacts in an attempt to discredit the report, which is due to be responded to by the government by August 24.


That task will fall to the Minister for Financial Services, Stephen Jones, who sadly has shown no engagement on the issue and was responsible for the disastrous final report from the Regional Banking Taskforce being slipped out at 4.52pm on Friday evening before a long weekend.


Regional Australia should instead be looking to the prime minister to show leadership on this given that, as a member of the 1999 inquiry committee, he knows what it feels like to have his hard work on this issue sabotaged by political interference.


Mr Albanese needs to be reminded that more than two decades ago he, like these senators, was part of a team that also heard the stories from people who were drowning under the weight of bank closures and tried to assist them.


And it was his party, Labor, that four years later issued a very clear ultimatum to the banks that unless they started taking their community service obligations seriously the industry would be re-regulated.


Labor lost one of its own during this inquiry with the passing of Senator Linda White, who left her Melbourne base and travelled to some of the remotest hearings to make sure she properly understood the job she had been tasked to do.


Her comments during questioning of the bank executives showed she had quickly grasped that government intervention was the only way to bring them to heel.


This is Mr Albanese’s chance to finish the job Labor started two decades ago by directing his minister to accept all recommendations from this historic inquiry in full.


Like the senators who put their names to the final report, he cannot morally turn his back and let this sort of behaviour continue any longer.



ABOVE: Senator Linda White to Commonwealth Bank CEO Matt Comyn – “everything that's been said before leaves it voluntarily to banks to do the right thing and not close. Consistently, since 1999, that hasn't worked.”

 

*Condensed version


UPDATE: Since this story was published it has been revealed that ANZ will be closing its Murwillumbah branch.



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