‘Kick in the guts’: Why Westpac’s exit has Cloncurry worried sick

Westpac’s exit from Cloncurry, the north-west town built on the economic powerhouses of beef and mining, has enraged local political leaders who have branded the move “bold and misguided”.

Feb 14, 2023, updated Feb 15, 2023
Westpac has halted the closure of several rural branches while a Senate inquiry goes ahead. (Image: Westpac)

Westpac has halted the closure of several rural branches while a Senate inquiry goes ahead. (Image: Westpac)

Westpac says it is responding to a lower volume of customers visiting the Cloncurry branch and will instead focus on investing in its digital service.

The Cloncurry departure is part of a wave of closures that will hit 20 Westpac branches in rural and suburban locations across four states in coming months.

Ingham and Tully, key horticulture and sugar cane farming communities in north Queensland, also have Westpac branches earmarked to shut.

The announcement comes one week after the launch of a Senate inquiry into why banks are shutting regional branches at historic rates and the consequences for regional people and their communities.

Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport committee chair Senator Matt Canavan asked banks to halt closures to show they are approaching the inquiry in good faith.

“Banks provide a vital service. When a bank leaves town with no way to access banking services, they leave that community behind,” the Rockhampton based senator said in a statement last week.

“I call on all the banks to stop closing branches until they can hear how their planned closures would affect local communities and towns.”

The Cloncurry closure could see more people from the town on the highway to Mount Isa, a three-hour round trip, if they want to do face-to-face business with their nearest Westpac staff.

The move is a “real kick in the guts” for rural Queenslanders, according to Katter, the district’s local MP and Katter’s Australian Party Leader.

“They’re taking away the ability for their customers to sit down face-to-face with someone to ask questions, make decisions and address problems,” he said.

“Cloncurry has a growing population and very large, flourishing cattle and mining industries. This is a strong growth area, and they are pulling out, therefore we must assume that Westpac is indiscriminately and progressively pulling away from agribusiness and regional Queensland in general.”

Katter said there were large private family businesses in Cloncurry that combined have asset values of about $5 billion, who all bank with Westpac.

One of those large businesses is MDH, Australia’s largest privately owned beef company whose headquarters near Cloncurry has operations sprawling across more than 3 million hectares.

The business has been under the ownership and management of Queensland LNP Senator Susan McDonald’s family for 190 years and has banked with Westpac and its earlier iteration as the Bank of NSW for more than a century.

“I couldn’t tell you how long, but it’s certainly been a strong and loyal relationship over decades,” McDonald told InQueensland.

While McDonald would not comment on how MDH may respond to Westpac’s decision, she said she would join her Coalition colleagues and the communities of north Queensland in fighting to have the branches stay open.

“Banks just can’t make these decisions based on the number of customers who walk through the door,” she said.

“I understand the banks have issues with staffing – they have to have two in there at all times – and that’s been an ongoing challenge.

“But what needs to be addressed is that banks of all sorts are pulling enormous profits out of regional centres like Cloncurry who are enjoying population growth with agriculture, mining and tourism all on the rise. Surely these banks could be doing more to invest in the communities where they are making money.”

Katter said it appeared that Westpac had failed to do its research by “putting Cloncurry in the small regional town basket, not the booming economical basket it belongs in”.

He said locals were not prepared to give up without a fight.

“They’ve got something to lose with the impending closure, but it appears so does Westpac,” he said.

On current form, the people of Cloncurry could be fighting in vain.

The Commonwealth Bank has halted shutdowns for the length of the Senate inquiry, including in the NSW Riverina town of Junee which was due to lose its last branch in March.

Westpac has not followed suit, with a spokesperson attributing the latest round of closures to the declining use of branches.

Finance Sector Union national secretary Julia Angrisano said Westpac was abandoning businesses, customers and staff despite reporting $5.7 billion in profit last year.

“Westpac is brazenly closing branches month after month as a means of propping up profits and bonuses for senior executives,” she said.

Cloncurry Shire Council has written an open letter to Westpac describing the closure as a slap in the face for the growing regional town.

“The role that personal face-to-face banking plays for our region cannot be underestimated – in times of drought, flood, fire and indeed all rural crises, it’s the local bank manager who becomes a lifeline, a face and a voice to be relied on,” the letter said.

“Personal banking is one of the key pillars of a functional society. When pillars are taken away, structures collapse. This is happening.”

Other banks, including ANZ and NAB, have not indicated whether they will halt closures.

A regional banking taskforce set up by the coalition government found vulnerable people, including Indigenous communities and elderly and disabled people, were worse off when banks closed.

Small business owners told the task force their customers spent money on groceries, meals and luxury items in neighbouring towns when they travelled to do their banking, putting local economies at risk.

Submissions to the Senate inquiry close on March 31, with the committee to report back by the end of the year. – Additional reporting: Steph Gardiner, AAP.





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