House debates

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Grievance Debate

Banking and Financial Services

6:30 pm

Photo of Pat ConaghanPat Conaghan (Cowper, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to speak on an issue that's not just affecting my electorate but impacting many communities across Australia—that is, the increasing number of financial institutions and banks closing their branches. Far too many of those are in remote, rural and regional centres. I understand the need for businesses to lower their operating costs where possible and to make cuts here and there, but it concerns me that these big institutions, which have been part of our social fabric, are leaving in droves and adding to the further deterioration of the social fabric in our smaller communities.

When you go to a bank and you're talking about your own personal finances, it's a private matter. It requires intimate financial knowledge of your pay, your turnover, the workings of your business, your plans for the future and, although it sounds silly, your hopes and dreams. These kinds of discussions can't be held in a makeshift bank where you've got somebody lining up behind you to buy a postage stamp and somebody behind them wanting to get a passport photo. I'm concerned about the privacy issues relating to banking transactions being undertaken in areas that are not appropriate or built for these kinds of discussions.

Fifty years ago, the banks were part of the heart and soul of our community. I recall growing up in Kempsey. I remember the bank manager's name from the Bank of New South Wales—Fred Bingemann; he was part of the community—and I'm sure that everybody who grew up in a rural or remote location would be able to do the same. The banks were in places that were, effectively, landmarks. These now heritage listed buildings were built for that very purpose and for that bank. These banks are now leaving, and there's nothing to replace them in our remote and rural towns, so you have these magnificent buildings just sitting there empty, going to rack and ruin, because somebody in the city, high up in an ivory tower, has made decisions that are in the best interests of that institution but that leave the country people behind.

It's a real loss to our communities. As I understand it, there are more than 1,500 communities across Australia, mainly in rural and regional areas, that have no local branch available to them. Three of the big four banks—the Commonwealth Bank, Westpac and the National Australia Bank—along with around 70 other banks have entered agreements whereby their customers can access Australia Post offices to make deposits and access cash. It's known as Bank@Post. I know that Australia Post and their employees do their absolute best to provide high-quality services. I don't wish to dismiss the operations or the value of regional Australia Post franchisees, who also contribute to the fabric of our towns—and we also see post offices closing at the moment, but that's for another grievance debate—but I think this arrangement definitely falls short of what many communities need in regard to accessing financial services. As I've previously said, you should be able to undertake your financial transactions within the confines of a bank where the staff are actually trained to understand your personal financial needs. You can't go and train somebody working in the post office to provide you that timely advice or to understand your concerns about deposits, withdrawals and investments. It's just not fit for purpose.

It also doesn't lend itself to the older people in our community. In Cowper, 27 per cent of people are now over the age of 65, and that number is rapidly increasing. Most 65-year-olds know how to use the internet. Most 65-year-olds over the past decade or two have moved into online and digital. But I talk to lots of people in homes and aged-care facilities, and many of those people don't understand the internet. They're afraid of the internet. They want to walk into a bank, speak to somebody and have a face that they can trust, and in the past that has been the tradition. You knew the person behind the counter. Now these elderly people are being told that they have to pay for the privilege to do that. One of my staff members who sadly lost his mother recently told me that his mother resented being advised that she could receive her banking documents, including her statements, via email, or could use a mobile phone to access her day-to-day services. She didn't have a computer and she didn't have a mobile phone. Then they told her, 'Okay, well, we'll send it out to you, but we're going to charge you $2 per page'—for the privilege of the bank having her money to invest to make more money for their shareholders! It's just not right.

Reducing the availability of banking services will, and does, create distress and uncertainty for elderly people, who are increasingly isolated by the rapid shift online. Examples in my electorate are Suncorp's decision to close its branch in Port Macquarie, and the community of Toormina having to endure the closure of its ANZ branch in September 2020. The friendly advice from the ANZ to the people of Toormina was, 'Well, there's still one in Coffs Harbour.' Bad luck if you don't have a car. Bad luck if public transport can't get you there at the time that you need. It simply is saying to country people, 'We're considering profit over people.' I really think it's time for the banks to consider that these people have been loyal to them. It might be time for the banks to be loyal to the people, particularly in regional, rural and remote Australia. The Bellingen, Dorrigo and South West Rocks branches of the National Australia Bank had their hours reduced—fortunately they didn't close—to three hours a day during the week. Unfortunately, the Dorrigo branch completely closed its doors in April this year. The closest town to Dorrigo is Bellingen, and that's 20-odd km away. It's extremely difficult for people to be able to get access.

In the period between 1993 and 2000, we saw a substantial reduction in branches by the major banks. In June 1993 there were 7,064 bank branches. That has fallen to 4,789. That's not quite 50 per cent, but it's up there. I encourage our bankers to remember the businesses that operate and the people who live in our regional and rural areas, and the mums and dads who have deposited their wages into their banks and simply want to have access to a banking institution within their own community. These are the people who have made the banks rich, and the banks have an obligation to better meet their needs.