Desperate locals in a low-income part of regional Victoria have detailed how the mass closure of bank branches in their area has negatively impacted their community.
A Senate inquiry into regional and rural bank closures was held in Sale, east of Melbourne, on Thursday where local government officials and banking executives unpacked how the move to digital banking has impacted small communities.
More than 300 bank branches closed across Australia in the last financial year, with 95 of those in regional areas.
Chief executive of East Gippsland Shire Council Anthony Basford said the region has inconsistent internet signal, which makes the pivot to online banking difficult for some locals.
“Regional Australians are not FIFO residents; we live here and we thrive here and we urge banks to reciprocate and invest in us and our regions as well,” he said.
“(Internet) is very intermittent; one of the things we put in the submission is that any internet condition is subject to power outage.”
The median household income in East Gippsland is $1,110, according to the 2021 Census, compared to the national average of $1,746.
Chief Executive of Latrobe City Council Steven Piasente said the closure of brick and mortar banks was a significant hindrance to small business in his community.
Senator Matt Canavan is chairing the Senate inquiry. Picture: NewsWire / Monique Harmer
“The loss of banks in Latrobe obviously impacts on our businesses and community,” he said.
“The main concerns that have been shared with us via our business community have been their inability to obtain cash to support their business operations, so to access staff during the day to talk about business banking needs.
“Small businesses in Morwell and Moe were significantly impacted by Covid; the inability to undertake banking locally further compounded some of their challenges.”
Mr Piasente went on to say many of the area’s locals are older or don’t use the internet, which means their woes aren’t widely heard.
“(A) primary area of concern for them is how they’ll actually gain cash for their businesses and undertake banking,” he said.
“The community is obviously very disappointed; you don’t necessarily hear from those who are disproportionably impacted, in a loud way.
“Those segments of the community don’t have a particularly loud voice, especially those who don’t use internet services.”
Westpac chief customer engagement officer Ross Miller said while millions of customers were happy to make the switch online, for others, a branch visit is “necessary”.
“For a small minority, going into a bank branch is still preferred and necessary,’’ he said.
“This means while there are fewer people using our branches, the absence of one is to have a significant impact on some.”
More than 300 bank branches have closed in Australia over the past financial year.
However, Mr Miller said while Westpac has a “rigorous process to change any operations”, there were few plans in place to actually visit towns impacted by branches closures.
Committee chair Senator Matt Canavan grilled the executive about the bank not “talking to locals until after the decision to close branch is made”.
“You make billions of dollars in profits a year – why can’t you travel to country towns and talk to them about closures?” Mr Canavan asked.
“Senator, now that we have postponed them, we can take the time to engage with councils,” Mr Miller replied.
“We’re reviewing each of those branches during the postponement.”
There has been a 30 per cent drop in the number of bank branches in Australia over the past five years, with a third of those impacted situated in regional and remote areas.
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