Residents of a prosperous inland Queensland mining town are furious over Westpac’s “shameful” decision to close its branch there, amid warnings that regional bank closures are reaching “crisis” levels.
Cloncurry in North West Queensland, located 120 km east of Mount Isa and 780 km west of Townsville, the birthplace of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, is home to 3,700 people and a red-hot economy with hundreds of jobs to be filled, according to Mayor Greg Campbell. .
“There’s a mine general manager job that could cost $500,000, down to a box operator at BWS and everything in between,” he said.
“Doctors, nurses, mining engineers, teachers, plumbers, electricians, truckers, machinists, drone pilots. There’s a new coffee shop opening, they’re looking for a barista. This is an area that is booming and has tremendous potential, but if a financial institution like Westpac is essentially turning its back on us, what tone does that set?”
Last Friday, the banking giant informed Cloncurry Shire Council by email that its branch, which originally opened in 1905, would close on May 19, leaving residents facing the prospect of a 240km round trip to Mount Isa for face-to-face access. banking.
In an open letter to Westpac, the council criticized the move as “unacceptable.”
“Westpac employees who recently moved to Cloncurry are now left wanting answers and jobs, following the shock announcement by Westpac, which reported a final net profit of $5.7 billion in November 2022,” the letter said.
“Westpac has been preparing customers for many years to do their jobs, moving away from face-to-face banking and faceless online interactions, which means profits are up but foot traffic is low. But instead of reinvesting staff resources in supporting clients with more personalized banking services and wealth-building options, the bank is closing its doors. And that’s not right”.
Cloncurry’s population grew by nearly 20% between the 2016 and 2020 census, but Campbell believes the actual population is closer to 5,000, with local mining, shipping and agricultural companies contributing billions to the Cloncurry economy. queensland.
“It is shameful that big business, which our community has supported for decades, has turned their back on us,” the letter said.
“We are concerned for the many senior residents, community groups and businesses that rely on the branch for in-person assistance. The role that face-to-face personal banking plays in our region cannot be underestimated: in times of drought, flood, fire, and indeed all rural crises, it is the local bank manager who becomes a lifeline, a face and a voice to trust. in. Someone who is always there. Not anymore.”
The board said it would reconsider its banking relationship with Westpac if the branch closes.
“Our biggest fear is that this decision will set other vital services the precedent for withdrawing more services from Cloncurry and regional Queensland,” the letter said. “We deserve better.”
Campbell said there are still a number of businesses that handle “a lot of cash” and Westpac, in a “sloppy, lazy way,” said “well, the Post Office can do it.”
“I estimate it would only cost $1 million, if that, to run this branch in lease fees, electricity, staff salaries; I can’t see how, with business going through this branch, even if foot traffic is still down. it is not profitable,” he said.
“So you look at that in the context of a $5 billion profit. Even if the economy stacks up, local customers are hurt by their branch closing and that $1 million annual savings will likely be paid back in a bonus payout to the executive who redlined through the cities.”
Writing directly to Westpac chief executive Peter King in a scathing letter on Wednesday, Campbell said the bank was “displaying complete ignorance and myopia” with its decision.
“Last year, Evolution Mining purchased Glencore’s Ernest Henry mine for $1 billion,” he wrote.
“Harmony Gold (South Africa’s largest gold producer) recently purchased an undeveloped copper project for $400 million. Incitec Pivot, Chinova, Rio Tinto, South 32 and Anglo are all active in the Shire, as are a plethora of junior miners. The Westpac Cloncurry branch is the local branch of some of the most successful family grazing businesses in the country, notably MDH, Daniels and McMillans. You’re turning your back on them.”
He told Mr King that it was “unquestionable that Cloncurry Shire has no equal in terms of economic performance and potential for the state and the nation, and your decision to close the branch is not only disrespectful to your customers, but even more it seems incompetent to be turning its back on an area of so high guaranteed growth”.
“I see it as a decision you will regret, and would welcome a reversal of the decision,” he wrote.
It comes as the Financial Sector Union warns that bank branch closures are reaching “crisis point”, with the big four closing more than 550 branches in Australia since January 2020.
From the Opal mining town of Coober Pedy in South Australia to Berrigan near the New South Wales-Victoria border, regional residents have seen a drastic reduction in banking access.
Australia’s Prudential Regulation Authority said 575 regional banks closed between mid-2017 and mid-2021.
This week the Senate passed a motion to keep Australia in first place parliamentary inquiry in regional bank closures in nearly two decades.
The inquiry, which has been referred to the Transport and Rural and Regional Affairs Reference Committee, will report to parliament by December 1.
It will investigate the reasons given for branch closures, the economic and customer welfare impacts on regional communities, and the effect of removing face-to-face cash services, among other things.
Campbell said he would request a committee hearing in Cloncurry.
The mayor, who is due to meet this week with the leader of Katter’s Australian Party, Robbie Katter, has called for federal legislation to ensure banking services for regional cities.
“There should be some kind of universal service obligation similar to the telecom industry, that every city of a certain size has at least one bank,” he said.
In a statement, a Westpac spokesperson said “there have never been more ways to bank with Westpac Group.”
“Westpac has more than five million digitally active customers, and we know their expectations are changing,” he said.
“Our customers use branches less, for fewer reasons, and choose to use digital banking more frequently. Our service approach is responding to customer preference. That’s why we’re investing in digital services so our customers can bank with us anywhere, anytime.”
Westpac recently signed a 10-year agreement with Australia Post to provide Bank@Post over-the-counter transaction services at 3,500 locations, including 1,700 in regional areas.
“In Cloncurry, we are closing our branch and transitioning these services to Bank@Post at Cloncurry LPO, just 350m walk from our current branch,” he said.
“ Our agribusiness and business clients will continue to receive support from their existing relationship management teams. Our Remote Services Team will also implement an on-site support program in Cloncurry. This service supports the most remote communities in Australia and assists First Nations clients.”
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