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Tuesday, 8 December 1998
Page: 1646

Mr SWAN (10:25 PM) —It is about time the banks got the message that Australians will not cop mergers between the big four banks. Today, yet again, the National Australian Bank is telling the Howard government to do as they are told. Given its close relationship with the government, it must be optimistic of succeeding.

What Australians have seen from the banks in recent years is savage increases in fees and charges. The announcement last week of the Commonwealth Bank to slug its customers with another round of increased fees and charges hurts those in our community who can least afford it. This announcement, coupled with the drop in official interest rates, will most certainly spark a new round of fee hikes by the major banks as they seek to bolster their profit margins on the backs of those who can least afford it. The prime targets are Australia's families and senior citizens.

The electorate of Lilley, which I represent, has one of the highest proportions of people over 65 in Australia. It is these people, our senior citizens, who stand out as being the biggest losers from the seemingly endless waves of fee increases and bank closures. In my local area, the last 12 months alone has seen closures in the suburbs of Zillmere, Kedron, Stafford, Geebung and Chermside—seven branches in total. The residents of these communities have rallied, petitioned and protested. The banks, however, have chosen not to listen to their loyal customers—people like Bill Vowles from Kedron, Jim Frielich from Zillmere, Helena Owlles and Jo Boquet from Kedron State School and Steve Avient from Zillmere.

By any objective analysis, the fee structures of the big banks are targeted at those who are on low incomes, or those who have no choice but to outlay all their money payday to payday. Minimum balance fees hurt struggling families and pensioners month after month, and outrageous over-the-counter transaction fees—up to $6 per withdrawal—directly target the elderly who have difficulty in dealing with high technology ATMs and EFTPOS. Clearly the banks' policies are discriminatory. The banks' principle is the lower your income the higher your fees; the higher the income the lower your fees. The banks have totally lost touch with the needs of the community. It is a matter of balance, and at the moment the banks are way out of wack. The banks have all but lost that sense of community and mutual obligation that pervades a decent and caring society.

The banks talk about the importance of customer service and members of the government mindlessly chant the benefits of `red hot competition' and market forces, but the reality is that it all comes to naught unless you are big business or have large amounts of personal wealth. The public believe that being competitive is about bringing charges down, not clubbing customers over the head. The average banking customer is being treated like they don't matter. Perhaps that is good enough for the coalition government, as its action—or rather inaction—over its last term demonstrates. The Prime Minister and Treasurer have allowed the banks absolute freedom to raise billions of dollars in fees and charges by raiding the savings of Australia's families and elderly. They have sat on their hands as the banks close hundreds of branches and put our nation's elderly on the rack, stretching their budgets to the limit under the weight of unfair fees and charges. The government has allowed this to happen though its inaction and absolute belief in the market's ability to find just outcomes for all. This government's blind ideology has failed Australia's elderly and families miserably.

If it were concerned about unfair fees and charges, the government would work with the banks, as the last Labor government did, to establish basic banking accounts—accounts with at least one fee—free over-the-counter transaction per week, no minimum balance charges and no account keeping fees. It would also direct the ACCC to formally monitor bank fees and charges and report regularly in consumers' interests. Finally, the government should not hesitate to intervene if the banks continue to act unreasonably. I urge customers who are upset by the actions of their bank not to take out their frustration on the staff. Australia does need a competitive banking industry. It needs an industry which is not highly concentrated, one that is competitive and one that works in the interests of all consumers.

Unfortunately, I feel this government does not have the spine to act in the best interests of the wider community, so the community must stand up and tell this government not to allow the NAB to call in its debt and for the government to allow the mergers to proceed. We need a government that is interested in outcomes for people, not in blind ideology. I urge this House to support action to stop the banks from merging and to tell the banks to come into line with community expectations.