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Remote communities hit hard by bank branch closures, inquiry hears

Stephanie Gardiner -

Remote Australians are flying to the city with suitcases full of cash to make deposits after a local bank closed, while reports of robberies, scams and elder abuse are rife, an inquiry has been told. 

Westpac closed its branch at Tom Price in Western Australia's Pilbara region in late 2022, leaving residents with a 700km round trip to the nearest bank in Karratha.

It was the last bank in the Shire of Ashburton, which covers 100,000sq km and is one of the largest local government areas in the world.

Community members and council staff told the inquiry some business owners fly to Perth with bags of money rather than taking the long drive.

Some residents have reported being robbed after having to stash cash in their homes, while Indigenous elders are regularly falling victim to financial abuse or scams, the inquiry was told.

Indigenous residents from dry communities were also refused access to an ATM inside a pub, the only one available for some time.

"None of this would be considered acceptable if (it) occurred in metropolitan centres," the shire's president Audra Smith told the inquiry, sitting in Tom Price on Wednesday.

"So why is this inequality condoned and tolerated in small regions and remote communities?" 

Sylvia Winkler, chief executive of the Nintirri community centre, said domestic violence victims were stranded without a local branch, as perpetrators often cleared out shared bank accounts.

"There are all these barriers already in place and then trying to support (them) effectively is nearly impossible," Ms Winkler said. 

The shire's chief executive Kenneth Donohoe said Westpac gave the council a few weeks' notice of their closure via email and there was "no care factor".

The loss of a bank was particularly frustrating for a lucrative mining region that contributed 1.9 per cent of Australia's GDP in 2021, Mr Donohoe said. 

"If it's a sign of the times and everything's being relocated into the capital cities, where does that leave regional Australia?"

The long-running inquiry has been examining the rapid closure of banks across regional and rural Australia, where nearly 800 branches have shut since June 2017.

Bankwest last week announced it will become a digital bank when it closes 45 branches across WA by October, while 15 regional sites will be converted to Commonwealth Bank operations.

But only one closure impact assessment, for the northern WA community of Kununurra, was available on Bankwest's website.

After a rural banking task force under the last coalition government, the banking sector agreed to publish the assessments to help affected towns understand the reasons for closures.

Nationals senator Matt Canavan said the Kununurra document was generic and showed the banks weren't taking their obligations seriously.

But Bankwest's head of external communications Rob Cory said the company was writing to each branch customer.

"We're providing them with information on alternative ways to bank," Mr Cory said.

The inquiry is due to report back to parliament in May.

Stephanie Gardiner - AAP

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