Minister Andrew Gee:
Well good morning everyone, thank you for joining us today here in Summer Street in Orange on a very important day because we have the Regional Banking Taskforce in town to hear first-hand about the devastating effect bank closures are having on our region.
Firstly, I would like to welcome the Assistant Treasurer and co-chair of the taskforce, Michael Sukkar. Also Senator Perin Davey who is also a co-chair of the taskforce. I want to thank them for coming to our area because it means a lot to folks out here. We know how devastating the bank branch closures have been for our area. I’ve been calling for many months for an inquiry into what’s happening in banking across Australia but particularly in our area. When the taskforce was established, I really wanted to make sure that they came out to our area and heard first-hand what was happening on the ground because it has been such a huge issue right across our region. The taskforce was established because country communities have been crying out for action and also attention to this very important issue. The effects of bank branch closures on country communities has been absolutely devastating.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic commenced, we know that over 300 branches have either closed or are planned to be closed, right across Australia. Those closures have occurred in small communities, medium sized communities but also larger communities. Most recently, we saw the Commonwealth Bank pull out of Molong and also Blayney and the combined shire does not now have a single, standalone bank branch which is just extraordinary. It is not just smaller communities. The ANZ for example has pulled out of Cowra. This is happening right across country Australia and even in some of the big cities. We need to shine a spotlight on it and we need to actually sit down and work out what is happening in country banking and how we make it sustainable and how we can do something to keep banking in country areas because it is so vitally important for country communities.
We know that when bank branches close it has a devastating effect particularly on senior Australians because many seniors don’t do internet banking. So in a way it does discriminate against senior Australians. A lot of those seniors also aren’t mobile so when branches close in smaller communities, people are forced to travel to larger communities. It has a huge effect on businesses as well because when businesses need to do their banking, they have to take their daily takings for example, into larger communities and there are security issues with that. Also, if we want to make sure that our country communities – particularly our smaller ones – continue to thrive, we need to make sure that we have banking services to sustain and fuel their growth. Unfortunately we’ve just seen too many bank closures in all of our areas. As I’ve said, the effects have been devastating. When the most recent closures occurred in Blayney and also Molong, the community was very upset about it and rightly upset and the community wants action. When these branches close, the effects can be absolutely devastating and our country communities have been crying out for action to be taken. We need to have a look longer term at the future at how we make country banking sustainable.
Unfortunately, all too often, we’ve seen the big banks advertise what great friends they are of Australians and country Australians and how they’ll stick with you through thick and thin but all too often, those words have not been matched by deeds. You’ve seen that with these recent closures and the community has really been outraged by it. With the most recent closure in Molong for example, we saw the tragic but almost comical situation where the bank setup a card table in the newsagency after the bank branch closed so that when customer went into the newsagency, there was a bank officer sitting at the card table to tell them that the bank had closed. That was the banks idea of a transition. You just can’t make this stuff up. You have stories like that and outrage and angst like that and the angst of customers who have been banking with a lot of these banks through the generations for years and years. A lot of them just feel like they’ve just been treated appallingly by the banks. It’s not right. Our country customers have been sticking by these banks, many through generations and they just don’t feel that that loyalty is being repaid when these banks close the branches. I’m really pleased that the taskforce is here to look at solutions. We do need to find solutions to this, we need to find answers to it. As part of this taskforce, the banks are going to be part of the conversation, Australia Post is going to be part of the conversation. I think they need to be part of the conversation because they are part of the problem so they need to be part of the solution. I think that’s a really important thing. We are focussed on positives but they also need to hear the negative effects and the devastating consequences these closures are having. It’s been going on for a long time and it’s not just this area. We’ve had closures all across the region and it’s time we shone a spotlight on it and it’s time we, as a nation, did something about it and that we committed ourselves to making country banking sustainable.
Minister Michael Sukkar:
Good morning everyone. Andrew, thank you so much for the invitation here to the Calare electorate, in Orange. It’s wonderful to be here also with Senator Perin Davey who is my co-chair of the Regional Banking Taskforce. Andrew Gee, Minister Gee, has been a very strong advocate for these issues in Canberra which is one of the reasons why we chose Orange as a logical first place to hold our second meeting of the taskforce. There will be – in the room upstairs today – nearly 4,500 organisations represented by the members of the taskforce considering the sorts of issues that Andrew spoke about. We’ll be hearing from representatives of local communities here in Orange and the broader region to understand some of the impacts at a local level. We wanted to make sure that this taskforce got on the road and actually headed into the communities that are affected by this. These are very complex issues and we know the changes in customer behaviour have driven some of these decisions particularly with the movement to online but we also know that having a physical presence in a regional area of the country is extraordinarily important for the morale and indeed the actual services that are provided by that bank branch.
Today we will be hearing from locals. They will be speaking directly to members of the banking taskforce. We’ve also asked Australians from far and wide to provide submissions to Treasury as part of this process. I must say we’ve already received many more submissions than we were expecting which I think indicates just how many issues there are in the country with these. We’re looking at practical solutions, alternative ways to provide services into these communities. Ways in which banks can service their customers in a way that we know that they should and that they want to and making that more viable for them.
We are very focussed on practical outcomes out of this taskforce. We’re very pleased with the engagement we’ve received thus far and today I’m hoping will be a really good opportunity to hear from senior representatives of your community here in Orange and I think more broadly. I think that will give us the sort of information that we need to encourage and make decisions that will ultimately inform the recommendations of the taskforce. Can I thank Senator Davey for her great advocacy in addition to Andrew Gee. I must say that the Nationals have been really adamant on ensuring we get a great outcome from the work that we’re doing. That will inform all of our thinking in this process and ultimately the recommendations that are made. Senator Davey, I might ask you as my co-chair to say a few words. Again, we’re very excited to be here in Orange. We thank the local community representatives for being involved and we’re looking forward to a fruitful discussion today.
Senator Perin Davey:
Thank you all for coming this morning. Great to be back in Orange. I love this town. I spent many summers here back when the pool was free so I really enjoy it here. I’m glad that we’ve brought the Regional Taskforce here. As Andrew said, we know what’s happened in the Cabonne Shire, the Blayney Shire, we know that banks have been closed down in this area. We have heard – through submissions – the impacts and the flow-on impacts, importantly, for the small towns that are losing their branches. Andrew is quite right – branches are closing in urban areas too but the impact is not as great. In a small town when the bank closes, if a business needs to travel to bank their takings or to get a float, they will then drive the 20 to 50 km to the closest branch. They’ll get their cash – we’re still a cash society – they’ll get a coffee, they’ll buy lunch, they’ll do the groceries. That’s all money that has left their local town and gone to the next town. We’ve heard about these impacts, we know what the impacts are.
What we’re now focussing on is ‘what do we do about it?’ How do we provide those services that a branch provides in a town where a branch structure is no longer viable? So we’re looking at alternatives and as Andrew said, we’ve got the banks around the table because they’re the ones closing the branches so they need to be part of the solution. Bank@Post is part of the solution. We’ve got the Customer Owned Banking Association because they’re part of the solution. There are alternatives, we’ve got to focus on how we structure our society to make sure that services are put back into those towns and our regions can continue to be a cash society, the footy club can get their float for the weekend game so they can fundraise. Businesses can do their business banking and importantly, people can go somewhere to get advice because that’s one of the key things that a bank branch does. They provide a personal service, they provide advice, they are part of the structure of our communities. I’m very glad that we’ve setup this taskforce. I think the Treasurer for listening to us, for listening to Andrew – who really did push this cause – and establishing the taskforce. I look forward to this as our second meeting. We’ve got several meetings setup and each time we’re getting closer to finding a solution so I look forward to working with all the organisations. As the Minister said, nearly 4,500 organisations are represented in that room upstairs so I look forward to taking this next step and working towards solutions. On that note, any questions?
Is one of the solutions investing in local banks like this one to fill that gap in those small towns?
The reality is we don’t want to pre-empt the solutions at this point in time but there are clearly models that have been adopted in other parts of the world and indeed in some parts of Australia that try to ensure that you have a multitude of banks providing simultaneous services. There could be a role for some level of support be it at a local, state or federal level as well and stacking that support on top of each other takes the load off any one level of government but also means you can get the ultimate outcome. But we are pretty keen not to try and pre-empt it too much. In fleshing out the problems with the banks, Senator Davey and I are very keen to get absolute buy-in from the banks. I think that’s the only long-term, sustainable solution. The way to do that is for Senator Davey and I and indeed Minister Gee, not to dictate to them what the solutions are. I think in this process, we’re highlighting very clearly what the problems are, what the community expectation is and allowing the banks to draw their conclusions on what the solutions should be. But if necessary, we will push them in whichever direction they need to go.
Is there any pressure being put on the major banks here?
I think there’s a lot of pressure being put on them. I congratulate and thank the banks for being involved but I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is a process that has probably assured they’re a little but out of their comfort zone. That’s healthy and that’s what the purpose of the taskforce is. I think they would say that this wasn’t their idea, this was our idea. So I think they’re constructively engaging with the taskforce, we’re grateful to them for that. But would it have been their decision and their choice? I doubt it.
How forthcoming have they been so far in coming to the table with some potential solutions?
Thus far they’ve been very co-operative. We’re not at the stage yet where we’ve got wholesale provision of solutions from the banks. I think at this point we’re identifying the practical problems and some of the broader sentiment. Minister Gee and Senator Davey spoke quite rightly about the practical impacts on a community, the practical advice that you need from your bank and that relationship you have with a bank manager, let alone the day to day things you might do. Your floats, the takings of a business. There’s also a broader question around sentiment and confidence in our regions and in country towns and regional communities. There’s a great vote of confidence in a local community, that psychological boost I suppose and indeed the problems created by a closure mean that I think it’s a broader question even than just around sentiment and confidence and backing our regions. One thing that Minister Gee and Senator Davey and the Nats do every single day is back our local communities. We want to be encouraging, indeed the Coalition Government wants to encourage banks to do the same.
What’s the process from here after this meeting? What are the timelines and how long until the recommendations will be made?
That’s a very good question. We’ll have today’s meeting, we’ve got another meeting planned for January in another regional community. We’re calling for submissions and I would say to everybody in the regions that you can make submissions online or via post to Treasury. If you basically just Google it you can find where you can make those submissions. We’ve already received many. We will then need some time to digest all those submissions because one thing with this process is we do want to take in those submissions to ensure that they inform the final recommendations.
Sometime after then, as soon as we possibly can, we will come forward with our views on what needs to be done. We don’t want this to be a drawn out talk feast but at the same time we want to appropriately ensure we gather the information we need. So we’ll be as fast as we possibly can and I’d encourage everybody, to get your submissions in to the taskforce and we’ll consider them as expeditiously as possible.
I just want to say one more thing just about the one issue that has arisen in the discussions with the big banks pending closures. So whenever the big banks have closed branches in our region, one of the questions that I have put to them is ‘are you still making profits from this region’? Is this area that you’re closing the branch in still profitable for the bank? And the reality is that this region is prosperous and that even in these locations where bank branches are closing, the banks are still making profits. The only reason these branches are closing is because the banks can make more profits by closing them, by cutting back face to face banking, by driving people online. That’s one of the reasons that these branches are closing. It’s so that the big banks can make more profits. We’ve had this discussion with them time and again and it’s something that they have not addressed. But that’s the cold, hard truth of what is happening. They are closing these branches simply because they can make more money and make more profit. If you look at the profits that they’re making at the moment, look at their stock prices. That’s what’s happening out there and that’s the conversation that we’ve been trying to have with these big banks. The people and the communities that are paying for it are country communities all around our region and all around country Australia and that’s the cold, hard truth.