Country towns banking on branch closure inquiry report

A simple letter written in impeccable cursive gets to the heart of frustrations over bank closures in rural Australia.

“Why do banks feel it justified to close down their services to the very people who have supported them for decades?” a Queenslander named Roslyn wrote.

Her note is one of 610 submissions to a Senate inquiry into the effects of rural bank closures that you have heard from the Big Four, farmers, councils and communities over the last year.

The committee is due to hand down its final report by Friday after 13 public hearings that largely focused on one question: do banks have a social responsibility to serve Australia’s country communities?

Academic Andy Schmulow from the University of Wollongong’s law school said the answer is clear given the federal government’s banking guarantees.

“Banks can do their business and make billions of dollars in profit… thanks to the fact the rest of society stands good their liabilities in times of crisis,” Dr Schmulow told AAP.

“If that doesn’t create a social contract, I don’t know what does.”

Regional Australia lost 798 branches in the five years to June 2023 with closures accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Australian Prudential Regulation Authority figures.

The banks say shutdowns are due to rapid uptake of digital banking and decline in face-to-face transactions at their branches.

But in areas where the last bank has closed, such as the remote mining town of Tom Price in WA, residents are left to travel 700km to the nearest branch.

One hearing was told of remote business owners having to stuff weeks of cash taking into a suitcase and flying to a city branch.

Farmers have lost valuable relationships with local bank managers and elderly people fear falling victim to scams, while community groups struggle to keep events afloat without a bank.

Banking is an essential service in regional communities just like health care and education, Mandy Cooper from Tasmanian Women in Agriculture told one hearing.

“This goes to the heart of community service obligations and community connections,” Ms Cooper said.

But the banking sector roundly rejected proposed obligations for banks to keep a certain number of branches open.

“You need to consider what you are trying to enshrine into Australia,” NAB’s then chief executive Ross McEwan told a hearing in Canberra in 2023.

“Because it sounds like though you’re enshrining a world that would never change, when it is changing dramatically.”

Dr Schmulow said closures had been a “festering sore” for two decades, with a 1999 inquiry finding banks are key to the social fabric in small towns.

The latest inquiry should give the banking regulator more power to demand branches stay open in areas of need, he said.

“It’s not like our banks are crying poor.”