By Ben Wilson
Economic and social problems in country Australia often go unnoticed in the city. It hasn’t been easy in the last few decades and living in small communities and isolated by distance means few alternative options.
Work is hard to get, pushes the young to the major population centres and leaves behind an aging population. When privatisation of services became a government obsession, it often led to their downgrading or disappearance. Digitalisation of communication had a serious impact. Landline telephone services began to give way to mobiles with networks that didn’t reach everybody. Rural media networks began to fade away.
Most devastating has been the erosion of health and other government services and school closures.
Country people have to face fire, droughts and other natural calamities,which are becoming worse and more frequent with climate Warming. These put more economic and social stress on communities already finding it tough.
Join this with the reality that incomes are substantially lower in the country than in the city and prices are often higher. Country people are expected to travel much longer distances, which the high price of fuel makes problematic. Local businesses suffer and start to shut their doors.
It is not so strange that in many areas, country people are worried about the future, unhappy about the way they treated and even angry. This provided fertile ground for the rise of One Nation cashing in on a feeling of betrayal by the traditional political parties. The perception of betrayal persists and this is going to shape rural politics into the foreseeable future.
The closure of banks has become a major issue. In the first place, loss of easy access to a local bank is a blow to the local economy. More so when an older population has difficulty accessing the digital alternative. Households suffer and so do local businesses. Locals tend to go to shop at another town. One where there is a bank.
The Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (Apra) annual banking listing on Wednesday found that more than 100 regional and rural banking branches had closed in the past year. Around 300 have been closed since the start of the pandemic. This signals an acceleration of a process that began well before. Over 4 years the number of branches the big banks have in the country and regional centres has decreased by 25 percent.
Reacting to this and the political difficulties involved, the Australian government to create a task force to assess the impact of these closures.
A statement has put out by the Australian Banking Association (ABA) claims, “if branches are closed, this is because customers no longer need to do their banking face-to-face.” This is nonsense of course. The banks are not responding They are telling people to do it.
It is not hard to figure out why this is happening. The banks are digitalising rapidly. Customers are being pressured into using online services everywhere. This means fewer branches and employing far fewer people. Cutting the cost of operation has become the means to make a profit. The return on investments and lending money is not enough. This is especially true in the country, where opportunities are fewer than in the city.
This is one of the faces of the decline of rural Australia, a problem calling for urgent attention. Ensuring access to banking services must be part of the solution, and this won’t be possible where profit decides everything. It means the creation of a publicly owned bank, with the mission of providing adequate services to individuals and meeting the needs of the rural economy are the criterion for deciding whether branch should exist.
Australia once had the Commonwealth Bank paying this role. Then it was sold to become just like the other banks.