Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021


Banking and Financial Services

7:27 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on one of the forgotten casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic—that is, the rural bank branches. While many of you may not think that that is a major issue, it is actually a very real and pressing one for people in regional Australia and right across New South Wales, my constituency. The amazing women of the Country Women's Association of New South Wales know that it's a problem, and this year they passed a motion seeking action on the rapidly increasing closures of rural bank branches.

This is an issue of life and death for many rural towns. Empty storefronts breed empty storefronts, and those who initially would travel into town to do their banking and their shopping may be forced to do both in another, bigger town, accelerating the decline of their town—assuming that they have the capacity to travel those distances and the money to put petrol in their car. These closures are often sudden, and clients are often not notified by the banks that they're about to close. The big banks are moving further and further away from the social licence that they have to operate, and they cannot continue to disadvantage people who cannot bank over the phone or the internet, people such as the elderly, people with disabilities and those who are underserviced by the 10th-rate NBN insisted on this country by the Abbott government, backed in by the Morrison government and also by Mr Turnbull, who should have known better.

I will read into Hansard some of the stories of those CWA women who've fought against the closure of these important pieces of economic infrastructure. Here are their words: 'Here in Laurieton'—mid-North Coast of New South Wales—'we've lost ANZ, St George and Westpac so far. NAB has limited hours but closed with the last lockdown. Sign says they'll open again after lockdown. Just leaves us with Commonwealth and the post office.' Finley, just north of the Murray River: 'Lost CBA within six weeks of notice. Took the ATM. Leaves NAB open for three hours in the morning and the NAB ATM and post office, which can manage only limited transactions. Maximum cash out at the IGA is $100.' This is the reality of the limited access to money that they need to use in their local community. Kempsey: 'ANZ closes this month. Will have to travel either to Port Macquarie or Coffs Harbour, which is close to 100 kilometres away'—one hundred kilometres to your nearest bank! Another wrote: 'Both NAB and ANZ have closed in Wee Waa this year. I'm aware of one dear lady that's been with the CBA since a child'—that's quite a 70-plus years of loyalty—'who now does not drive and now has to travel over an hour just to get her money.' This is an example of the bush being abandoned again. Another one—the Westpac branch in Quirindi New South Wales—closed last year at the beginning of the pandemic and never reopened. They are just half a dozen of the over 70 stories on bank closures that I have just shared with you. Each of them is from a different part of the state, but every one tells the same story of loss of community, loss of service, loss of connection.

The decision to shut a rural branch is not a decision pushed by economic imperative; if it was, we could understand it. During the COVID-19 pandemic, banks' profits did not take a hit; they continued to soar. Yet, despite soaring profits, they went ahead and shut down branch after branch. The Sydney Morning Herald in March this year asserted that, across the big four, half-year profits soared by an average 62 per cent and dividends rebounded sharply, and lenders have said they have billions in excess capital that is ultimately likely to find its way into shareholders' pockets.

The Australian reported earlier this year that one bank was closed because a staff member had had the time to make a cup of tea, and in doing so proved it wasn't productive enough. Tell that to somebody who lives in a community and who has banked at a bank for 70 years. It is not good enough. I see there is some support from people in the government, but they should not be allowing the banks to get away with this. It is a disgrace. You need to stand up for rural communities.

In the last four years we have seen over 10 per cent of rural bank branches close, and where is the National Party on this? The government must do more in this place to support these towns that they spout support for. But what we see is more inaction, more deference to the banks and a failure to stand up for community access.