26 March 2001

Interview with Shane McLeod, PM, ABC


SUBJECT: ALP's Banking Policy

MARK COLVIN: Well who's gazumping whom on banking policy. The Bankers Association was planning a launch of new initiatives for low income and disabled customers later this week, but looked like being overtaken when Labor brought forward the launch of its banking policy.

Not to be outdone, the Bankers Association brought forward its launch to just a few hours later, promising among other things, that healthcare card holders will be able to get access to new fee-free safety net accounts.

Shane McLeod reports.

SHANE MCLEOD: It's lunch time in suburban Canberra, and it's no coincidence that Opposition Leader Kim Beazley has chosen the doorway of a soon to disappear bank branch to launch Labor's assault on bank fees and branch closures.

KIM BEAZLEY: The centre point of this policy are these things. Firstly, to restore banking services where they've been lost. Secondly, to provide for social security recipients a fee-free banking service. Thirdly, to provide for all Australians a no-frills product that is affordable for them. The banks made last year a profit of over nine billion dollars. The time has come for the ordinary Australian consumer to be properly served by such a profitable group.

SHANE MCLEOD: Labor's banking policy promotes the idea of a social charter. It's a voluntary agreement, but if the banks don't agree to it, Labor is threatening to force it upon them through legislation. The charter would require the banks to offer fee-free accounts for welfare recipients, better education and lending practices, and introduce a protocol for branch closures. Just two hours after the Labor launch in Canberra, down in Sydney, the Bankers Association was itself launching a new approach. Chief Executive David Bell.

DAVID BELL: So what the banks are saying today is that we're making a commitment as far as, as is commercially feasible, to make every endeavour to ensure that people have access to face-to-face services.

SHANE MCLEOD: The Bankers Association is selling the option of fee-free safety net accounts for healthcare card holders, and in conjunction with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, a new action plan for older and disabled customers. David Bell says the new initiatives are a response to significant community concern.

DAVID BELL: There's definitely been a sea change in Australian banking. We've heard the community and today we're announcing an action plan which recognises our social obligations. Now, as part of our action plan, we have a comprehensive package of three initiatives, and the first of those is guaranteed minimum standards for safety net basic bank accounts which will benefit up to five million Australians.

SHANE MCLEOD: How much political pressure has there been on banks to deliver something along these lines.

DAVID BELL: Um, I don't think today's announcement comes from political pressure. We've been working on this for up to a year. Um, it comes from the fact that we recognise our social obligations, and ah, we've heard the community, and we want to do something about it.

SHANE MCLEOD: The Bankers Association moved its launch from Wednesday to today, in a bid to keep its initiatives in the public eye. The almost synchronised launches had the Financial Services Minister, Joe Hockey, keen to side with the banks, using Parliamentary Question Time to attack the Opposition's policy.

JOE HOCKEY: Mr Speaker, I looked at the Labor Party policy today, and it says, one, basic account for disadvantaged, two, branch closure protocol, three, special services for disabled customers, then four, a review of the banking code. Mr Speaker, I think the word for that is plagiarism, plagiarism.

SHANE MCLEOD: But the Opposition is in turn accusing the Government of trying to claim credit for the Bankers Association's new initiatives. Opposition Financial Services spokesman, Steven Conroy.

STEVEN CONROY: Look Labor as you know, has been campaigning on the social charter for nearly two years. And we've delivered a comprehensive plan to see restoration of services, basic bank accounts ... I mean, the ABA have delivered on a lot of the issues that Labor's been campaigning on, and we welcome that. We think this is a great first step, but it's not the last step.

John Howard and Joe Hockey talk that banks have social obligations, but they're not listening, they won't act. We've now laid down the gauntlet, and we're saying here's our plan, if the banks won't come to the party, we are prepared to legislate community server, service obligations into various banking acts and legislation.

SHANE MCLEOD: David Bell rejects any suggestion that the Bankers Association has been gazumped by Labor's policy launch.

DAVID BELL: No, I don't think it's a case of being gazumped. Um, given that the Labor Party was announcing their policy today, ah we thought it appropriate to also announce our action plan. And that's the difference between what the ALP has announced today, and what the banks are doing. Theirs is a policy, ours is an action plan.

MARK COLVIN: David Bell, Chief Executive of the Australian Bankers Association, with Shane McLeod.