Bank closure left customers with 700km round trip to nearest branch

The closure of bank branches in remote Australia has led to robberies and elder abuse, while Indigenous people have been denied access to ATMs, an inquiry has been told.

(AAP Image/James Ross)

(AAP Image/James Ross)

Westpac closed its branch at Tom Price in Western Australia’s Pilbara region in late 2022, leaving residents with a 700km round trip to the nearest bank in Karratha.

It was the last bank in the Shire of Ashburton, which covers 100,000sq km and is one of the largest local government areas in the world.

The shire’s president Audra Smith said a community meeting revealed the wide-ranging social and financial effects of losing access to face-to-face banking.

Indigenous people reported being refused access to privately operated ATMs, while digital banking left elderly residents open to financial abuse, Smith told a Senate inquiry into rural bank closures.

Others reported being robbed after having to stash cash in their homes.

Some said their home lending credit was dramatically cut, while workers were having to take a day off to drive to Karratha or fly to Perth to open new bank accounts.

“None of this would be considered acceptable if (it) occurred in metropolitan centres, in large regional cities,” Smith told the inquiry, sitting in Tom Price on Wednesday.

“So why is this inequality condoned and tolerated in small regions and remote communities?”

The shire’s chief executive Kenneth Donohoe said there was “no care factor” from Westpac when it closed its doors, giving the council a few weeks’ notice via email.

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The loss of a bank was particularly frustrating for a lucrative mining region that contributed 1.9 per cent of Australia’s GDP in 2021, Donohoe said.

“We’ve got community members wearing yellow shirts working in pits in … 50-plus degrees and contributing to the wealth of this nation and of our state. We cannot understand why our financial banking institutions are letting these communities down.

“If it’s a sign of the times and everything’s being relocated into the capital cities, where does that leave regional Australia?”

The long-running inquiry has been examining the rapid closure of banks across regional and rural Australia, where nearly 800 branches have shut since June 2017.

Leaders of all of the major banks have told the inquiry the uptake of digital banking and decline in cash transactions have made branches less viable.

Bankwest last week announced it will become a digital bank when it closes 45 branches across WA by October, while 15 regional sites will be converted to Commonwealth Bank operations.

The company’s announcement said 97 per cent of transactions were done online, with less than two per cent of its customers visiting branches regularly.

There was an average of 30 face-to-face transactions per day in its suburban branches and 15 in its regional locations, Bankwest said.

The inquiry is due to report back to parliament in May.


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