Fee-Free ATMs For Aborigines: Wayne Swan Gets It Wrong Yet Again

He’s done it again…Wayne Swan has provided more evidence, were any required, of how out of touch he is with community values; 76 ATMs in remote aboriginal communities will — from December — no longer charge transaction fees. The rest of the country, of course, will just keep paying.

An article appeared in the Fairfax press today, outlining the plan in which the 76 machines — spread across three states and the NT — will no longer charge customers for making withdrawals, balance enquiries, or other ATM transactions that otherwise would attract a fee.

These machines are located in some of the remotest aboriginal communities; often the inhabitants are poor, and have no choice of ATM provider when checking balances and whether benefits have been deposited and, if so, accessing those funds.

The plan sounds great: I’m sure it will make a great difference to aborigines in these towns who are more or less cut off from society.

And for the record, I am very happy for aborigines to have the benefit of this arrangement; it will save them a little money, and give them the sense of having a small win over the banks.

Yet this sort of thing makes me really angry; egotistical bubble of self-importance and Treasurer Wayne Swan — not content with his recent achievements in slugging it to “the rich” in the federal budget — is hailing this as a win for consumers. The scheme is being implemented by the banking sector on the recommendation of a joint Treasury and Reserve Bank task force.

Commenting on the scheme with Indigenous Affairs minister Jenny Macklin, Swan said: ‘‘Indigenous people and residents living in very remote communities often rely on a single ATM located in a community store owned by an independent ATM company to access their cash and check their account balance.’’

And The Age reports that thirteen banks and two independent ATM companies would do away with ATM transaction fees for their customers in “identified remote indigenous communities.”

I reiterate that I think it’s great that aborigines have got this deal; with some luck it will save them some inconvenience and a little money as they go about their lives.

The thing that incenses me about this announcement is that for tens of millions of Australians, this delivers nothing at a time of economic uncertainty and rocketing cost of living pressures; and it confirms Swan’s status — in the words of mining magnate Clive Palmer — as an economic pygmy when it comes to Swan’s dealings with the major banks on behalf of consumers.

Australia’s banks are raking in billions and billions of dollars in profits every year, and much of this comes directly out of the pockets of ordinary domestic consumers.

Many of these people are sensitive to movements in official interest rates, and the impact this has on their residential mortgages.

Over the past couple of years, they have grown accustomed to a few stern words being directed by Swan at the banks whenever they keep part of a cut, or pass on more than an official rise; but never more than that, and certainly never any action.

Now Swan comes out, all smiles, with a deal to abolish all ATM fees — for a few outback towns with perhaps, sight unseen, ten or twenty thousand people between them.

You see, the fact that it is aboriginal communities getting this deal — set up and brokered by Swan and his department — is unimportant on one level; it still leaves millions of people who will be slugged for using an ATM of any provider other than their own bank.

And can I just make the very obvious point that at times, even in urban areas, and even in places like here in inner Melbourne, people are often forced to pay ATM fees for the same reason — there is only one machine located within a reasonable distance.

Try getting money out at the MCG if you’re a Westpac customer — and try avoiding NAB’s withdrawal fee. There is no other machine within a 20 minute walk. It’s just an example, but by no means irrelevant or specious.

But on another level, the fact that it is aborigines receiving this deal is significant: it’s significant in the conceited little story the Labor government, through Swan where money is concerned, is attempting to construct, tell, and sell.

If you’re aboriginal; disabled; on welfare; a migrant; or from any other minority and/or disadvantaged group, this government is good at telling stories.

And as Swan proved in his recent budget, he too is adept at telling such stories.

There was a lot of fanfare about the ALP’s National Disability Insurance Scheme, with an impressive-sounding $1 billion aimed at the 400,000 Australians with permanent disabilities; the only catch is that in two years’ time — halfway through the period to which that money applies — just 5% of those 400,000 people are expected to have access to it.

So it is with this equally impressive-sounding, but similarly empty gesture aimed at aborigines; there are many, many indigenous people in this country who don’t live anywhere near 26 towns flung across three states and a territory who will get nothing from this, and a large number of those people have far more urgent needs of assistance than saving $2 at the local ATM.

You only have to get in a car and drive less than a mile or so from the centre of major regional towns like Broome, and Dubbo, and Kalgoorlie, to see aboriginal kids with their empty spirit bottles and petrol cans, passed out on the side of the road, to know that $2 at an ATM is the last thing they need.

These are just two examples among many that Swan and his colleagues have notched up in four and a half years in government.

And whilst a very small number of people will get some limited benefit from this latest initiative — just like the so-called NDIS — I would say to people in those groups and in those communities that far from helping you, this government is exploiting you; far from championing your issues and your causes, this government is tokenising them.

To the rest of the people who live in this country — who are being gouged at one end with usurious fees and charges, and ripped off at the other by the rocketing price of everyday essentials — a Treasurer who can’t stand up to the banking sector over interest rate rises, when it is pocketing billions of dollars in exactly the type of transaction fees he is trumpeting the waiver of in the initiative outlined here, is a joke.

Sadly, the fee-free ATMs for the rural communities involved present just another photo opportunity, just a little more spin and empty media space, and just another reason to send a press release; the official story is that the government is “helping,” but the reality is rather different.

And if anyone wants to defend Swan, or the government, over this latest half-baked initiative — saying “at least it’s a start” or something similar — I would respond very strongly that this is not “a start:” it’s just a stunt.

But then again, with this government and this Treasurer, it’s always just a stunt.

 

Comments must keep to the point; anything racist will be deleted as soon as I see it.