Finance Opinion

Westpac closes regional bank, despite pledges to the contrary

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Westpac's message to community members in Coober Pedy (image via The Regional)

Regional communities face more banking closures, even though some banks have stated they would put such closures on hold, writes Dale Webster

I'M SURE there will be beers all around for the Westpac communications team who managed to flip the bird at six federal senators this week and pull off one of the most stunning public relations subterfuges I've witnessed.

It was stunning for the range of those who fell into the trap and the breadth of media who picked up and reported the story without question, from the senators themselves to seasoned journalists in national newsrooms.

What happened? Westpac refused a parliamentary request to implement a regional bank closure moratorium in full, electing to press ahead with shutting eight branches including those in three isolated towns that were going to lose their last bank.

However, in a statement timed to perfection the day before closures in two of the towns that would be left bankless and in the case of Coober Pedy, with a 500 km trip to the next closest branch, Westpac announced it 'looked forward to working with the Senate References Committee Inquiry into regional banking services' and 'would postpone the closure of eight regional branches'.

It listed eight sites it had been roundly criticised for closing by MPs this week.

The senators made an announcement saying that Westpac, like the Commonwealth Bank, had agreed to the moratorium. MPs issued media releases. Media nationally picked up the story and reported 'Westpac joins Commonwealth in halting bank closures'.

What Westpac failed to mention was that it was still proceeding with the bulk of its planned closures, a further 13 Westpac and Westpac-owned branches that you would have had to have been following this issue closely to know about.

This number included poor little Coober Pedy and Tailem Bend in South Australia, whose residents woke up today to read headlines all around the country saying Westpac was pausing all planned bank closures.

Instead of Westpac being condemned for its continued belligerence, it had the hero edit and headlines.

Westpac media should enter this effort in the annual public relations awards in a special category called "how to withhold information from journalists and pull it off".

Once their euphoria dies down at Westpac and they are all back at work next week, the bank should think about the following:

  • You have just made a dill out of the chairman of a parliamentary committee that is looking into whether the big four banks need a much stricter framework around them in relation to community service obligations;
  • You just made all the MPs who celebrated the reprieve for banks in their own electorates look like jerks dancing on the graves of banks in other towns that didn’t make the list; and
  • You just pissed off a whole lot of journalists who will now be on guard for any dirty tactics from your media team on any issue, not just regional bank closures.

Whoever was the brains behind this hoodwinking of parliamentarians, the media and the general public should be made to do community service in Coober Pedy helping the elderly and other digitally excluded residents manage their banking with only the very limited services available through the post office.

Or perhaps do the 1,000 km round-trip to help businesses transport cash, or deal with frustrated tourists who can’t access cash when the ATMs regularly run dry.

These are real-life issues that Westpac has just shown the most important inquiry it has had to front in 19 years: it couldn’t give a stuff about them.

Over to you senators.

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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