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Monday, 3 April 2000
Page: 15061

Ms JANN McFARLANE (8:05 PM) —In a sense I feel it is a shame that I find reason to rise to my feet to take part in today's grievance debate. I do not want to be in a position to have a grievance; it would be nice to report that all was fine for the people of my electorate of Stirling in Western Australia. But today I must again raise the issue of banks and customer service. It is not the first time I have had cause to raise this issue in the House. Every time I go into the community and say the word `bank', it opens a whole can of worms.

As the House knows, I recently held a forum in the suburb of Tuart Hill to discuss issues such as bank service, community banking, electronic banking and safety. At the forum were several of my colleagues who, as part of the ALP's social policy and community development caucus committee, were visiting WA. Tuart Hill people are about to lose one of the two banks they have in that suburb. The Challenge Bank is to close this month, making it the second Challenge Bank in six months to close in my electorate. Attending my forum were the residents of Tuart Hill, many of whom are older Australians who remember a different era of bank service. They were angry, frustrated and upset. They felt they were being treated as though they did not matter—as though their money were of no consequence to the bank.

The forum heard from my colleague the member for Grayndler, who not only has a background in economics but also sat on the recent inquiry into the banking system. He made a point which has stayed with me very clearly and one which very powerfully puts the debate into perspective: it is not that these suburban bank branches are not profitable; it is that they are not profitable enough. Deregulation was designed to enhance competition in the whole marketplace, but what we are seeing is the big four competing in only a very specific part of the marketplace—the top three per cent of income earners. The rest of us are not really profitable enough to target. Anyone who has had the letter recently about the new $20 penalty fee for overdrawn accounts or been told they have to keep a $5,000 balance in their account or face a penalty will know what it feels like to not be part of the bank's small circle of valued clients.

Reluctantly, I could cop this disinterested approach because I am, as a rule, able to fight my own battles. With 25 years experience in community work advocating for people and groups I am well able to take up with my bank and its branches my concerns about service losses, fee levels and lack of staff. But I received a phone call and a fax last week that deeply upset me all over again. I heard from Sister Gilhooley from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd who does a lot of pastoral care work in the north-eastern part of my electorate, including the suburbs of Balga, Mirrabooka and Westminster. Sister Gilhooley works with people who do not have their own means of transport, have limited income and often have limited literacy and numeracy.

It is her experience that in the past three years the banks have systematically withdrawn their services to the people in these suburbs. There is now no longer a single bank building in any of these three suburbs of Westminster, Balga and Mirrabooka. This is despite the fact that Mirrabooka is a major and regional shopping centre and is a central transit zone. Of course there are lots of automatic teller machines, just no human tellers for people to take their problems to, to explain statements that make no sense, to ask how they go about transferring money between accounts or to pay that fool's ransom you need to outlay to organise a bank cheque. There are only lots of holes in the wall with grubby buttons and hard to read screens that mostly work—not always—and which do not have guaranteed opening hours, unlike a branch. These three suburbs have over 20,000 people living within them. Sure they are not rich people—certainly they are not the top three per cent I have spoken of—but they are decent, honest members of the community who ask for nothing more than a fair go.

Sister Gilhooley tells me that when her branch of the Commonwealth Bank closed about two years ago she was told to use the new Malaga branch—a half hour journey each way, not to mention the time spent in the queue. The other bank in the area is two suburbs away in Nollamara. It includes an ATM. But many people have told me that they prefer not to use the ATM because they do not feel safe in the area. I am not saying that it is a bad area, but people's perception of their safety is what is important here. They do not perceive themselves as safe standing on the pavement close to a busy street taking cash from the ATM. Their safety concern is one I hear often. Mothers with children worry about busy streets and unrestrained youngsters; older people worry about being vulnerable to attack while their backs are turned.

Fear of personal security at ATMs is not isolated to a small group of people; it is a community issue. It is particularly a suburban issue. It is the suburbs and the regions that are losing these small local branches to the big metropolitan centres and, if they are lucky, are left with an ATM. But it is precisely these customers who are most vulnerable because they are standing on a street kerb taking out their money; they are not in the middle of a big shopping centre with security guards.

When the Doubleview branch of the Challenge Bank closed, their customers went to the Innaloo shopping centre branch. After one of my staff spent 25 minutes in the huge queue at the Innaloo branch trying to bank a tax cheque she asked why Doubleview had closed. Security was one of the answers. Fair enough, except they did leave an ATM behind. So whose security is being sacrificed? I would be the last person to want to put tellers at risk. After years in community services I know how hold-ups can cause bank staff enormous and ongoing distress. I do not want that, but nor do I want the security of customers seen as a secondary and unimportant issue.

So it appears to me that, if you want to use a bank and you live in the north-eastern portion of my electorate, you have to have a car because you have an across suburbs drive to get to a bank branch. But, as Sister Gilhooley so poignantly reminded me, so many of the true battlers do not have the luxury of car ownership nor do their friends or family. And if they can afford a car, they cannot always afford petrol at 90c plus a litre every time the tank needs filling. So what do you do if you do not have transport? Simple: as the helpful bank customer service people tell me when I ask, `Use B-Pay or online banking.' So that means you need a phone connected at home or a computer with Internet access—luxuries that many people living in Stirling cannot afford. For those of you who immediately thought about public phones, shame on you. Obviously you have not tried to find an unsmashed public phone box near your house lately—just another example of Telstra's appalling response to its service obligations.

I will spare the House a further monologue of the depth of my despair on this issue. It hurts me because it exemplifies the core battle of the little person, the honest battler in our society being beaten into submission by the bureaucracy—in this case, the big four globally competitive, massively profitable banks. While the big four banks often treat their customers with disrespect by closing branches, letting them wait in long queues and charging them extra for face to face transactions, they are still happy to collect all the fees and charges they can off the various accounts.

As we know, these banks record large profits. I hope the shareholders are very happy. I make this small plea today to precisely that group of people—the bank shareholders. I remind you that you now have a powerful voice. As a shareholder you can demand that your bank show commitment to genuine customer service to all customers. You can remind shareholder meetings, busy talking about the bottom line, that banking is a people business and it is people who make it profitable. It is time shareholders joined forces with other members of the community to tell the decision makers that they do not want increased dividends at the cost of customer service. There needs to be a balance. CEOs and boards need to be told that shareholders are sick of being used as the excuse or justification for all their decisions.

In the meantime, this is my pledge. I will continue to use the parliament and other forums and my position as a parliamentarian to give people a voice on this issue. I will continue to raise the issue in the community and work with the community to seek a change of attitude within the corporate sector and society at large. I will support the residents, small business, community groups and other organisations that are now calling for the setting up of a community bank in Stirling—a call arising from people's despair at feeling abandoned by the big four banks. I will be holding a banking forum at the Balga Autumn Centre, Campberwell Road, Balga, on 2 May at 7.30 p.m. Margaret Quirk, who is a leading campaigner for the rights of the disadvantaged, will chair this forum. Invitations will be sent out to all residents in Westminster, Mirrabooka, Balga and Girrawheen—residents who have been severely affected by these bank closures. I expect it will be a long fight to restore the rights of the consumers in the banking sector, but it will be worth while.