Australia’s post-Covid-19 endangered species: ATMs and bank branches

The value of cash withdrawals in Australia has dropped by 17 per cent in the past three years. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - Visitors to Australia will have noticed an unmistakable change in recent years – it is becoming increasingly difficult to find somewhere to withdraw cash.

Bank branches have been disappearing for decades due to shifts to online banking, but banks are now also removing their automated teller machines (ATMs).

As consumers have been shifting away from using cash – a trend that grew during the Covid-19 pandemic – banks have closed ATMs to save money.

These changes are evident in almost any suburban shopping district around Australia, where ATMs – let alone bank branches – can often be difficult to find. 

Government data shows that the number of ATMs across Australia has more than halved from 13,814 in 2017, to 6,412 in 2022.

The number of bank branches has also fallen, from 5,694 in 2017 to 4,014 in 2022, down from a peak of more than 8,500 in 1993, when Australia’s population was under 18 million, compared with 26 million today.

Dr Philip Lowe, the governor of the Reserve Bank, Australia’s central bank, said in December that the value of cash withdrawals had dropped by 17 per cent in the past three years, even though the total spending during that time increased by 27 per cent.

“The world of payments is changing rapidly,” he said.

Almost all purchases and spending in Australia can now be made by credit or debit card. This includes public transport rides and services provided by tradesmen such as electricians or removalists, who often carry credit card machines or accept online transfers. Some shops and cafes have gone entirely cashless.

Banknotes are reportedly expected to account for less than 4 per cent of total retail purchases in the country by 2025.

Australian Retailers Association chief executive Paul Zahra said earlier in January that use of cash hit a low point after the onset of Covid-19, which led to a preference for contactless payments. He said the biggest growth in payment type had been smartphone wallets.

“As we’ve come out of lockdowns, cash has come into use again, but is a declining tender,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald.

“Cards are preferred because they are quick and easy – it’s one tap, and you’re out.”

In many areas, particularly in rural Australia, post offices now provide banking services such as withdrawals, deposits and balance inquiries. There are about 3,500 post offices that offer banking services, though this has not made up for the decline in bank and ATM numbers in recent years.

And there is no guarantee that post office branches will keep operating.

Australia Post is reportedly considering closing about 30 branches, mainly because they are not too frequented or are in properties where leases are expiring.

The Australian Banking Association (ABA), which represents 20 banks in the country, including the four major ones – Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, NAB and ANZ – said in 2022 that it did not expect cash to “disappear”.

“(At the start of the pandemic), most merchants – the fruit shop, the butcher, the big supermarkets, everybody – had signs up saying ‘no cash’,” ABA chief executive Anna Bligh told 6PR Radio.

“Now they’ve become so totally used to it, they’re not going back to using cash.”

But she added: “There’s going to continue to be a role for cash. It’s going to continue to be made available, maybe in fewer outlets, but it’s not about to disappear tomorrow.”

Melbourne-based lifestyle writer Andrew Gigacz recently described an experience familiar to many Australians as he watched his local bank branches close – one became a cafe, another became a hairdresser – and then watched the local ATMs disappear.

He complained to his bank, which said its customers were increasingly using online banking and were no longer using ATMs, he wrote on the YourLifeChoices website. “My response (was) to point out that many of us are ‘choosing’ this only because all other alternatives have been removed – by the bank itself.”

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