Australia’s most senior bank boss Anna Bligh defends mass closure of branches across the country

Stephanie Gardiner in Orange, NSW for AAP

As the Commonwealth Bank prepared to close its only bank in the NSW town of Junee, the rural community did not take the news aside.

The CBA said fewer than 100 people visited the branch each week, and it was no longer profitable as customers increasingly moved online, Junee Shire Council chief executive James Davis said.

That’s why city staff took it upon themselves to count the number of customers at the bank for four weeks, while the bank was operating at reduced hours ahead of the planned closure.

They registered up to 323 customers each week, about 26 customers per hour, or one every three minutes, Davis told a Senate inquiry in Junee on Thursday.

Junee fought back as the Commonwealth Bank (logo pictured) prepared to close the only bank in the NSW Riverina town, an inquiry has been told

“As you know, bank closures are having a disproportionate impact on rural Australia compared to our urban and metropolitan counterparts,” he said.

‘The big four banks are engaging in a form of social engineering by forcing their loyal customers into banking practices they do not want or have access to.

“The reality is that vulnerable and marginalized people in communities… cannot use or will never have access to the internet or a mobile phone.”

The Commonwealth Bank halted the closure of its Junee branch earlier this year and has since announced a three-year moratorium on further regional closures.

CEO Matt Comyn told the inquiry the bank was committed to having the highest market share of branches in Australia, but the costs of keeping them open and distributing cash were becoming unsustainable.

The research examines the impact of more than 600 regional closures across Australia since 2017, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

All four major banks say the vast majority of customers are using online banking as cash transactions decline dramatically.

But regional and rural communities across Australia have told the survey face-to-face banking is an essential service and part of their social fabric.

Farmers need trusted local bank managers to manage their complex operations, while access to cash keeps community services, local events and sports clubs afloat.

Junee Mayor Neil Smith said banks were ignoring the needs of Australians.

‘The municipality manages parks and gardens, swimming pools and sports fields and does not make any money from it; we choose to do this to make our place a better place to live,” Mr Smith said.

“So let’s shift the focus to a little less economic rationalism and a little more to the people: we all know how much these banks make, let’s spread the money around a little.”

NAB will close a branch in the nearby town of Temora this month, after losing four banks in 15 years.

“It is sad and frustrating that as a council and as a community we are working hard to build our county,” Mayor Rick Firman said.

‘Then you have large banks that say: ‘We actually don’t believe in you, your present and your future.’