In round four of the banking royal commission, Commissioner Kenneth Hayne heard about an Indigenous Australian mother of three school-aged children who was consistently being charged dishonour and overdrawn fees that she could not afford, despite communicating her intention to open a fee-free bank account.
The mother, who is part of the Dalabon tribe of the Northern Territory, had intended to open a fee-free Access Basic account but ended up with a Pensioner Advantage account for four months, incurring on average $200 in overdrawn and dishonour fees per month due to her inability to meet the direct debit arrangements in place.
Save the Children family support worker Thy Do, who was looking after the mother of three, testified that she made numerous visits and calls to open the appropriate bank account on behalf of her client, whose primary source of income was Centrelink payments, but ANZ had made the process long and difficult, with different representatives communicating conflicting pieces of information or failing to ensure the customer understands how the various bank accounts work.
“I think it has been a very long, confusing, frustrating process… it never crossed my mind that it would be this difficult to open a bank account. The last time I opened a bank account for myself, it took me two minutes, and I did it on my laptop,” Ms Do said.
What the social worker took away from the experience, according to her royal commission testimony, is that there are “particular cultural, language, geographical barriers that are experienced by Indigenous consumers in and around Katherine [NT] that, perhaps, weren’t taken into consideration by ANZ staff members”.
A disconnect in language
For example, in the four months before ANZ finally granted the Dalabon woman’s request to open a more suitable bank account, she was required to reverify her identity by visiting the nearest ANZ branch, based in Katherine, which was 100 kilometres away from her residence.
Speaking on the stand, the ANZ general manager for the Northern Territory and Northern Queensland, Tony Tapsall, explained that the reason the bank needed the customer to come into a branch is because she failed to answer verification questions over the phone.
Counsel assisting the royal commission Mark Costello pointed out the difficulty of questions such as “what is your residential address including state and postcode” for Indigenous Australians living in remote communities, many of which don’t have street names.
According to a call transcript read out by Mr Costello, the mother’s response to this question was: “So, address where I’m living? Yes, that’s the community. Yes, that’s where I’m living. That’s the address, just community.”
Mr Costello also cited previous evidence given by Nathan Boyle from the Australian Securities and Investment Commission’s Indigenous Outreach Program who had said: “Sometimes we see financial services [entities] have policies about the types of questions that are asked and they can only ask questions in a certain way, which might not make sense to an Aboriginal person in a remote community.”
According to the counsel assisting the commission, Mr Boyle had explained that a question like “what number is on the front of your house” would make more sense to people living in remote communities than “what is your street address”.
“Sometimes the language means that people aren’t able to meet the identification requirements,” Mr Boyle had said according to Mr Costello.
After making the trip to the Katherine-based branch, the mother of three was told she needed to make an appointment before driving over. As such, she had to make another three-hour round trip to the bank branch two days later, at which point she was reportedly told she could not open the fee-free account, despite an ANZ call centre representative saying she could, and was instead provided with an Access Advantage account, which charges fees.
Upon communicating her concern about the fees, the attending banker switched her to a Pensioner Advantage account (which similarly has fees), telling the Dalabon woman that the fees should not be an issue so long as she does not overdraw.
The banker further suggested that if overdrawn fees are charged on the pensioner account, the mother of three get in contact with the bank again to have the account changed, despite that being her request all along, according to Mr Costello.
“Not good enough”
Mr Tapsall agreed with the assisting counsel’s suggestion that the banker’s communication with the customer — specifically, when they said that the fees on the pensioner account should not be issue under certain conditions, even when it was raised as a concern by the customer — was “not good enough”.
He claimed that the banker who had opened the Access Advantage account rather than the requested Access Basic account had made an error, but denied wrongdoing on behalf of the banker that opened the pensioner account.
According to Mr Tapsall, the banker denied telling the customer that she could not open a fee-free account, further claiming that the Dalabon mother had specifically requested a pensioner account.
Mr Costello pointed out that opening a fee-free account with ANZ required the cancellation of the customer’s Visa debit card, which was not required for the opening of the pensioner account, which he implied could explain the reason for the banker’s actions.