Senate grills banking suits in Sale

Westpac Group representatives Jason Green (left) and Ross Miller facing the Senate in Sale last week. Photo: Tom Parry

Tom Parry

BANKING executives have been chastised for their lack of consultation and quizzed on local branch closures at a hearing in Sale.

The Senate inquiry into Bank Closures in Regional Australia held its first public hearing in the Port of Sale’s Wellington Room last Thursday, March 2.

Senators Matt Canavan (Queensland – LNP), Malcolm Roberts (Queensland – One Nation), Peter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania – Greens), Raff Ciccone (Victoria – Labor), Richard Colbeck (Tasmania – Liberal) and Gerard Rennick (Queensland – LNP) were present for the hearing, with Senators Slade Brockman (Western Australia – Liberal) and Linda White (Victoria – Labor) engaging via teleconference.

Witnesses from Westpac Group were called first, with the Chief Customer Engagement Officer, Ross Miller, and the National General Manager, Jason Green, both representing the company.

Westpac recently announced it would close its Sale branch, but has since postponed the closure until further notice.

In an opening statement to the inquiry, Mr Miller noted that 96 per cent of Westpac transactions are now done digitally; saying it was led by customer preference.

Mr Miller also acknowledged that “not everybody is ready” for digital banking, with a “small minority” apprehensive about the change.

He further said that the decision to close a branch “is not made lightly”, with customer demographics and their proximity to other branches taken into consideration.

Under questioning from the chair, Senator Canavan, Mr Miller claimed that 95 per cent of Westpac’s customer transactions can be done through Bank@Post service, citing that figure as a reason for the Sale branch’s closure.

He also said that consultation with Wellington Shire Council had been done “in parallel” with Westpac customers, which was done via email.

The Gippsland Times understands that the Shire was informed through the Customer Action Request Service.

Mr Miller said Westpac would be changing that process to a conversation.

Meanwhile, Mr Green said that Westpac had only spoken directly to council representatives the morning of the public hearing, which was later confirmed by the Mayor, Ian Bye.

Senators Richard Colbeck and Gerard Rennick listen intently to Westpac’s witnesses.
Photo: Tom Parry

Senator Rennick asked whether Westpac makes a profit in Wellington, and if that was a factor in the Sale branch’s closure.

Mr Miller responded by saying: “We look at the way people bank with us.”

Westpac was also questioned about what happens to staff once a branch closes.

Mr Miller said that most employees would either work from home or relocate to another branch; he estimated that 28 per cent of affected employees look for work elsewhere, while 23 per cent were retrenched.

Senator Whish-Wilson asked if Westpac executives received bonuses for saving money by closing branches, to which Mr Miller responded: “I’m remunerated to provide service to our customers.”

In his questioning of Westpac, Senator Colbeck took issue with the company’s claim that is consulted with the community, saying: “The only people you’re consulting with is yourselves.”

Mr Miller responded by saying that Westpac’s own data provides “incredibly strong insights” into how customers use its branches, and that decisions are based on that same data.

Senator Colbeck responded by saying that process was “determining” rather than “consulting”.

Senator Rennick asked about the agreement Westpac had reached with Australia Post to provide the Bank@Post service, requesting a copy of that same agreement.

Mr Miller denied the request, citing “commercial confidence”.

Finally, Senator Canavan asked about Indigenous customers, and whether Westpac knew how many Indigenous people lived in the Wellington Shire; neither Mr Miller nor Mr Green were able to answer.

Senator Canavan revealed the answer as 923, taken from Census data; he then asked why Westpac wasn’t aware of that figure, to the approval of at least one attendee.

Westpac’s questioning concluded at 11.05am – 35 minutes longer than scheduled – with Senator Canavan requesting a list of Westpac’s regional branches and planned closures.

National Australia Bank executives Mil Kairouz and Krissie Jones face questioning from Senators at the Port of Sale during last week’s hearing.
Photo: Tom Parry

WITNESSES from the National Australia Bank (NAB) were called next, represented by Retail Executives Krissie Jones and Mil Kairouz.

Ms Jones’ opening statement echoed that of Westpac’s, noting customers’ “preference” for digital banking, while adding that the closing of a bank branch “is not done lightly”.

Senator Rennick opened the questioning, asking why NAB hadn’t invested in regional Australia.

Ms Jones responded by saying that a combined $70 million had been invested in the past three years at regional branches and banking centres.

She further stated that branches had seen a 66 per cent reduction in foot traffic.

On the subject of job losses at regional branches, Ms Jones said that NAB offers redeployment “in every instance”, and that 97 per cent of employees had been retained.

Under questioning from Senator Roberts, Ms Jones revealed that $15 million was provided by NAB to Australia Post for their community banking services; as with Westpac, she refused to provide copy of agreement, citing commercial sensitivities.

Senator Ciccone asked whether NAB consults with government figures regarding branch closures; Ms Jones responded by saying that local members of parliament are contacted the day prior to when customers are told, while local councils are informed the same day as customers.

Towards the end of proceedings, Senator Canavan questioned NAB on the permanent closure of its Maffra branch, which was announced last month.

In response, Ms Jones and Mr Kairouz noted that the branch had faced “logistical and practical challenges”, such as an inability to employ staff and reduced hours, both of which contributed to the decision to close.

NAB’s questions concluded at 11.45am, which was then followed by other witnesses.

Questions taken on-notice by Westpac and NAB are due back March 10, while the inquiry’s final report is due by December 1.

Senators Malcolm Roberts, Peter Whish-WIlson and Raff Ciccone question NAB’s witnesses.
Photo: Tom Parry