Regional banking taskforce's botch job is no laughing matter
Updated: Jan 19, 2023
REGIONAL Australians found themselves as the butt of a nasty joke at weekend, with both the new Federal Government and the Opposition treating them like idiots over the critical issue of bank closures.
In the ultimate dodgy trick, the final report in to the Taskforce into Regional Banking was snuck out at 4.52pm on Friday evening before a long weekend by the Albanese Government despite the report being a Coalition document overseen by two shadow ministers (Michael Sukkar and Perin Davey) whose current portfolios have nothing to do with treasury, finance, business or regional Australia.
As predicted by The Regional when this taskforce was set up, the final report contains nothing that will save a single bank, with the executive summary’s admission that it received more than 400 submissions “on ways of maintaining and improving banking services” illustrating that the entire exercise was, as the Financial Sector Union described it in 2021, just a “cruel stunt”.
The seven recommendations are an insult to the intelligence of regional Australians, with the report sharing insights on the issue of regional bank closures that read like a Playschool episode:
banks can do more to communicate and consult with individuals and communities when closing a regional branch
when branches do close, alternatives like Bank@Post can assist to maintain banking services
it is important to maintain access to cash, which is crucial for many in regional Australia
people experiencing vulnerability face particular challenges and need support in accessing banking services
This rest of the content could be from a chairman’s message for any of the major banks’ annual reports over the last 20 years.
It regurgitates without challenge the claim banks constantly make every time they close a branch that over-the-counter transactions have declined. Had the Financial Sector Union been given a seat at the table as it requested but was denied, they would have told the MPs that bank staff have been on performance targets to move customers away from teller service and on to ATMs for years.
Reduced opening hours have also impacted on customers’ ability to even get in the door of their local banks.
On the face of it, recommended changes to the Australian Banking Association’s branch closure protocol make sense, unless you already know the contents of the document and its history.
The taskforce merely repeats what the previous regional banking inquiries Money too Far Away (1999) and Money Matters in the Bush (2004) put in place but was largely ignored by the banks due to an "if viable" caveat being inserted by the Howard Government at a later date.
By releasing this report, the Albanese Government has only drawn attention to Labor’s alternative recommendation 30 from the 2004 inquiry stating it would be prepared to re-regulate the banking industry if the banks did not implement and meet community service obligations under the protocol.
Since then, regional Australia has lost another 1000 branches so it could hardly be claimed that the banks have shown any sort of social conscience.
Rather than the taskforce’s wishy-washy recommendations one and two, there should have been a calling-to-account of the banks for their complete disregard for the Money Matters in the Bush report.
The taskforce also appears to be unaware – probably due to the lightning speed at which it conducted this inquiry to score a few points in the run-up to the federal election – that the branch closure protocol is a legally enforceable document.
What it also could have recommended is that the document be redrawn as a proper contract by independent lawyers and taken out of the hands of the banks, who have self-managed the behaviour standard since it was implemented.
Recommendation four, which covers access to cash, gets to the heart of why communities need banks and is another missed opportunity.
Like the two regional banking inquiries before it, this report suggests beefing up post office banking, falling short of creating a new government bank because the taskforce – let’s again remember that is was mainly made up of banking representatives – held “significant competitive neutrality concerns”.
Just to translate that into plain English, the banks are worried a government bank would be more popular than their own branches and they would lose customers, a concern banks have expressed to banking inquiries on this subject right back to 1985.
This section also makes the bold statement that remote Indigenous communities alone should have access to fee-free ATMs.
What about people in the 587 towns that once had one or more major banks that now have no form of bank at all?
Recommendation seven, to review the APRA points of presence data, should trigger alarm bells for regional Australians.
Phrases such as “to better understand and plan the transition away from branches” reveal the major banks’ true agenda and have been published as a fait accompli by this taskforce.
This recommendation will actually help the Government and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) out with a little problem they now have in relation to errors in the “Authorised deposit-taking points of presence” data, some going back years.
APRA chairman Wayne Byres was backed into a corner at the last Senate Estimates over the misclassification of bank “branches” in the database and the Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, has also since confirmed that bank sites that do not provide face-to-face cash services do not have a place in the government branch lists.
With another 148 “branches” that do not meet that criteria now identified across both metropolitan and regional APRA branch lists, and even more in the planning stages as banks move away from teller service, the corrections are going to play havoc with banking service level statistics – unless the Government follows recommendation seven and shakes the whole classification system up by introducing new service channels to the database. (One of the reasons the Albanese Government has just released an Opposition report in such a shady way may have suddenly become clear.)
It is no surprise that this report has missed the mark by a long shot.
Unlike the Money Matters in the Bush inquiry (2004) that held 13 public hearings in six states and territories and took 18 months to complete, there were just 54 days between the announcement that the Coalition was forming a taskforce to look at the issue of regional bank closures and the close of public submissions.
The taskforce held just one public forum at Red Cliffs in Victoria (Mallee/Nationals) and two “by invitation” meetings at Orange in NSW (Calare/Nationals) and Mildura, which is 14km from Red Cliffs and also in the Mallee electorate.
It was never more than an election stunt.
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