Banks: people love to hate them

THERE are four big banks in Australia – Commonwealth, Westpac, National Australia and ANZ – which bitch right through the year about the rising costs of operating and then report stunning profits. It is the same year after year, no matter if there is a global meltdown or not.

The banks put it down to skillful management. I put it down to gouging.

Given the manner in which these banks rort customers by imposing fees for anything and everything, they are understandably not the most popular businesses in town. But I often wonder why the people do not react by taking their business elsewhere.

It is not as though these four banks are the only ones in town. There are plenty of other, smaller players who offer better terms and conditions, charge half as much or even less, and do not treat their customers as cash cows. One has to exercise one’s choice and switch banks.

This is easier said than done. When one has regular payments being debited to one’s bank account, it is difficult to pick the right time to switch. A single payment cannot be missed and the more such direct debits one has, the more difficult moving from one bank to another becomes.

My personal experience is that it is possible to move, once the move is carefully planned. All one needs is a good reason to move – minor irritants are often not enough to motivate one to take the trouble to organise a move.

The first time I moved, it was from the ANZ to Westpac. I opened an account with ANZ as soon as I landed in Australia simply because it was the one name with which I was familiar. ANZ used to operate in India, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates under the name Grindlays.

I stayed with them less than a year. The day I opened my account, I was asked for my tax file number. I didn’t have one at the time. Later when I obtained one, I did not bother to give it to the bank. The bank did not ask me for it either.

But one day I found that 92 dollars had been deducted from my account; on calling the bank I was told that it was because I had not given them by tax file number. On asking why they had not requested it, I was told ” it is not our role to remind you of government policy.”

That was enough for me. Two days later I closed the account and took my business to Westpac – once again convenience played a role, it was the one bank closes to my home. I overlooked the fact that I paying 20 dollars or a little more every month as fees and charges as the bank had combined my savings and cheque accounts in one. This was the advice they gave me – it was geared towards making money for them, not saving me from paying these charges every month. I even overlooked the fact that on one occasion when I went to make a withdrawal dressed in track pants, the bank asked me for identification; I had gone there in a suit the previous day and not been asked to identify myself.

The years went by and the number of direct debits grew. But again there was a seminal event which jolted me out of my complacency. In the year 2000, I asked the bank for a car loan and it was sanctioned over the phone. I was asked to come and pick up a cheque for the amount on a designated day in the year 2000. The amount was small, just $13,000. The interest rate was around nine percent.

When I went to the bank, they gave me some papers to sign and I noticed that the interest rate was considerably more; I then noticed that the money was being advanced as a personal loan. When I inquired why, I was told that one had to borrow a minimum of $20,000 for a car loan; lesser amounts were issued as personal loans. This was not what i had been told when I negotiated the loan on the phone. I had not asked the phone banking person for her name; when I was asked who had sanctioned the loan, I had no reply.

Given that I had committed to pick up the car that day, I had no choice but to take the loan on the terms that Westpac tricked me into accepting.

That ripoff was what made me move to a smaller bank. I paid off the loan, cursing Westpac every time I had to go to the bank. I planned the move carefully so that no direct debits would be missed and took my business to Bendigo Bank. The process was painful but I was determined to move. I got the right advice about accounts – keep a cheque account and a savings account separate.

Since then, rarely have I paid the bank any charges. The online service works well and the bank serves my needs. But I’m in this position because I was prepared to make the effort to move.

Beating up on multiculturalism

TO ANY politician, people equate to votes. A particular community equates to a vote-bank. When it’s convenient to humour that community – i.e. when one needs their votes – the politician will speak good of them. If sucking up to another community will bring in more votes – doesn’t matter if it alienates the first community – the politician will take that route.

Multiculturalism is a popular political football. When politicians start talking it up or down it’s generally because they have spotted a potential vote-bank and want to try and consolidate their position
before the next poll comes around.

British prime minister David Cameron’s outburst about multiculturalism – at a time when the English Defence League was scheduled to hold a big rally – is nothing new. I’ve heard similar sentiments from former Australian prime minister John Howard, comments that contributed greatly to the Cronulla riots. Howard had form in this regard – he won an election in 1998 on the back of discrimination against Aborigines and a second one in 2001 by villifying Afghan asylum-seekers.

Others in the Liberal ranks, like Kevin Andrews, a former immigration minister, have also weighed in, drawing succour from Cameron. This Andrews is the same man who condemned an Indian doctor, Mohammed Haneef, to time in jail and trashed his reputation in the search for votes back in the run-up to the 2007 Australian national election.

This kind of beat-up often happens when economic conditions are bad – one can always blame the foreigners for it. And the UK isn’t in the best of economic health at the moment.

In the UK, within a few years, white people will be in the minority. If the experiment of bringing in migrants and making them part of British society has failed, then society and the government have to bear most of the blame.

A great deal of British policy on migration has been created in order to expiate guilt over its colonial rapaciousness. British guilt over the division of the Indian subcontinent is a classic example. No policy created because of such reasons will ever succeed. No politician has ever bothered to think about the settlement of people in such a way that ethnic ghettos will not be created. As the saying goes, birds of a feather…

Of course, one cannot dictate to people where they should live, unless one is living in a country like Singapore. But there can be more interaction to ensure that the kind of enclaves that one finds in places like Bradford in England are not created.

When ethnic people feel alienated from the mainstream, they tend to band together. This sense of alienation can be imagined or it can be real. Discrimination in the workplace, in public and the media – very subtle stuff at most times, things you can;t really pin down – tends to push people together with others of their kind and create a siege mentality. But when the government is only interested in is votes, these things do not weigh heavily on its collective mind.

There are cases when people in some areas realise the problems that are building up and move to make things better. Box Hill in Melbourne was a dangerous place to visit after dark; there were needles aplenty in the car parks some 10 years ago. But things have changed after local officials took steps to clean up the suburb. The population mix is still the same. But things are now very different because the community decided that it had to act and clean up the suburb for the good of its own children.

Politicians are unlikely to change their methods. People in various areas should act to ensure that newcomers get settled in and contribute to society. Making them feel they are outsiders greatly increases the possibility that the newcomers will turn against the very people whom they live amongst.