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Breach of disabled access law leaves Banking Association lost for words

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The Carnamah post office lacks access for the disabled, yet after the closure of the Westpac bank, its customers are being diverted here (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Australian Banking Association is refusing to answer questions over a breach of the Code of Practice pertaining to access for the disabled, writes Dale Webster.

TODAY WE LEARNED three things: the Banking Code of Practice isn’t worth the paper it is written on; the format for emailing Westpac executives directly; and that Anna Bligh’s Australian Banking Association will only engage with journalists who give them an easy run.

Despite being reported across Australia last week as agreeing to a parliamentary request to pause all bank closures while an inquiry examines, among other things, the welfare impacts of removing banks from communities, Westpac closed branches at Hay, Moree, Katherine and Carnamah today.

The closure at Carnamah in Western Australia went ahead despite the entire Westpac executive, including head of legal, Shannon Finch, being in possession of information that the post office, where customers were being directed to for basic banking transactions as an alternative to branch service, does not have a disability ramp and is therefore inaccessible to certain members of the community.

The lack of disability access at the post office is no small issue and the pausing of a branch closure due to this is not without precedent, with the closure of the Commonwealth Bank in Junee initially postponed from December to March for this reason.

The Westpac executive was also sent the submission made by the chairman of the Banking Code Compliance Committee, Ian Govey, to the Regional Banking Taskforce that raised concerns over compliance issues related to part four of the code, which covers inclusion, accessibility and vulnerability.

Govey also highlighted that post offices providing Bank@post services should also be meeting the standards set out in the code.

This wasn’t the first time Westpac had been informed of the breach.

Chief executive of the Shire of Carnamah, Rob Paull, had previously written to the Westpac board and Westpac CEO, Peter King, twice and they didn’t even have the grace to reply.

For this alone, the bank well deserves its mention in the West Australian Parliament yesterday by the Leader of the Opposition, Shane Love:

This bank closure will leave six shires, covering 23,000 square kilometres, with no bank whatsoever. Residents from Carnamah will have to make a costly 250-kilometre round trip to either Moora or Dongara, highlighting the bank’s total disregard for the Banking Code of Practice, which talks about banks being accessible and inclusive, and servicing customers in remote and regional areas.

 

This follows Westpac’s closure of its Wongan Hills branch last December, ending a 110-year history of this bank in the town. The closure of Westpac in Wongan Hills last year and ANZ Bank in 2021 leaves no other bank in that town, forcing locals to drive hundreds of kilometres to access face-to-face banking. The Regional Banking Taskforce, which reported in October 2022, recommended that banks establish a process for conducting and publishing regional branch closure impact assessments by mid-2023.

 

No such assessment was carried out in Carnamah or Wongan Hills. Perhaps this recommendation has prompted the recent rush of regional bank closures nationally. I want to commend local community members who, in both cases, were vocal in their opposition to the branch closures. The Shire of Carnamah has left no stone unturned in highlighting the detrimental impact of Westpac’s withdrawal. The Australian Banking Association says customers remain at the centre of all that banks do. Knowing that Westpac did not engage or consult with the Carnamah community over the closure of this branch, I beg to differ.

It’s pretty damning stuff, which brings us to the question: How on Earth are they getting away with it?

Enter the Australian Banking Association (ABA).

The ABA is adamant the Banking Code of Practice is legally enforceable.

This morning, ABA media was sent details of the Carnamah issue and two questions from The Regional with a COB deadline:

  • Could you please set out the pathway by which the code can be enforced?

  • Does the ABA, if in possession of knowledge that the code is to be breached, have an actual or moral role in preventing that breach from occurring?

No response was provided.

It's not the first time — the ABA still hasn't responded to questions on the senate request for a bank closure moratorium.

I challenge the ABA to come out from the rock it is hiding under and explain how a little council like the Shire of Carnamah – perfectly within its rights to challenge Westpac on a breach of part four of the code – can have the matter heard by an independent arbitrator, which is what most fair-minded people would interpret as being “legally enforceable”.

Even if there is a pathway of sorts, the code and bank terms and conditions that incorporate it are contracts that have been written to the benefit of only one signatory.

They are so difficult to challenge, it is beyond the financial reach and mental endurance of mostly all who have a case for justice against the banks.

The whole code – including the branch closure protocol – needs throwing out and starting again.

Another job for the senators.

Submissions close 31 March: Regional Banking Inquiry.

Dale Webster is an inaugural recipient of a Walkley Foundation Grant for Freelance Journalism on Regional Australia. She publishes independently through her own title, 'The Regional'. You can follow Dale on Twitter @TheRegional_au.

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