Business Analysis

The forces behind Australia's regional bank closures

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Protestors in Junee, NSW (Screenshot via YouTube)

The refusal of major banks to answer questions on the closure of regional branches has called into question the legitimacy of the think tanks that team up with them, Dale Webster writes.

THE COMMONWEALTH BANK has marked the Sunshine Coast again being named the fastest-growing regional migration destination in Australia by closing a branch in one of the area’s busiest suburbs.

The closure at Buderim, which grew by more than 2000 to a population of 31,000 people between the last two census surveys, occurred the same day as the bank teamed with the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) to release the quarterly figures from their Regional Movers Index.

It was the last major bank branch – bar a NAB at Nambour – in the entire inland Sunshine Coast region and followed a senate inquiry just a week earlier finding that banking is an essential service and recommending government policy be developed to protect access to both banks and cash. 

At a media event to release the latest Regional Movers Index data, Commonwealth Bank representative Paul Fowler and RAI chief executive Liz Ritchie were asked three times why the branch was closing the same day as the Sunshine Coast was being celebrated as a rapidly growing centre.

The question was ignored in preference to another addressing a previous issue the bank had already issued a response to after it was called out during the senate inquiry for closing regional banks during a moratorium on regional closures.

In the crosshairs at that time was its branch at Nerang on the Gold Coast, another of the top five Regional Movers Index’s top destinations.

The Commonwealth Bank said then that the decision was based on a classification system used by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) which groups the major regional cities and coastal regions with the capitals — but it had nothing to say on the contradictions thrown up by classifying the Gold Coast as regional in its own migration data published in collaboration with the RAI.

The RAI was asked to comment but did not respond.

For an organisation that is 'the nation’s first and only independent think tank dedicated to building robust regional economies', the RAI has been surprisingly silent on the important issue of regional bank closures.

In 2021, acting CEO Kim Houghton put in a submission to a task force that had more bankers on it than MPs but there was nothing from Ms Ritchie during the recent senate inquiry, a far more important investigation that was specifically looking at economic impact.

Her refusal to also engage in the Regional Movers Index controversy has meant the question of “why” can’t be left alone any longer.

It turns out this independent think tank may not be as independent as it seems.

The RAI is a public company founded in 2011 with seed money from the Gillard Labor Government.

It says that today, funding comes from 'research partnerships with federal and state governments, the Regions Rising event series, regional consultancy projects, membership and philanthropic funding'.

A big part of that is the Regional Australia Council, a sponsorship program set up by the RAI to support its work. 

Membership is limited to 25 organisations that pay $25,000 – plus GST – per year over three years, for which they are promised 'influence and access' to parliament and ministers and 'valuable engagement with federal politicians and departmental leaders'.

Members also get to influence the direction of the RAI research agenda.

With those perks – and assistant treasurer Stephen Jones, who incidentally was one of the RAI’s keynote speakers at its 2019 conference, currently getting his head around how he will respond to the senate inquiry’s eight recommendations that have rocked the banking industry to its core – seats at the Regional Australia Council would be very good value to the Commonwealth, NAB and Bendigo and Adelaide banks, which are all listed as members on the prospectus.

Independent?

On the issue of whether regional communities need a bank, hardly.

Here are a couple of research areas that would fit neatly into the RAI’s interests in economics and decarbonisation targets:

  • What is the economic impact of the withdrawal of essential banking services in regional communities?

  • What is the level of carbon emissions generated by increased road travel due to the closure of banks in regional communities?

With three banks contributing funding and helping to decide where the RAI’s research energies will be directed in the future, the chances of getting this organisation to look at either of these issues are about as good as getting its chief executive, whose last job before joining the RAI was with Westpac, to answer a question from a journalist about bank closures in regional Australia.

Net zero.

Dale Webster is an inaugural recipient of a Walkley Foundation Grant for Freelance Journalism on Regional Australia. This article was originally published on The Regional and has been republished with permission. You can follow Dale on Twitter @TheRegional_au.

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