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Thursday, 25 June 1998
Page: 5495

Mrs ELSON (10:42 AM) —Today I raise an issue that is constantly being brought to my attention by my constituents in the electorate of Forde—namely, the appalling behaviour and standard of customer service that is offered in our major banks. I am not an advocate of simply turning back the clock. I fully realise that deregulation of our banking sector is necessary to ensure that our economy keeps pace with international changes and advantages. The reality is that Australia is part of the global economy and if we want to increase or even maintain our substantial export earnings—and it must be remembered that, as a nation, we export much more than what we import—we cannot just turn our back on the rest of the world. Some people would like to, but that is a simplistic idea that would cost hundreds of thousands of Australians jobs and financially cripple regional and rural Australians who produce most of our exports.

I am, however, deeply concerned that deregulation of the banking system has gone too far. We are seeing a situation where shareholders' interests are all-important. I fully understand that banks are businesses, not charitable institutions. But the balance has simply been tipped too far. We are seeing record profits at a time when more and more people are dissatisfied with the products and services being offered by banks. I am, of course, talking in general terms, and there are always exceptions to the rule. But I have a file of different instances where local residents have raised serious concerns about the way they have been treated by their banks. I am sure that other honourable members here have heard of similar cases.

We have all seen instances of banks taking a hard line, often even when it makes little economic sense, foreclosing on home or business loans for well below market value and shattering the lives of many people involved—good people who have a genuine commitment to repaying their loans but may have temporarily fallen on difficult times. It would take all night for me to explain each case in detail. I believe it is time that banks took a good hard look at their approach and at community expectations, because the community expects much better—and they have the right to.

I simply wanted to highlight one case in point today. It is not an individual instance, but it certainly is indicative of the approach being taken. Two weeks ago, on 11 June 1998, the ANZ Bank announced it was increasing interest rates on fixed home loans, reacting to speculation. That was all it was, that the Reserve Bank may—and I stress may—increase official interest rates. The next day, despite the firm view expressed by the Treasurer (Mr Costello) that there was no need to take such action, the Commonwealth Bank, Westpac and Colonial all put up their fixed rates, most by about 0.5 per cent.

As we know, the Reserve Bank have not put up official interest rates. The temporary pressure on the Australian dollar—caused only by our geography, I might add—has eased. The Reserve Bank have said that they do not see any need to increase interest rates and are committed to maintaining low interest rates, as is our policy. I commend the Treasurer on achieving such low interest rates. It makes a world of difference to the many families in Forde who are saving $330 a month, on average, or are going to own their own home many years sooner.

But the question these people, and all Australians, have every right to ask is: when are the banks going to bring their fixed rates back down? Why is it that it takes weeks, sometimes even months, for the banks to pass on a decrease in official rates, but when there is even a little speculation about an increase, they rush in and jack them up? It is indicative of their approach. It is why we saw credit card rates stay at ridiculously high levels for so long. It is no doubt why they are all posting huge profits. But I think we have all got to stop and ask ourselves: is this really a fair cop? Is it really what we want from our banks? It is time for consumers to say enough is enough and to demand better from their banks.

It would be worth while if the media scrutinised the actions of the banks a little more closely. If a small business acts in a way that is unfair and impacts harshly on people's lives, it gets jumped on. But it is happening all the time, on a daily basis, with the banks. The papers all had the headlines two weeks ago `Banks put up interest rates'. Why don't they run the headlines now and ask: why haven't the banks put those rates back down?

The Treasurer was absolutely right when he said that there was no need for the banks to overreact as they did and put rates up. I call on the banks to show a little less enthusiasm when it comes to making decisions that will cost the average Australian, and a lot less reluctance to pass on the financial benefits of this government's very sound and secure economic management.

I would like to take the 17 seconds that I have left to talk about another irresponsible action, and that is by Peter Weir in his satire piece in yesterday's Courier-Mail, `The Last Supper'. He brings not only our profession down but his own profession. There are some really good journalists out there, and to write rubbish like this is indicative of his attitude. (Time expired)