Towns putting up a fight as banks close

Towns putting up a fight as banks close

Steeped in gold rush and bushwalker legends, the historic NSW town of Junee is made for a fight.

The Riverina town of 6500 is locked in a David and Goliath battle with the Commonwealth Bank, which has announced it is closing Junee’s last bank in September.

The Big Four banks have closed hundreds of country branches around Australia in recent years, attributing closures to increased digital services and a move to cashless transactions.

Junee residents are angry they will have to make a one-hour round trip to Wagga Wagga to do their banking, or use an ATM that charges fees.

The council and business owners successfully delayed the closure by arguing the bank had failed to meet its obligations for an alternative service at the post office, which is not wheelchair accessible.

Junee council general manager James Davis said the community wanted a hearing with the Australian Financial Complaints Authority before the expected March closure.

“If everyone was on board and happy to move online then that’s fine, but there are people who feel left out,” Mr Davis told AAP.

“They see the bank like a doctor or an accountant. They are important aspects of social cohesion.”

The Junee closure was announced weeks before the federal government’s Regional Banking Task Force released its final report, which recommends better consultation with rural communities where cash and loans are critical.

Westpac later announced it would be closing branches across regional Queensland, Victoria, the NT, WA and South Australia.

All major banks say they are carefully reviewing business cases for regional branches and switching customers to post office services.

Junee wants to work with other affected communities, including Coober Pedy in South Australia, which will lose its only bank in February.

Coober Pedy Council chief executive David Kelly said businesses were threatened by the closure as the nearest banks were in Port Augusta or Alice Springs, both more than 500 kilometers away.

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“This is the opal capital of the world. That and tourism represent major industries, dealing with serious amounts of cash,” said Mr. Kelly said.

Many in the region live on small withdrawals of cash using passbooks and they cannot afford to travel.

Australian fintech company Zeller is looking to fill the space left by banks, expanding its payments system to include free business transaction accounts and debit cards.

Many of its 30,000 customers are based in rural areas, where business owners say they are being let down by traditional banking, said CEO Ben Pfisterer.

“Regional Australia is probably one of the most entrepreneurial segments of our community,” he said.

“If you’re going to opt out of your services, you need to back it up with better online and sign-up processes. We love that we play a small part.”

Rhiannon Druce, general manager of Junee Licorice & Chocolate Factory, said local residents don’t understand why the bank is closing while its population and housing market is booming.

“If there is no banking in Junee, it only makes it more difficult for our businesses,” Ms Druce said.

“This is not a town in decline.”

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