Abandoned: Branches and ATMs disappearing across Australia

For a short time during July last year, a billboard on Hoddle Street in the Melbourne suburb of Clifton Hill was adorned with a heart-warming image of a baby in the arms of perhaps a grandmother on a swing, both with beaming smiles. It was accompanied by the words “Heart lives here” and the logo for the Commonwealth Bank (CommBank).

Being beyond 50 now, I have become a cynical old thing, and found it somewhat bemusing to link that image and three-word slogan with a banking monolith.

There used to be a Commonwealth Bank branch in our local main shopping strip, Queens Parade, which forms the boundary between Clifton Hill and North Fitzroy. But, in a move that will be familiar to many around Australia, it closed its doors for the last time a couple of years ago.

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Perhaps determined to convince us that heart still lives here, CommBank was kind enough to leave in place its ATM outside its former home. But then it was moved, further up Queens Parade to the ‘quiet end’.

For many, this meant a slightly longer walk to get their cash, but at least CommBank’s ‘heart’ still had a presence in our little village.

I am a regular user of that ATM. My two adult sons rarely have physical cash with them, but I still like to deal in notes and coins occasionally, as do several of the small business that operate in our neighbourhood, especially those that are slugged a fee – by banks – for using a card to pay.

A couple of months ago, as I was making a withdrawal, a messaged flashed up on the ATM screen: “This ATM will soon be removed”.

I was not surprised. I suspected this day would come sooner or later.

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In the weeks since first seeing that message, that particular ATM has been ‘out of service’ quite a few times, more often than I can remember in the past. My cynical side can’t help but wonder if that has been a deliberate CommBank tactic, to help us ATM dinosaurs get used to the idea.

Sometimes when I get really annoyed by a large corporation’s seeming lack of care, I jump on Twitter to vent my frustration. This was one such moment. I copied in CommBank on my rant and got exactly the response I expected:

“Hi Gigs, the needs of our customers are changing. Everyday more and more customers are choosing to do their banking online with our CommBank app and over the phone. Across the industry, ATM withdrawal volumes continue to decrease year on year as customers look at other methods.”

My response to their response was to point out that many of us are ‘choosing’ this only because all other alternatives have been removed – by the bank itself.

I should probably be grateful to CommBank. I have spent most of the last 33 years living in Clifton Hill, and when I arrived in 1989, the NAB, ANZ and CommBank all had branches on Queens Parade. The ANZ long ago became a hairdresser and the NAB has been a café for many years. At least CommBank lasted longer than them.

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I’m also aware, as pointed out in a response to my original tweet, that country towns abandoned by banks are doing it much tougher than those of us in inner-suburban Melbourne. At least we can find an ATM in a neighbouring suburb, for now.

One might think the money the bank is saving by no longer having a physical branch surely allows them to afford an ATM presence. Apparently not, although I note with a raised eyebrow that the CommBank’s 2021 Annual Report records an after-tax profit of more than $10.1 billion, and that CEO Matt Comyn’s ‘realised remuneration’ went from $3.9 million in 2020 to $5.2 million last year, an increase of more than 29 per cent.

This is, of course, how big business operates. I fully understand that maximising profits is the aim of the game. By all means remove our last local ATM, CommBank, and keep working towards maximising shareholders’ returns.

But don’t do that while telling us, your customers, that “heart lives here”. It doesn’t.

Has your local bank branch closed recently? Have ATMs disappeared from your neighbourhood? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

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