Rural bank inquiry a ‘small victory’ as branches shut

“It is time to turn the tables on the banks,” one rural resident writes.

Another says: “Banks assume everyone is the same”.

A third: “This is not the city where everything is on tap”.

Those are just a few voices from regional Australia, where major banks have closed their doors and residents are fighting for the future of their towns.

Those kinds of concerns, aired at the coalition government’s Regional Banking Taskforce, will be the centre of a new Senate inquiry into rural branch closures, the first in 19 years to examine major banks’ exit from country Australia.

The Senate this week agreed the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee should hold an inquiry into the branch closure process, examining the social and economic impacts on rural communities and possible solutions.

The taskforce, which ran for a year, received 416 submissions from rural residents distressed about dwindling essential services, limited access to cash, and the slow economic deaths of their towns.

It released its final report in September finding vulnerable people, including the elderly, disabled and Indigenous communities, faced greater challenges when banks closed their doors.

Farmers and small businesses also struggle as they often rely on face-to-face contact with bank managers who understand their enterprises.

The taskforce recommended banks strengthen their community consultation before shutting, but many councils and community groups believed it did not go far enough to stop branch closures.

A month after the final report, the Westpac group announced it would close at least nine country branches, including in the major opal mining region of Coober Pedy, in South Australia.

Coober Pedy locals have to take their banking needs to Port Augusta or interstate to Alice Springs, both more than 500km away.

Junee, a farming and tourist town in the NSW Riverina, is set to lose its last bank, a Commonwealth branch, on March 3.

The shire council’s general manager James Davis said the town has led a fight against the banks, lobbying with other affected regions across Australia to call for a new inquiry.

“We’ve had a small victory in that sense,” Mr Davis told AAP.

“We see this as the start of an opportunity to have important matters heard that affect regional Australia, not just Junee.”

The Finance Sector Union has long been critical of the earlier taskforce, as its co-chairs were all coalition MPs and senators, with representatives from the major banks and the Australian Banking Association among its members.

National Secretary Julia Angrisano said the Senate inquiry should hear from a range of voices and take its time to understand the broad ramifications of closures.

“Banks are shutting branches across Australia leaving consumers and businesses without access to financial services,” she said in a statement.

“It is clear that cutting the branch network is being done to reduce costs and maintain profits.”

Many regional residents have called for the government to establish a public bank to help put them back in control of their finances and save local economies.

“If a public bank did exist, then the banks would naturally have to compete on service and come back into rural communities,” Mr Davis said.

“That way, everyone benefits.”

A banking association spokeswoman said its members are working to implement the taskforce’s recommendations and it would co-operate with the Senate committee.

Submissions to the Senate committee close on March 31 and it is due to report by the end of the year.

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