Regional and rural Australian banking services are still being squeezed just at a time when the demographic consequences of COVID-19 are resulting in a much greater need for them.
The problem of branch closures in the bush is a vexed issue.
The federal government has just wrapped up the consultation process for the Regional Banking Taskforce to assess the impact of bank branch closures, and to work with banks and businesses to find workable solutions to the issue.
That taskforce report is expected to be handed down shortly.
I absolutely applaud the creation of the Taskforce, as it's clear branch closures in regional areas create a whole host of flow-on issues for local residents.
But what's also clear is it's going to require a different way of thinking if we are to retain a strong banking presence in regional Australia - and relying on the listed banks for solutions just isn't the answer.
That's not meant as an insult to the big banks. It's simply a factor of their business model.
As listed entities, their priority is to deliver dividends for their shareholders.
As digital transactions inevitably increase - a process that COVID has accelerated - and branches become less and less profitable, it's a no-brainer that the big banks will close them down.
In fact, since the start of 2020, the four majors together have closed an estimated 350 branches across Australia.
People in rural and regional areas bear disproportionate impacts when banks close their branches.
In the cities, if one branch closes, there's quite often another one only a few minutes' drive away.
In regional areas, the next nearest branch might end up being hundreds of kilometres away.
The big banks will never keep unprofitable branches open in regional areas. So what's the solution?
I believe the key lies in harnessing the much more community-focused ethos of customer-owned banks such as Heritage Bank to collaborate with local communities and develop innovative new models to deliver banking services.
Mutual banks by their very structure are driven by what's best for their membership - who own them.
With no shareholders to pay dividends to, customer-owned banks don't share to the same extent the need to maximise profits the listed banks have.
We are much better placed to work in partnership with community leaders to find new ways of maintaining access to local banking services.
At Heritage we have seven community branches operating as joint ventures with companies which represent the local community.
We developed this model in 1999 when Crows Nest, just to the north of Toowoomba, faced the closure of its last remaining big bank branch.
Profits are shared between Heritage and the community company - and the community company's share of the profits goes back to the local area via community grants to worthy local organisations.
Since 1999, our seven community branches have collectively put a $59 million back into their local areas through grants, sponsorships, staff wages, rents, and services like cleaning.
Our community branches include those in Queensland towns as small as Crows Nest (population 2500), Nanango (4000) and Millmerran (3000).
We're exploring how to expand the network because we believe our model provides an ideal way to keep local banking services for smaller communities.
I feel looking at banking services in isolation may not deliver the best outcomes for regional areas.
A whole range of services are required in these areas - like better health, education and cultural opportunities that urban areas take for granted.
It's not as if our regions lack vibrancy and growth opportunities.
More than 70,000 job vacancies existed in regional Australia in December 2021, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Job ads in regional Queensland alone were 36 per cent higher than in December 2020, with demand for professionals making up a quarter of all vacancies.
COVID-19 motivated many city dwellers to vote with their feet and move to regional areas in all states - a net migration of 45,000 people last year, reversing the long-standing trend of population drift to urban areas.
The Regional Australia Institute's chief executive officer, Liz Ritchie says we should forget the "great resignation" and instead embrace the "great regionalisation" as the shakeup Australia needs.
This would rebalance the nation away from a future of megacities, ensuring regional residents and communities would have access to resources and services they need to reach their full potential.
The customer-owned sector is best placed to collaborate and help identify holistic solutions that can make the "great regionalisation" possible, both for banking services and other resourcing regional areas need.
The COVID-driven adoption of regional lifestyles is the perfect chance for governments to focus on making it more workable.
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