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Monday, 26 March 2001
Page: 25612

Ms ELLIS (4:49 PM) —I rise to talk in the grievance debate today about banks—and what a thing to grieve over! We have witnessed increasingly arrogant behaviour from the banks in this country over recent times. We have seen closures of banks occur with regularity. We have seen fee increases as almost the norm and probably never with any acceptable excuse or explanation to the customer base they are affecting. Within my electorate in recent times, three branches have closed or are due to close. The Westpac branch at Curtin closed in April last year. That was followed by the Commonwealth branch at Wanniassa in January 2001 and the National Australia branch at Phillip will be closing in May. I will briefly outline what happened in each of these cases.

On 4 April last year I received a letter from Westpac's regional manager, ACT and southeast New South Wales region, telling me that they were not going to close a branch—and this is what I found very cute—that they were going to amalgamate the Curtin and Woden branches. I call that a closure but they choose to call it an amalgamation. The letter came to me dated 4 April and the closure, or amalgamation, occurred on 28 April, just over three weeks later. In the letter they said, amongst other things:

I can assure you that this decision to amalgamate the Curtin and Woden branches was only taken after detailed analysis of such key business issues as:

Changes in retail shopping patterns in the area.

The way in which Curtin branch customers carry out their banking.

The overall level of customer usage of the Curtin branch.

I am sure you would recognise that the information considered in this analysis is commercial-in-confidence.

In other words, it is all a top-secret to them as to how they came to the decision to close the Curtin branch and move their business into Woden. I disregard the word amalgamation, I think it is very cheeky. That is what happened in relation to the Curtin branch of Westpac. I contacted the business sector surrounding that branch in the retail area of Curtin and found that a number of them were going to close their business with Westpac and move to the Commonwealth, a branch of which still existed at the Curtin shops at the time, and I believe it still does.

The next closure was the Commonwealth branch at Wanniassa. I received a letter from their regional manager, sales and service, dated 1 December 2000, to tell me that on 12 January 2001, the Commonwealth's Wanniassa branch would cease operations. They said:

The decision to close this branch was taken only after a thorough investigation of many factors, including both current and future business trends, customer usage and the alternative services.

One of the alternative services they told their customers to go to was the Post Office, without realising that the Post Office had also closed, but that is another issue. I took them to task and wrote to them outlining my concerns on behalf of my constituency. They wrote back and said:

The decision to close this branch was taken only after a thorough investigation of all factors affecting the Commonwealth Bank's business.

I find that a notable comment because it talks about the Commonwealth Bank's business but does not mention its customers. Further down, the letter says:

Closure of any branch is contemplated only where business levels have not met our expectations to the extent that a difficult decision had to be made.

Then there is the very telling sentence—

It is not normal practice to involve local business or community consultation about the decision to close a branch.

Thank you very much. No wonder they are only considering factors affecting the Commonwealth Bank's business because they admit to me that they do not do anything in relation to consultation with local business or local community people. They also say:

People who still use passbooks for over-the-counter withdraws may be impacted by the branch closure...The pricing of our product range is geared to offer substantial savings to our customers who use card based electronic mechanisms and there is genuine financial gain and convenience for our customers.

They also say that they understand that it will unfortunately deprive some of their customers of a convenience. It certainly does. It certainly also indicates to me the absolute manipulation by the banks of the marketplace. In other words, if you want to sell more of one product and less of another, you gear your fees and costs accordingly and you make sure that the one that you want to get rid of is the one that is most difficult for the customer to maintain. And that is exactly what that bank has indicated it does, as I think others do as well, by saying, `Look, if they get rid of their passbooks, we won't need that branch. So we'll do that by making our other services a little bit cheaper for them.' But that is without any regard for the needs of the customers concerned.

The third closure that we are facing now is the National Australia Bank, which tells us that they are going to be closing their Phillip South branch on 23 May. They say that `due to a decline in customer traffic and over-the-counter transactions' they are deciding to close that branch. When I rang the person suggested in that letter and asked for more details—as I was encouraged to do—a funny thing occurred. The bank officer I spoke to said, `Look, whenever I visit that branch on behalf of the bank it is virtually empty—nobody there.' They then went on to say, however, that the four staff who were in that branch would probably be located elsewhere but the bank was going to employ five more people at the levels of II, II and I in three close-by branches to handle the customer overflow from the closure of Phillip. Now, you cannot have it both ways—you cannot have an empty bank and, at the same time, confess that you have to employ people in other branches in the area to handle the overflow of that closure. It is terribly arrogant and, I think, unbelievably contradictory.

I believe the attitude of the banks has got to the point where the community is demanding something be done. My community has made it very clear to me at every opportunity they have that the banks must learn again to respect the various needs of their customers, to value each one of them, regardless of their economic or social situation, and to ensure that they judge their continuing success not only by the margin of their huge profits but also by the service to and consideration of each of their customers. I do not for one moment say that banks should not make a profit—they are happy to—but they cannot do it at the cost to these other customers.

I am very pleased today to see the release of the Labor Party policy for better banking because that policy has the very things that I have been talking about. It has the social charter of community obligations for banks which will be legally binding on those banks. If the banks refuse to negotiate that acceptable social charter, a Labor government will impose a charter through legislation. That charter will be developed in close consultation with the banking industry, consumers, pension allowance recipients, community groups, representatives of rural and regional Australia, and other interest groups. The social charter will be legally enforceable, as any contract is. We do not believe that a social charter has any point at all unless it is absolutely enforceable.

In relation to the three local branch closures that we have seen in recent times in my electorate, it is interesting to see in our policy platform that where a bank proposes closing a branch, Labor will ensure that communities are consulted. So the bank that said that they do not talk to anybody about it and that their surveys are commercial-in-confidence will have to have a new approach to the way they relate to their client base and their community, and I will be very pleased to see that. We also say in our policy that a notice period of six months will be required for each branch closure to allow communities to find alternatives. My community in Tuggeranong, where the Wanniassa branch of the Commonwealth closed, are currently attempting to get up a community bank—and good on them because if these banks will not service that community maybe a community bank will.

The other thing in our platform that I am pleased to see is that banks will be required to consult with communities prior to a bank closure, and so they should. So a three-week notice from the Westpac bank about the closure of the Curtin branch last year will no longer be able to happen. And it means that the Commonwealth, the NAB—and, in fact, the whole lot of them—are going to have to come to grips with the fact that a Labor government, when we are in power, will simply not allow to happen what has been happening in the past—an absolute and total cheap disregard for those community customers out there, who are very important individuals, who see a great value in their communication with their bank and who have a history of supporting those banks in the past. I applaud that policy released today. (Time expired)