Report finds regional bank closures creating major barriers for disadvantaged communities

Senators Malcolm Roberts, Peter Whish-WIlson and Raff Ciccone question NAB's witnesses at last year's hearing in Sale. Photo: File

Stefan Bradley

REGIONAL bank closures are creating a major barrier for remote and regional communities, especially remote First Nations communities, due to the lack of affordable and reliable internet, an RMIT report has found.

Led by RMIT and Swinburne University researchers in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society (ADM+S), the submission was made to the Senate inquiry into regional bank branch closures.

It found remote Indigenous communities still rely on face-to-face interactions with their banks, despite the growing prevalence of online banking.

The project leader and Distinguished Professor, Julian Thomas, said in-person interactions were especially important for complex banking tasks and tackling elder abuse, scams and fraud.

“The quality, reliability and cost of internet in remote areas also pose challenges for these communities, making going to a branch to speak to a person even more crucial,” Professor Thomas said.

“By removing banks in regional areas, it potentially disadvantages an already vulnerable community from accessing basic necessities such as financial services, impacting their independence.”

Professor Thomas said better online safety was paramount to improving digital access and participation, but the infrastructure of reliable internet needed to be in place first.

“We can’t expect these communities to learn about online safety if they don’t have working internet to begin with,” he said.

Previous RMIT research for the ADM+S Centre found remote Indigenous communities were among the most digitally excluded people in Australia.

The “Mapping the Digital Gap” 2023 Outcomes Report found a big gap in digital inclusion for First Nations people compared with other Australians, which widens substantially with remoteness.

The research showed about 43 per cent of the 1,545 First Nations communities and homelands across Australia have no mobile service – including some with only a shared public phone or no telecommunications access – highlighting a need for action to close the digital gap.

The study highlighted accessing digital technologies was most challenging in remote communities due to limited communications infrastructure, low household access and patchy, congested mobile services.

With residents in remote communities typically on low incomes, 84 per cent of these respondents in the study used or shared a mobile device, and 94 per cent of these used pre-paid services.

The high cost of pre-paid data and low household uptake of fixed broadband also led to big affordability issues.

The lead investigator and senior Research Fellow, Dr Daniel Featherstone, said as banking, government and other services increasingly move online, it’s crucial that all Australians can effectively access and use digital technologies.

“We use these technologies to access essential services for health, welfare, finance and education, participate in social and cultural activities, follow news and media, as well as connect with family, friends, and the wider world,” he said.

Age is also a significant factor in digital exclusion. Those over 75 years of age and those who did not complete secondary school continue to experience higher levels of digital exclusion, according to the Australian Digital Inclusion Index.