Rural Australians told to look beyond big four banks

·2-min read
Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS

Regional Australia "can't put the genie back in the bottle" as banking services move online and local branches shut their doors.

But community banks could be one option to keep rural economies alive and give locals the face-to-face services they need, a federal inquiry has been told.

A Senate committee is examining the impact of bank closures across country Australia, where more than 650 branches have shut since 2017 leaving many fearing for the future of their towns.

The major banks say a rapid shift to digital services, particularly since COVID-19, has led to the closures.

Heritage and People's Choice mutual bank chief executive Peter Lock said rural Australians did not have to rely on traditional banking offered by the big four.

Under its community model, locals raise about $500,000 in seed capital and form a company which is then backed by the bank in a joint venture.

Once a branch is profitable the seed funding is paid back and the company must return a share to charities and community groups.

"We can't put the genie back in the bottle and we can't force banks to keep branches open, but we can apply a different way of thinking," Mr Lock told the inquiry on Wednesday.

The inquiry sat in Cloncurry, in north west Queensland, which successfully fought to halt the closure of its Westpac branch.

Mayor Greg Campbell said the town convinced Westpac to reconsider by pointing out it was leaving in the middle of an economic boom.

The region was home to several new energy, mining and manufacturing projects worth at least $9 billion, he said.

"We saw it not just as a bad outcome for our community, but a bad business outcome for the bank," Mr Campbell said.

Previous hearings have been told farmers are particularly vulnerable when a branch closes because they rely on local managers to oversee their complex businesses.

Don McDonald, chairman of beef operation McDonald's Holdings, said local branches supported its young workforce.

"Some of them come here very green without bank accounts without tax file numbers ... and we find it absolutely imperative to have a system where those kids can learn what's needed for their future careers and life," Mr McDonald said.

"For banks to drop out of these remote areas can have very, very negative consequences on a lot of young kids.

"They've got to learn how to get out of bed early in the morning and be part of a team, they've got to learn to ride a motorbike, ride horses, repair motorbikes and engines ... and part of that training is 'you'll need a bank account to receive your wages'."

The inquiry has received more than 550 submissions and is due to report back by December.